Is the Door Opening for HCs?

May 2, 2011
Peter Powell

Every once in a while, a brief quote within all the presentations and comments at a conference will catch my attention as having potentially significant impact.

Such was the case at the most recent annual conference of the International Institute of Ammonia Refrigeration. During a plenary session dealing with governmental regulations, one of the speakers was Jeff Shapiro of International Code Consultants, an organization that does just what it says - provides consulting services in regards to what can be a labyrinth of codes.

While primarily talking about codes in regard to ammonia refrigeration, Shapiro said that Underwriters Laboratories Inc. “is preparing for an influx of HC refrigerants in packaged equipment coming to the United States.”

He was referring to such hydrocarbon refrigerants as propane, butane, isobutene, and the like - some as standalones, some as blends. He contended that if the U.S. equipment manufacturers and contractors are more open to dealing with HC refrigerants with flammability issues, then more OEMs and contractors might be open to dealing with that other halogen-free refrigerant - ammonia - especially in smaller systems, even with its toxicity issues.

The issue of making ammonia work in smaller applications has been discussed and demonstrated for a number of years now. There are supermarkets in Europe running on ammonia in some locations, for example. And IIAR (www.iiar.org) continues to provide information to the industry on applications for ammonia.

But the point I want to focus on in this column is the potential for the influx of HCs such as propane coming to the North American market.

Technically, it is not a major mind shift. Propane has been used in domestic refrigeration in Europe and elsewhere for decades - apparently quite successfully and without any concerns over safety issues in the homes.

Years ago, when I attended the now-defunct IKK expo in Germany each fall, my wife came with me a few times. After the expo, we would rent a car and drive to visit friends in Austria and Switzerland. Inside their homes, even though there were appliances only a few feet from us probably running on propane, my wife and I did not spend a single minute in mortal dread of an explosion.

So the question becomes, why haven’t HCs gained a better foothold in the United States?

Part of it relates to the A-3 safety rating of such refrigerants while most manufacturers - and contractors - in the United States prefer to deal with A-1 rated refrigerants like HCFCs and HFCs. But the recent announcements regarding HFO refrigerants having an A-2L rating may have opened the door a crack for more acceptance of HCs.

Efforts to get HCs stateside continue. A few years ago, Westinghouse announced plans to introduce domestic refrigerators with propane as the refrigerant. Those plans seem to be on hold currently for whatever reason.

A refrigerant manufacturer, ComStar International, has an HC blend refrigerant it is trying to get OEMs to take a look at, and that effort is ongoing.

Even more recently, the Fresh and Easy Neighborhood Market chain in the Western United States said it is planning to test self-contained freezer cases running on propane.

And last May the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a rule to make propane acceptable under the SNAP program with a final rule expected later this year.

So things are stirred up in regards to HCs.

The eventual question to be asked is: Will North American contractors, especially those in the refrigeration sector, be ready to work on equipment running on an HC refrigerant?

I will follow up on that in next month’s column.

Publication date: 05/02/2011
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