Needed: Refrigerant Exit Plan

March 24, 2008
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Refrigerants exist without an exit plan, so the cost of destruction needs to be built into the cost of the refrigerant.

In these days of ozone depletion and global warming issues, it now seems shocking that refrigerant gases were manufactured without a return plan. It was not thought through. It can be fixed, but action needs to be taken.



THE GASES

CFC-12 was created in the 1930s and started becoming popular in the 1960s through the 1990s. Beginning in the early 1990s, China and India then got into manufacturing R-12 for their economies. Using available statistics such as from the Alternative Fluorocarbons Environmental Acceptability Study (AFEAS) (www.afeas.org) we can see that in the United States, European Union and seven other countries reporting, that approximately 300,000 metric tons (MT) of R-12 with a global warming of 2.6 billion MT were produced yearly.

It was widely known that auto air conditioning systems could easily leak, and much of the demand for R-12 was used to recharge the systems. Since the systems leaked, and the recharges also leaked in time, the consequences were that global warming and the ozone was greatly impacted because of these facts. A mechanism was put in place through the 1980s and 1990s to have the old gases recovered and recycled back to a saleable state. But that largely went unused until the government put a tax on new gas that increased the sales price of the gas. This action put value on the used/captured gas and larger volume of recovered gases went to the refrigerant reclaimer and got resold.

This did not solve the problem of it eventually going into the atmosphere from leaks, but did slow the process. The Montreal Protocol accelerated the phase-out of CFCs to be replaced in the short term by HCFCs until R-134a (an HFC) was awarded as the ozone-friendly choice for replacement of R-12 in autos, etc.

The key point is to realize that most of the R-12 that was manufactured in all those years is unaccounted for. It was deemed illegal to vent, but there was no incentive (funding) mechanism put in place to have the recovered gases that are beyond reclamation standards destroyed. Destruction is the only method known to keep it from going into the atmosphere. There was no grave for R-12.

By regulating R-12 (through taxation and phaseout), it basically went away in the marketplace. There are still systems that use R-12, but the lion’s share is gone forever. So, the lesson we should have taken from the R-12 situation is that no longer usable refrigerant needs to be put into a grave (destroyed) instead of it going into the atmosphere.

After HFC-134a caught on, it became generally known that besides the Ozone Depletion Potential (ODP) issue, a new problem was discovered, which is Global Warming Potential (GWP). For R-12, the GWP was 8,700 times higher than CO2, the base refrigerant for measurement. For R-134a it was discovered to be 1,300 times higher than CO2. In some circles, concern arose over continued use of R-134a, especially in automotive. Europe grabbed the lead and ordered it to be phased out in automotive starting in 2011. As with R-12, it is illegal to vent R-134a, and in the U.S. it can be recovered and reclaimed back to saleable state.

HCFC-22 is an HCFC that is also a low ozone depleter. When it was invented, it seemed to fit the bill of being ozone friendly while doing a great job of cooling. It is used in chillers and most home air conditioners and is the most widely used refrigerant gas on the planet (used in most home a/c systems beginning in 1980).

It is 1,700 times higher in GWP than the same amount of CO2. Now, when you take a look at the numbers, from 1980 to 2004, an average of 200,000 metric tons of R-22 has been sold in the U.S. yearly. That is 4.8 million MT over that period. Now, if all of this gas were still sitting in working a/c units, everything would be great.

However, the sad truth is that a huge amount of that gas has gone into the atmosphere. The total number is unknown, but it is safe (or should I say unsafe) to say that no less than 30 percent of it is gone forever (2.7 billion GWP metric tons).

Why? Because the virgin manufactured gas has been too inexpensive to make it economically worthwhile for the technician to have it evacuated, shipped, tested, either destroyed or reclaimed, retested, repackaged, and reshipped.



WHAT INCENTIVE?

The problem and real issue is that there is little incentive to recover and reclaim refrigerants.

Why? Because of the cost involved. If the product gets vented it is illegal, but the technician does not have to deal with it anymore. Too often, when the mechanic recovers the used gas into a tank, he only gets a few pounds per job. If one of the systems that he recovers into the recovery cylinder is a different gas - and there are many replacements - he may mix the gases and his recovery cylinder becomes a liability. It generally will cost $3 to $7 per pound to dispose of the cylinder to his supplier. The supplier then sends it off for destruction for $2 to $3 per pound.

If this were being done on a wide basis, all would be fine. But, do you see where the problem is? The mechanic has to pay to send it back and he has no incentive to do this. Put yourself in his shoes. The first time he finds out that he pays big dollars to dispose of his first cylinder of recovered gas, it is the last time he will do it.

There is a solution. The technician must be compensated and rewarded to send back his cylinder. These mechanics are licensed to work on refrigerant gases and understand the environmental consequences. They would like to do the right thing, but choosing to pay is not fair to ask of them. We need to pay him at least $1 per pound for him to return to his supplier. One way to fund this would be to put a $2-$4 per pound recovery deposit on all new virgin refrigerants manufactured in the US. This deposit would fund a program of verifiable destruction of all turned in refrigerant gases. A destruction program is the key because, by destroying these gases, we can effectively stop the venting of these gases.

The fix of the above is to create value for the used gases so they can be destroyed. Destruction keeps the gas from going into the atmosphere, which is the goal of everybody. Without a viable program, nothing will be done, and all of the lessons of the past will be wasted.

For more information, visit www.gcrefrigerants.com.

Publication Date: 03/24/2008

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