Refrigerant Trends Through a Cloudy Crystal Ball

Figuring Out the Shifting Refrigerant Landscape in 2014

February 3, 2014

Trying to predict what might happen on the refrigerant front in 2014 is as challenging as it has been every year for the past 30 years. This difficulty goes back to when the industry began its multifaceted anger with the phase out of familiar chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) like R-12, R-502, and the hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) R-22.

All the new refrigerants, and the new ways of providing refrigeration that have come about over the last three decades, can only be put into context as new refrigerants sort themselves out. Some fall by the wayside and others gain prominence. Refrigeration technology always seems to work its way through the changing refrigerant landscape, which makes it tougher than ever to figure things out on a year-by-year basis.

So, with all that as a justification for why the following comments could prove less than precise, here are some thoughts on 2014.

Global Consensus?

We know that a global phasedown consensus on hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) production is currently going nowhere. The most recent effort to include HFCs in the Montreal Protocol is simply not gaining traction. The topic will surface again in future Protocol meetings, but I predict it may be a few more years before HFCs get into the protocol.

Land of the Free

The U.S. is an advocate of a phasedown within the protocol. However, there are a couple of other aspects in the U.S. worth watching beyond the global perspective.

One relates to the attention being focused on low-global warming potential (GWP) HFCs. The idea here is to show support for allowing continued use of HFCs by steering away from those with high GWP and focusing on those with low potential. Industry manufacturers and associations are doing low-GWP studies that include HFCs as well as other refrigerants such as hydrocarbons (HCs) and hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs).

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has initiated discussion about decertification of some high-GWP HFCs in its Significant New Alternatives Program (SNAP). At the same time, the EPA also appears to be in another camp with its support of efforts going on in the industry, especially in the refrigeration sector, using non-GWP refrigerants like ammonia, CO2, and HCs. And within the refrigeration sector, it is already happening in supermarkets. Some stores are coming on line using just CO2; some are combining CO2 with HFCs to lower the amount of HFCs on site; and, in some larger refrigeration plants, ammonia and CO2 are used in a cascade approach to lower the ammonia charge and thus the amount of equipment requirements when it comes to ammonia on site. And some smaller equipment is using HCs while plans are going on regarding use of ammonia only in supermarkets.

Contractor Takeaway

The message to contractors and service technicians is first to continue to focus on HFCs, regardless of whether they are high- or low-GWP refrigerants. Whatever is out there or will be installed now will have to be serviced for years to come. There are no regulatory actions coming that will mandate decommissioning of such HFC systems. It is up to contractors and technicians to make sure they work well and stay leak tight.

Second, contractors and techs need to be aware of the trends to ammonia, CO2, and HCs. If you have not dealt with some of those — since they had not been part of commercial refrigeration until recently — now is the time to at least look at them, both in terms of how they work in refrigeration and how to service such systems.

With that, the cloudy crystal ball rests its case.

Publication date: 2/3/2014 

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