"What really got our phones ringing was the fact that the refrigerant distributors started to notify the shops that they're selling refrigerants to that this was coming into place at the end of the year," he said. Distributors told dealerships and independent repair shops that "they're going to have to show proof of this in order to buy refrigerant moving forward."
ASE sent a warning of its own about the approaching deadline for certification in late November, advertising its EPA-approved program as one way to get registered in time. Even so, it was taken aback by the influx of confused messages and queries into the program.
"It's a really small technicality that could really cause you major problems if you're not aware of this," Cappert said. "Obviously, you could get away with this. People break the law all the time. But you're taking a large risk for something that doesn't take a lot of money to comply."
While penalties for violating the Clean Air Act vary from case to case, Cappert said the fines would be more trouble than they're worth.
ASE's refrigerant-certification program costs $19 and typically takes a couple of hours to complete, he said. ASE will mail a temporary certification to technicians who pass the course to use until their official documents arrive in the mail.
Certification can be obtained through other schools, companies and organizations as well, including ESCO Institute, of Mount Prospect, Ill.; Ferris State University, of Big Rapids, Mich.; the Greater Cleveland Automobile Dealers' Association; the Mobile Air Conditioning Society Worldwide, of Lansdale, Pa.; and Universal Technical Institute, with 12 U.S. campuses.
The sales restriction is an expansion of a requirement imposed in 1992 on R-12 automotive refrigerant. While the law hasn't changed, the use of R-12 refrigerant — a known ozone-depleting chemical compound — faded away in the marketplace as the comparatively safer R-134a and R-1234yf refrigerants came into industrywide use by automakers in 1994. Cappert said no sales restrictions were put into place on those refrigerants until this year.
Now, anyone who purchases any of the three major refrigerants must have a certificate or a wallet card proving they underwent the training. Some technicians may be able to lean on past certification, Cappert said, though the online process has added what he estimates as 30 percent more content since the original training and certification program began.