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Should You Offer HVAC Recycling?

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Although some HVAC installations involve entirely new systems, for example, new homes or commercial buildings – many jobs involve replacing old equipment. Especially for consumers disposal of their old units can be problematic. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States generated more than 3.4 million tons of e-waste in 2011, with approximately 75% going directly to landfills.

Offering responsible recycling of your customers’ discarded HVAC units represents a potential additional source of revenue for your company, while enhancing its “green” credentials with environmentally conscious customers. However, improper handling of old HVAC equipment can destroy your company’s credibility – and could potentially land your business into legal hot water. Fortunately, your company may already employ technicians with the necessary training and certification to provide the necessary services associated with responsible HVAC recycling.

The Problem with E-Waste
HVAC units, like many other types of electrical and electronic devices and appliances, contain substances that are potentially toxic to both humans and animals if they are ingested, inhaled or absorbed through the skin. When these items are disposed it creates e-waste — a short form for electronic waste. E-waste is especially toxic when disposed in landfills, because of the potential for contamination of groundwater and soil by heavy metals, refrigerants and other elements that leak out of disposed electronic and electrical components. Burning e-waste is also problematic, because the plastics can emit dioxin, which is also toxic.

De-Installation and Removal
It’s one thing for a homeowner to pull a single wall-mounted air conditioner from a window. It’s another matter entirely for the same homeowner to attempt to de-install an entire central HVAC unit. Even if he or she managed to pull it off – the problem remains of how to dispose of the dismantled system. You may choose to list de-installation and removal as a separate service or factor the cost of providing such services into your cost estimates. Either way, providing responsible de-installation and removal of old HVAC equipment represents a win-win-win for your customers, your company and the environment.

Refrigerant Recycling versus Reclamation
In repairing HVAC equipment, technicians may recycle the refrigerant. This process involves removing contaminants and re-using the decontaminated refrigerant. Recycling is only permitted when refrigerant is returned to equipment owned by the same customer. By contrast, reclamation requires purifying refrigerant from old equipment to industry standards for new products. Refrigerant that has undergone a proper reclamation process is eligible for resale. If you choose to provide refrigerant reclamation, bear in mind that the process requires specialized procedures and equipment. In addition, refrigerant reclamation facilities located within the United States must be EPA certified.

EPA Section 608 Universal Certification
HVAC reclamation and recycling requires specialized procedures. If your company chooses to provide HVAC recycling and reclamation, you may find it necessary to contract with a company that specializes in these services. However, technicians who hold EPA Section608 Universal certification are qualified to handle both installation and de-installation of HVAC equipment. Therefore, if your company employs EPA Section 608 Universal Certified technicians and has the proper equipment on hand, it’s possible to provide HVAC recycling and reclamation in house. Doing so is not only potentially cheaper for your company than hiring an outside service; it’s more convenient for your customers.

Greenwashing, Global Dumping and Penalties
Greenwashing refers to improperly claims of utilizing environmentally friendly processes or materials. Unfortunately, greenwashing is rampant where “recycling” e-waste is concerned. According to the Electronics Take-Back Coalition, between 50 to 80 percent of all “recycled” e-waste is actually exported to developing countries in Asia and Africa. Once e-waste arrives overseas, it is often dumped into open air pits where desperately poor individuals, many of them pregnant women and small children, pick through the piles for valuable scrap metals. In many cases, e-waste is burned or soaked in acid baths with no protection for workers in the scrap heaps.

Besides destroying your company’s credibility with customers and the general public, greenwashing or improper disposal of HVAC equipment and refrigerant can result in stiff penalties. According to a 2014 article on the Recycling Today website, home supply store Lowe’s was ordered to pay more than $18 million in damages for improper disposal of electronic products, batteries, fluorescent bulbs containing mercury and other hazardous wastes. A California Superior Court imposed the fine as part of a civil settlement in a lawsuit brought by more than 30 county district attorneys across the state.

According to the article, between 2011 and 2013 Lowe’s falsely claimed to provide environmentally responsible recycling of e-waste. Instead, the company was sending the e-waste to local landfills or dumping it directly into the trash. Under the final judgment, $12.85 million was ordered to cover civil penalties and costs. An additional $2.075 million was to be directed toward projects promoting consumer protection and environmental enforcement throughout the state. Lowe’s provided another $3.175 million for hazardous waste minimization projects. The judgment also imposed a permanent injunction against Lowe’s to prohibit similar violations in the future.

HVAC Recycling and Reclamation Done Right
One way of reassuring your customers that your company reclaims and recycles old HVAC equipment responsibly is by prominently displaying its EPA certification. Another means of demonstrating that your company does things the right way is by obtaining certification by oversight bodies such as E-Stewards. Posting detailed information about your company’s HVAC recycling and reclamation processes on your website provide further verification for customers seeking reassurance.

Audrey Henderson

Posted In: Management

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