Opinions


Winding Down a Complicated Year in Refrigerants

November 12, 2012
It has been an interesting — and complicated — year when it comes to refrigerants.

The year began with cutbacks in HCFC production. We had expected there to be about 90 million pounds of virgin R-22 in 2012, down a bit from 2011. But the EPA proposed at the most 80 million pounds and at the least 55 million. This was to jump-start the move away from virgin R-22 to reused R-22 via the reclamation route or the move to alternative refrigerants.

As of the writing of this column, the EPA has yet to make its proposal final; but most everybody in the industry figures it is going to be at that 55-million-pound level and, in fact, refrigerant manufacturers have been producing to be at that level since early in 2012. The fact of the matter is, even if the EPA comes up with a higher allocation than 55 million pounds of virgin R-22, I don’t see producers ramping up at this late date and bringing a lot of new R-22 to the market at the last minute.

So let’s take a look at the two options of working around use of new R-22 but still keeping all those systems designed for R-22 still running.

Reclamation

The trend seems to be up for reclamation. And, frankly, it was so low for so long that there wasn’t anywhere to go but up. But we won’t have good solid numbers for 2012 compared with previous years in terms of pounds reclaimed until after the first of the year. (Looking ahead, the April 8, 2013, issue of The NEWS will be devoted to a large extent to the topic of recovery, recycling and reclamation.)

Meanwhile, along the way, a number of reclaimers have been supplying The NEWS with stories on the reclamation sector both in terms of how the chemical reclaim process works and how a contractor can get refrigerant he or she recovers into the reclamation channel.

HFCs

Then there is the most interesting dynamic involving HFCs being used in retrofitting systems originally designed for use with R-22. I’m currently looking into this, and will cover the most popular HFCs for the various R-22 applications in the Dec. 3 issue of The NEWS.

Factoring into this process is the increasing use of low global warming potential (GWP) HFCs as part of those R-22 retrofits. This is part of an even grander perspective; it now seems many in the industry are touting low-GWP HFCs as long-term alternatives to HCFCs.

At this point, I should say there are other long-term alternatives for HVACR systems than either HCFCs or HFCs. They include CO2, HCs, ammonia, HFOs and some new developmental refrigerants being worked on. Nonetheless, HFCs are staying in the ballgame.

My first awareness of low-GWP HFCs as retrofits for R-22 came to my attention when I was grocery shopping in late September and discovered the supermarket was doing a major build-out of floor space because of increased shopper traffic and demands for newer health-related products.

As long as some mechanicals had to be moved about and some new equipment added, the store decision makers decided to change out the R-22 with a low-GWP HFC. One of the interesting aspects of the retrofit was that it was being done in the context of a lot of other construction work, meaning the refrigerant change-out was only a part of the total costs.

I will continue to cover these refrigerant topics, but for now, contractors need be aware of HFC alternatives for the rapidly dwindling supplies of R-22. And if customers aren’t ready to retrofit only for the sake of retrofit, maybe that aspect can be worked into projects of a bit larger scale.

Publication date: 11/12/2012

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