Refrigerant Wars Heat Up

December 23, 2003
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This was the year the long-term future of HFCs was openly debated, while carbon dioxide (CO2) and R-410A garnered a lot of attention as refrigerants. Helping to fuel the refrigerant debate was the International Congress of Refrigeration (ICR), held in mid-August in Washington. The last time this international event was held in the United States was in 1971. ICR is held once every four years under the auspices of the International Institute of Refrigeration (IIR).

Technical sessions took place over five days. Among the plenary speakers was S. Forbes Pearson, Ph.D., a visiting professor at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Scotland. Another plenary speaker was Elsa Murano, Ph.D., of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

At ICR, Pearson focused on CO2, characterizing it as a natural refrigerant with no ozone depletion potential or global warming potential. Proponents of CO2 were more aggressively promoting their product at the event. Some 34 technical papers focused on CO2, a quantum leap above the single-digit number of papers on the topic at past conferences.

Gordon McKinney, ICOR’s national sales director, talks refrigerants with contractors and technicians from the Indianapolis area.
In general, advocates of CO2 did not call for their favorite refrigerant as an immediate replacement for HCFCs. In fact, several speakers said HFCs would be around for a long time, especially in the United States. A position often stated was "Consider CO2 as a refrigerant option. Give the customer a choice between HFCs and CO2 and drive down the cost of both through competition."

Because R-22 is scheduled for phaseout in all new equipment by 2010, plenty of talk in 2003 centered on its replacement. There will be no longer be any new R-22 produced for refrigeration and air conditioning service after 2020, although sales and use may continue. As a result, several new refrigerants have been developed to support the transition from HCFCs and HFCs. Leading refrigerants in this transition include R- 410A and R-407C. Experts believe R-134a (for chillers, large rooftops, etc.) and R-404A/R-507 (refrigeration) will replace R-22 on some applications as well.

In a year that saw renewed emphasis on CO2 as a refrigerant, Danfoss conducted a case study of a cascade system in a supermarket in Copenhagen that uses R-404A for the high stage and CO2 for the low stage. Researchers concluded that CO2 installations were viable alternatives to HFCs in many supermarket applications. Pictured is the system’s central refrigeration plant. (Photo courtesy of York International.)
During 2003, contractors in general said supplies of R-22 continued to be adequate and costs were manageable. Part of that may be due to the phaseout of the use of R-22 as a foam-blowing agent. That sector is switching to a refrigerant identified as R-245fa. The industry does not seem to yet have a consensus as to when supplies of R-22 for air conditioning and refrigeration will start to significantly tighten, although guesses range from 2005 to 2015.

Perhaps the least understood new refrigerant among contractors and technicians is R-410A. It is the one raising the most caution flags when it comes to higher pressure. As a result, many organizations, including the Winnipeg Chapter of the Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES), offered seminars on the subject this year. Chances are, R-410A will still be on the refrigerant discussion radar screen in 2004.

Venting violations also made some news in 2003. Failure to tighten leaking systems running on R-22 resulted in a $5.25 million fine against a chain of bakeries in what is believed to be the largest single penalty to date for venting HCFCs. The Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the fine as part of a "settlement that resolves significant ozone-depletion violations." The two government agencies said the violations were made by Earthgrains Baking Companies, Metz Baking Co., Earthgrains Refrigerated Dough Products, and Coppersmith, which operated collectively as Earthgrains. (Sara Lee Corp. purchased the companies during the government's investigation.)

Publication date: 12/29/2003

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