How your air conditioner plays catch-up to regulations - Axios
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How your air conditioner plays catch-up to regulations

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

Environmental rules, like any regulation, upend industries and business behavior in obscure ways. Ultimately, however, like a tax they usually leave consumers on the hook for the costs. I know because I'm one of them.

Why it matters to most of you: Nearly 90% of U.S. homes have air conditioners. If a technician encourages you to replace your A/C because of environmental rules, don't take the bait without first getting a second (and maybe a third) opinion.

Refrigerant 101: Refrigerants enable air conditioners to keep homes cool. There's three kinds to know that regulations are affecting.

  1. Most air conditioners installed before 2010 use refrigerants that deplete the Earth's ozone layer. In industry talk, it's called Freon R22.
  2. Most newer air conditioners use refrigerants that don't hurt the ozone layer but do contribute to climate change because they emit greenhouse gases.
  3. The air-conditioning industry is researching refrigerants that are friendly to both the ozone layer and climate change, which could be on the market in the next few years. The drawback: They're mildly flammable.

Three transitions

  • Responding to the Montreal Protocol, a 1987 global treaty protecting the ozone layer, air-conditioning companies have been working to transition away from equipment with the ozone-depleting refrigerants.
  • The hole in the Earth's ozone layer is on the mend thanks to that treaty. Climate change is now the world's top environmental worry.
  • Political leaders came together last October to begin transitioning away from refrigerants that emit greenhouse gases and toward the third kind that are safe for both the ozone layer and climate change.

"We didn't anticipate having to go through a transition again as quickly as we have," said Francis Dietz, a vice president at The Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute, an industry trade group representing manufacturers like Honeywell and Chemours. "At the time, we were not thinking about climate change all. That was not the issue. The issue was ozone depletion."

The manufacturing industry is working to change building codes to allow new air conditioners with the mildly flammable refrigerants. That's prompting alarm among a separate set of companies that install the equipment.

"We have been concerned for contractor and consumer safety with the risk of slightly flammable refrigerants leaking into people's homes," said Don Prather, technical services manager with the Air Conditioning Contractors of America, a trade group. "We recognize there are so many contractors out there doing a poor job of installing the equipment, which creates an opportunity for more leaks."

Dietz and other industry officials stress that mildly flammable appliances already exist in people's homes, like natural gas-fired stoves, and extensive testing is being done to ensure safety.

"We are doing our due diligence," Dietz said. "Nobody has the slightest interest in anything happening at somebody's house as a result of being more environmentally friendly. That's not a tradeoff we're interested in."

The EPA set a 2020 deadline to phase out R22, the ozone-depleting refrigerants. That has led some contractors, squeezed by high prices of the outgoing refrigerant, to encourage consumers to prematurely buy new air conditioners with the ozone-friendly refrigerant, which itself is set to be nearly phased out in the U.S. within 20 years.

In the middle of all this are are homeowners — like me

During a routine maintenance call recently, a technician said my A/C unit was low on refrigerant and recommended I replace it, citing the EPA ban.

Getting a new A/C with the ozone-friendly refrigerant would cost about $8,000 because my unit does heating and cooling, according to the company, United Air Temp. Founded in 1931, the company works with more than 100,000 homes in the greater Washington, D.C., area and other nearby states.

"If your heat pump or air conditioner is using Freon R22 and you need service, there is a good chance it may not be available," states an invoice I received after the technician's visit.

Describing that as "extremely misleading," Dietz said that even though R22 prices are going up due to restricted supply, it will remain available to consumers for the foreseeable future.

"We all feel badly when we have situations like this with contractors because it takes advantage of consumers' understandable lack of knowledge about these things and gives the industry a bad image that we try very hard to avoid," Dietz said.

Francis McGonegal, senior vice president with United Air Temp, said their technicians are trained to "not focus on having people replace equipment unnecessarily." Because of the EPA ban, the company's costs to buy R22 have become "exorbitant," McGonegal added.

Multiple industry officials and technicians I talked to said my experience is not too uncommon because of consumers' lack of understanding and the high costs of the refrigerant.

Data: USA Refrigerants. Per-pound price derived from price of a 30 lb. cylinder; Chart: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

What's next

Industry officials say consumers don't need to worry yet about transitioning to the third type of refrigerants. The process is long and shouldn't require people to prematurely replace their equipment. A lawsuit and uncertainty with the Trump administration's position on the policy could further slow the transition, but experts agree it's a matter of when, not if.

Even environmentalists pushing for the transition to the third type don't support premature air conditioner replacements.

"If the problem is you need more refrigerant, the best thing to do is get it recycled from someone else's machine," said David Doniger, who directs the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate and clean air program. "I think it's very important to check whether you really need a replacement."

As for me, I got two more technician opinions and a leak test that cost $150. It came back negative. I refilled my 10-year-old system, which could last at least another five years, with ozone-depleting refrigerants at a cost of $187.50. I'll get another A/C checkup within the next year, to make sure it's not leaking.


Singapore has gone "beyond" UN to pressure North Korea

Trump with Singaporean PM Lee. Photo: Evan Vucci / AP

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore said Monday "pressure" as well as "dialogue" between the U.S. and China are critical in handling the North Korean nuclear threat. President Trump commended Singapore for partnering with the U.S. to combat the threat, and Lee said his country has gone "beyond" the UN Security Council's resolutions to do so.

Trump also said Singapore Airlines signed a $13.8 billion deal with Boeing which will create 70,000 jobs in the U.S.

  • On North Korea: U.S. and Singapore share "an unwavering commitment" to combating the threat, Trump said.
  • On Lee's father, the former PM: Singapore made "rapid development from a poor island nation to an economic powerhouse under [Lee's] great father."
  • On U.S.-Singapore relations: The relationship is at its "highest point and it will continue," Trump said. Lee underscored that Singapore is the second-biggest Asian investor in the U.S.
Worth noting: The president did not take questions after the joint conference, though reporters asked about the Niger ambush and Trump's tweet about gold star widow Myeshia Johnson.

Megyn Kelly refutes Bill O'Reilly's harassment denials

Megyn Kelly poses on the set of her new show "Megyn Kelly Today." Photo: Charles Sykes / Invision / AP

Megyn Kelly spoke out against her former Fox News colleague Bill O'Reilly on NBC News' Megyn Kelly Today this morning, stating, "O'Reilly's suggestion that no one ever complained about his behavior is false. I know because I complained."

The background: Kelly's assertion comes on the heels of O'Reilly's repeated denials of sexual misconduct during his time at Fox News. A NYT report was published over the weekend detailing his $32 million settlement agreement with a former Fox News analyst over a harassment claim.

More from Kelly: She also shared an email that she wrote to the co-presidents of Fox News in November 2016 after O'Reilly said in a CBS interview that "wasn't interested" in her discussion of Fox News' toxic professional climate in her memoir: "Perhaps he didn't realize the kind of message his criticism sends to young women across this country about how men continue to view the issue of speaking out about sexual harassment."

How O'Reilly responded to the latest report: Emily Steel and Michael S. Schmidt, the New York Times reporters who broke the story about O'Reilly's massive settlement agreement, shared some of their on-the-record interview tapes with O'Reilly with the NYT's The Daily podcast.

In O'Reilly's own words:

  • "We have physical proof that this is bullshit. Bullshit. Okay? So it's on you if you want to destroy my children further."
  • "This is crap. And you know it. It's politically and financially motivated. And we can prove it with shocking information."
  • "Leaks are not facts. Leaks are designed to hurt people, and surely you both know that."
  • "I've never had one complaint filed against me by a co-worker in any Human Resources department."

O'Reilly also went on the record with his former Fox News colleague Glenn Beck this morning and repeated a similar defense while arguing that there is a larger conspiracy meant to end his career, per Media Matters for America:

  • "The end game is, 'Let's link Bill O'Reilly with Harvey Weinstein.'"
  • "[T]hey don't care because this was a hit job to get me out of the market place. And then you'll have the left go, oh, he's paranoid, oh, yeah, yeah. OK. I could back that up 50 different ways. Media Matters is involved. CNN is involved. And it's beyond any doubt."

O'Reilly posted a statement on his website with a sworn affidavit from his accuser that he claims refutes the reports. He has promised to address the allegations further tonight on No Spin News, his nightly podcast.


Lack of affordable housing killing jobs in Bay Area

A view of the San Francisco skyline from Alamo Square. Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

The Bay Area saw its worst month for local employment since February 2010, losing 4,700 jobs in September, per Mercury News.

The backdrop: Employers in the Bay Area are finding it hard to fill positions due to limited housing and sky-high prices. Workers who can't find or afford housing close to their offices are pushed out of the area, and many of them don't want to bother with long commutes. "Housing is the chain on the dog that is chasing a squirrel," economist Christopher Thornberg told Mercury News. "Once that chain runs out, it yanks the dog back."

Go deeper: The national jobs picture for September


Norway's electric car boom

Data: U.S. Energy Information Administration; Chart: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

Norway has, far and away, the largest percentage of cars that are electric compared to other nations, according to a new report released Monday by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The reason: The Norwegian government offers the largest monetary incentives for plug-in electric cars, per the report: "These incentives reduce the purchase price and the operational costs associated with PEV ownership and include an exemption from an acquisition tax ($11,600 savings) for both battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs)."

Why it matters: The trend toward electric cars is picking up speed all over the world, including in the biggest economies like China. Norway, whose wealthy government and economy has been built on oil production, offers an example of what factors drive adoption of electric cars.

Go deeper: The report, titled "Plug-in electric vehicles: future market conditions and adoption rates" is worth a read, or at least a scan.


Trump meets with Singapore's Prime Minister at the White House

President Donald Trump greets Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as he arrives at the White House. Photo: Andrew Harnik / AP

President Trump met with Lee Hsien Loong, the Prime Minister of Singapore, at the White House Monday where they spoke of the strength of U.S.-Singapore relations.

What's next: The leaders will participate in a bilateral working luncheon with Cabinet Secretaries and key White House officials later this afternoon, before making a joint statement in the Rose Garden.


EPA pulls scientists' climate change talks

Seals rest on rocks in Narragansett Bay off the coast of North Kingstown, R.I. Rhode Island. Photo: Steven Senne / AP

The Environmental Protection Agency has canceled three of its scientists' speaking engagements at the State of the Narragansett Bay and Watershed conference today in Providence, R.I., per the New York Times' Lisa Friedman. The conference coincides with the release of a 400-page report on the health of Narragansett Bay, which features "significant" discussion of how climate change has affected the bay. The agency helps fund the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program and the agency's scientists were involved in the report.

Why it matters: "The move highlights widespread concern that the EPA will silence government scientists from speaking publicly or conducting work on climate change," writes Friedman. Trump-appointed EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has maintained humans are not the main driver of global warming, and has removed most mentions of climate change from the EPA website.

What they're saying:

  • "It's definitely a blatant example of the scientific censorship we all suspected was going to start being enforced at EPA," John King, who works on the program, told the. "They don't believe in climate change, so I think what they're trying to do is stifle discussions of the impacts of climate change."
  • "EPA scientists are attending, they simply are not presenting, it is not an EPA conference," EPA spokesman John Konkus told the Washington Post in an email.

Amazon gets hundreds of city proposals to host HQ2

Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos at a meeting with Donald Trump in 2016. Photo: Evan Vucci / AP

Amazon has been flooded with pitches from cities and regions that want to host its second headquarters, the company said Monday. The company received 238 proposals from "54 states, provinces, districts and territories across North America."

Why it matters: There's lots of competition for what Amazon is calling HQ2. While the new headquarters could bring 50,000 jobs that pay an average salary of $100,000 to the winning city, there are also potential downsides to hosting, including the possible cost of billions of dollars via tax breaks.

Go deeper: The New York Times recently covered the tactics cities are employing to court the project.


Tillerson says Taliban could join Afghan gov. if they renounce violence

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks with Gen. John Nicholson, left, commander of Resolute Support, and Amb. Hugo Llorens. Photo: Alex Brandon / AP

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Monday on a previously unnannounced visit to Afghanistan that he thinks moderate elements of the Taliban could participate in the Afghan government under certain conditions, per the AP. He said the Taliban should prepare to negotiate with the government since they'll "never win a military victory."

"There's a place for them in the government if they are ready to come, renouncing terrorism, renouncing violence and being committed to a stable prosperous Afghanistan... we are looking to engage with those voices and have them engage in a reconciliation process leading to a peace process and their full involvement and participation in the government," he said.
Why it matters: The strategy Trump laid out for Afghanistan focused primarily on military efforts, but this is a window into what Tillerson believes a diplomatic solution could look like.

Foxconn backs Bitcoin startup Abra

Rebecca Zisser / Axios

Abra, a Silicon Valley bitcoin startup primary focused on foreign exchange, has raised $16 million in new funding led by China's Foxconn.

Why it matters: This deal could help lead to a revolution in how people pay for consumer electronics and other household goods. Foxconn's investment does not have a strategic partnership attached, but Abra CEO Bill Barhydt believes that the inclusion of IoT chips in such things as flat-screen TVs – Foxconn now owns Sharp – could eventually be leveraged to enable pay-as-you go leasing programs transacted via Bitcoin.

Other investors in the Series B round: Silver8 Capital, Ignia, Arbor Ventures, American Express, Jungle Ventures, Lerer Hippeau Ventures and RRE Ventures.

Bottom line: Does Barhydt's vision seem far-fetched? Sure. Well, until you realize that a version of this has been underway for several years with M-Pesa and solar home-lighting systems in Kenya.


E-commerce warehouse jobs breathe life into the rust belt

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania is well acquainted with the struggles brought on by deindustrialization. The city was once home to America's second-largest steel producer, but its citizens struggled for decades with declining steel employment, before Bethlehem Steel went bankrupt altogether in the early 1990s.

But as the New York Times reports, the city as become a poster child in recent years for the new, e-commerce economy. Its proximity to New York and Philadelphia and its large pool of less expensive labor have made it an appealing place for online retailers to locate their warehouses and fulfillment centers.

Why it matters: Some economists argue that when you account for fulfillment center jobs, the retail industry is actually adding jobs, and that these positions pay better than those in brick-and-mortar stores.