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KEEPING CAR COOL CAN BE COSTLY

Staying cool in your car is costing a lot more this summer, and it's going to get worse.

The culprit is a series of federal, state and city environmental laws requiring the rapid phase-out of a chlorine-based refrigerant called CFC-12.Also known as R-12 or by its trade name Freon-12, the cooling agent is so widely used in pre-1994 car and truck air conditioners that some environmental experts have blamed it for as much as 16 percent of the world's ozone depletion.

Car manufacturers are now using HFC-134a, an environmentally kinder refrigerant. But unless consumers want to shell out $700 to $1,000 for a conversion kit, HFC-134a is no replacement for the millions of CFC-dependent cars still on the road.

Meanwhile, a heavy federal excise tax and dwindling supplies in the United States has brought a tenfold increase in CFC prices.

Ben Lieberman, an environmental research associate with the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., says the cost of a typical repair has increased more than $100.

Also on the rise: black-market CFC substitutes from Eastern Europe and rip-off repairs. Higher CFC prices have tempted some repair shops to buy bootleg Freon of inferior quality that could permanently harm some vehicle air-conditioning units.

Dean Neely, the Colorado Health Department official overseeing the state's CFC monitoring program, said his office is investigating complaints of repair shops stealing CFC from customers' automobile air-conditioning systems. The siphoned-off refrigerant is then recycled to other customers for anywhere from $16 to $21 a pound.

Some of the illegal siphoning is unintentional, but it's become a growing problem, he said.

"The problem is that to test for leaks you usually need a full charge of CFC in the system," Neely said. "Car air-conditioners have about three pounds of CFC, but it's hard for mechanics to measure accurately. So what they tend to do is take all of it back if the customer refuses a repair."

Repair costs can also vary enormously, Lieberman said. An unscientific survey of four Denver-area repair shops indicated an average minimal charge of $70 for repairing a minor leak and recharging a system with one pound of pressurized CFC. Charges at those shops ranged up to $80.

Lieberman advises consumers with more-expensive repairs to shop around and get a couple of estimates - even in the middle of summer when the temptation is to go to the first place and have the problem fixed right away.

"Treat it as a serious repair, because now it really is," he said.

Other factors are making it tougher to stay cool cheaply and legally.

Garages are now required to use expensive "recapturing" equipment to prevent CFC leakage during their repairs - or face heavy fines from state and federal watchdogs.

The new laws are heavily stacked against do-it-yourselfers who in the past regularly "topped off" their ailing car air-conditioners with a fresh shot of store-bought Freon every summer.

Federal law prohibits the purchase of Freon to anyone without a special certificate, and that includes both professional mechanics and the average Joe working in his home garage.

With a total ban on U.S. production of CFC beginning in January 1995, Lieberman advises "getting ahold of all you can and start stocking up" for the future.

"There's no question the cost of CFC will rise very quickly in 1996," he said.

Lieberman discourages inexperienced consumers from recharging their car air conditioners at home to save money. But for those who have done it before and have a reasonable mechanical knowledge, he says a minor repair is relatively simple.

The only catch is taking a $20 mail-in test required for CFC certification. (For more information, call the EPA's Stratospheric Ozone Information Hotline at 800-296-1996.)