Old and New Refrigerants Under Scrutiny

December 3, 2007
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Old familiar refrigerants: being phased-out. New refrigerants: We don’t know much about them. And, figuring out the life span of refrigerants both old and new.

These are issues facing technicians as the result of another tumultuous year concerning the gases they cart around in service vans, and work with throughout the day.

The pace in the phaseout of R-22 picked up steam as the result of actions this past September to mark the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Montreal Protocol.

HFCs, the next generation of refrigerants beyond HCFCs, continued to gain a firmer foothold in North America especially with R-410A taking a higher profile. However, HFCs remained on less firm ground in Europe where many wanted to look beyond them because of global warming concerns.

The favorite of the beyond HFCs crowd is R-744 (CO2). Depending on whom you talk to, it is either THE refrigerant of the future or will forever remain a niche gas. Ammonia continues to have its place and is partnering up more with CO2 in industrial applications.

Even those flammable hydrocarbons (HCs) had supporters who pointed out what good refrigerants propane and isobutene were and that they should be used in a wider range of applications. In much of Europe such statements are greeted with great interest, while in North America such advocacy falls on deaf ears. (The reason for the difference is based on a joke that may be grounded in some reality. “Europe likes flammable refrigerants because there aren’t as many lawyers there as in North America.”)

For the past four months, The NEWS has been gathering the latest information on refrigerants from trade shows, conferences, teleconferences, interviews, and printed materials. Here is an overview of matters most directly related to contractors and technicians.

R-22

Supplies of HCFC-22 could get a bit tighter sooner than expected as the result of the September 2007 Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol (MOP-19).

One aspect of the agreement means that the final phaseout of new production of R-22 will continue to be 2020, but the reduction in the amount produced between now and then will be on a faster pace than previously required. For example, previous rulings said that production of R-22 had to be reduced in 2010 by 65 percent from the baseline production year of 1989. Now the production has to be reduced by 75 percent.

Some in the industry said this could further negatively affect aftermarket supplies of R-22 unless more recovery and reclamation efforts are undertaken. For example, the best guess as to when supplies of R-22 would fall short of demand was 2015. Some think this latest move might move that date up a few years, although others still maintain 2015 will be the crossover year.

Unaffected by the latest ruling is the target date for the end of the use of R-22 in new equipment, which remains 2010.

The recent speed-up was agreed to by almost 200 countries including the United States. “With this plan of an accelerated phaseout, we could have potentially significant benefits arising in terms of combating climate change and ozone loss,” said Nick Nuttall, spokesman for the United Nations Environmental Program.

Refrigerant manufacturers are on record supporting the speed-up. For example, DuPont issued a statement saying the company “reinforces the need to accelerate the phaseout of HCFCs and to avoid ozone-depleting gases, and lower global warming potential alternatives where possible.

“Although the Montreal Protocol, which restricts the use of ozone depleting substances (ODS) including CFCs and HCFCs, has lead to substantial reductions in the emissions of ODS over the past two years, DuPont believes more needs to be done.”

Unitary manufacturers agree.

In his presentation to scientists from throughout the world this past summer at the International Congress of Refrigeration in Beijing, York/Johnson Control’s Tony Digmanese said the refrigerant shift from HCFCs to HFCs is designed to “protect our environment and climate, save the ozone layer and conserve energy.”

In a Webinar event in September, Warren Beeton, vice president for refrigeration engineering at Emerson Climate Technologies urged the “specifying of HFCs in all new equipment.” He went on to suggest that HFCs -404A, -507 and -134a be the focus of refrigeration equipment and R-410A for a/c equipment.

When it comes to existing R-22 equipment, Beeton - like many in the industry - urges contractors to first try to fix leaks to prevent the escape of HCFC gas for environmental reasons as well as to preserve dwindling supplies of R-22. It is pointed out that the use of R-22 has no expiration date and existing supplies can continually be reused through proper recovery, recycling, and reclamation. It is just the production of new R-22 that is being phased out.

Another option regarding systems originally designed to run on R-22 is to consider retrofitting them with an HFC. A number of manufacturers provide such refrigerants as well as retrofit directions.

In an example given during the Webair presentation, Beeton mentioned HFC-422D saying it provides “adequate capacity making it a good alternative retrofit option with possibly no TXV change required.”

HFCs

The highest profile HFC currently is R-410A. It is being introduced into more residential equipment and is starting to be used more often in commercial applications - but neither at an especially rapid pace.

In a survey conducted in May 2007 by Emerson Climate Technologies with more than 500 contractors and distributors responding, results showed about 23 to 26 percent of residential a/c equipment being manufactured and installed ran on R-410A, compared with about 20 percent in 2006, according to Brandy Powell, director of marketing for Air Conditioning Business. She said Emerson projections indicated that percentage is expected to rise to about 35 percent in 2008 and to about 55 percent in 2009.

The commercial air conditioning sector was moving to R-410A at a slower pace, she said. Less than 10 percent of that market was installing R-410A equipment in 2007. That number is expected to rise to 15 to 20 percent in 2008, and then up to 50 percent in 2009; in effect catching up with the residential market at that time.

As of Jan. 1, 2010, manufacturers will no longer be able to make any R-22 units in either residential or commercial. Unclear are how many R-22 units will still be in the pipeline at that point, as wholesalers may stockpile the older units, and contractors may be clamoring to get their hands on the fading products.

Powell said the overall slow but steady move away from HCFC equipment using R-22, along with the attempt to make a last minute major shift to R-410A at the end of 2009, may cause concern about short-term supply issues regarding equipment and long-term questions about adequate supplies of R-22 for the service market.

She added that it falls upon the industry as a whole to educate customers about the importance of using equipment that runs on HFCs. “We all need to take an active role in promoting awareness and providing materials to aid the consumers in understanding how they will be impacted by the transition to HFCs,” said Powell.

She said the Emerson survey of last May showed 13 percent of contractors quoting only R-410A units to their customers, and 69 percent quoting both R-22 and R-410A.

Powell noted that all contractors responding to the survey said they were aware of the situation regarding the phaseout, 65 percent had technicians trained in working with R-410A, and 57 percent of service vans have the tools and equipment needed to install and service R-410A equipment.

Meanwhile from a worldwide perspective, the long-term battle HFCs face to remain viable refrigerants relates to a perceived high global warming potential (GWP).

Keeping HFCs from becoming a target for phaseout comes with the responsibility to assure those outside the industry that HFCs, when used in HVACR equipment, are designed to run in a contained manner and when servicing work has to be done, it will be done in an environmentally responsible manner.

Digmanese said, “The industry’s answers to high GWP are leak tight designs and refrigerant recycle/reclaim programs to reduce direct global warming emissions.”

CO2

R-744 (CO2) as an HVACR refrigerant has benefits and challenges, said Beeton. On the plus side, he said it does have a low GWP, low costs (compared with HFCs) and excellent heat transfer. On the negative side are high operating pressures, increased system costs, and what he called “low efficiency of the basic cycle.”

Currently in refrigeration it is being used as a secondary coolant in hot water heating heat pumps, in some low temperature systems, and for transportation. In Europe, where automobile manufacturers must begin a phaseout in the use of HFC-134a in automotive air conditioning, considerations are being given to CO2 or a low GWP HFC being developed jointly by Honeywell and DuPont.

The manufacturer Danfoss has also been a strong advocate of the CO2 option. Jens Callesen, the company’s business development manager for CO2, was quoted in the British trade publication RAC as saying, “I believe CO2 is the long term solution because we have not seen any other solutions yet from the established refrigerant suppliers.”

In the United States, CO2 is being used in some food service refrigeration/freezing as a secondary coolant along with an HFC. It is also being used in industrial applications in conjunction with ammonia in cascade systems.

Such efforts regarding CO2 are also being undertaken in Europe and Australia. A few smaller supermarkets in Europe are using CO2 in transcritical applications without the need of another refrigerant. The Australian refrigeration contractor Frigrite finished its sixth full CO2 supermarket installation in October, according to the company’s Paul Sheahen. “Our seventh is underway using R-134a as a primary charge on screw packs. This store will have heat reclaim generated from condenser water and cooling from CO2 liquid.”

Another attraction of CO2 is that it is obtained for use in the HVACR industry “primarily from geological reserves or from by-product gas streams,” according to the Compressed Gas Association. In other words, it is a naturally occurring gas that the industry simply captures rather than creates.

THE REAL DRIVER

On an emotional level, most every person closely involved with refrigerants encourages contractors to install leak-free equipment and keep it that way during servicing. They also want contractors to demonstrate responsible use of refrigerants including correct recovery and recycling procedures as well as more aggressive reclamation efforts. To that end, wholesalers and manufacturers are looking at ways to better develop the reclamation chain and better reward contractors who return refrigerant for reclamation.

In the end, the real driver for any changes and any new directions in refrigerants will more than likely come from having to do so rather than out of grand concern for the environment.

In his Beijing address, Digmanese said the “market drivers for the refrigerant shift includes energy efficiency, applications, safety and environmental regulations with environmental regulations the most important and the first thing we have to look at.”

In the broadest sense, the Montreal Protocol the United States signed onto 20 years ago targeted ozone depletion concerns and specifically CFCs and HCFCs in the HVACR industry. The Kyoto Protocol addressed global warming concerns and HFCs came into target range. The U.S. government did not sign onto Kyoto primarily over issues related to developed countries such as the United States and Canada being held to a higher standard than developing countries such as China and India.

But the spirit of Kyoto now seems to be moving into the United States on the legislative front. Emerson’s Beeton noted several climate change proposals were being developed in Congress, some of which “may control HFC production and (result in the United States) reaching Kyoto Protocol levels sometime after 2020.”

In an update to the industry in early November, Ted Gartland, director of refrigerants and regulatory compliance for Verisae specifically cited America’s Climate Security Act of 2007 as being approved in a Senate subcommittee and moving into full committee before possibly going to the full Senate for a vote. The fact that such a bill made it out of a subcommittee makes it the “first climate change bill to get this far,” he said.

“Why is this important? HFCs are one of the six chemicals defined as a greenhouse gas in this bill. In general, any climate change will reorder our economy.”

However it all shakes out, contractors are going to learn that refrigerants - whichever ones they might be - are becoming more and more precious commodities rather than casually and easily disposable gases.

Publication date: 12/03/2007

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