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The Refrigerant Shuffle

More Options Trying to Find a Place

August 11, 2014
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If ever there was proof that global warming doesn’t exist, you just had to be in West Lafayette, Indiana, this past summer during the concurrent conferences regarding compressors, refrigeration/air conditioning, and buildings at Purdue University.

The last time the conference was held was in 2012, when temperatures were in the 90s and humidity levels soared to nearly 90 percent every day. For the 2014 version of this biennial gathering, temperatures were in the 70s and humidity remained a non-issue.

Actually, global warming has been usurped by the term climate change these days, and the latter did play into the topics at Purdue, especially in the area of refrigerants, which comprised the topic of dozens of papers presented there.

High-global warming potential (GWP) gases, including a number of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), have come under attack from environmentalists for being part of the climate change issue.

At Purdue, the papers that were part of the 15th International Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Conference most often talked about low-GWP HFCs as well as hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs). The so-called natural refrigerants, like CO2, ammonia, and hydrocarbons (HCs), got their due, but low-GWP HFCs and HFOs garnered the most attention. It appears there are some 50 new refrigerants in play when it comes to low-GWP possibilities among the f-gases — in addition to the handful of naturals currently available.

A Complicated Playing Field

It is a cluttered playing field as the industry, trade associations, research labs, and academia try to sort things out.

There are a number of low-GWP refrigerant possibilities for different types of systems and equipment, but there are also various refrigerants being considered for any specific application.

Even as efforts are made to figure out what works best and where, there are outside forces at work. The regulatory landscape is in flux regarding possible limits on HFCs, and that may play out with low-GWP refrigerants gaining allowance, while high-GWP refrigerants — 410A, 404A, and 507, to name a few — eventually may be phased out.

Then again, most of the low-GWP HFCs are carrying an A2L safety rating, meaning they are slightly flammable. For that matter, the naturals, like HCs, have flammability issues to a greater extent, and ammonia has a toxicity aspect. So, even if federal regulations steer us away from high-GWP refrigerants, which have A1 safety ratings, there will be building codes to overcome. How fast will building inspectors and local code writers adapt when refrigerant options are narrowed by federal regulations? Neither the federal government nor local municipalities have a strong track record in bringing forth change smoothly.

Playing it Out

If things play out regarding refrigerant change like they have in the past, the current confusion and uncertainty will sort itself out with a few bumps and bruises along the way.

For contractors, the task at hand is to continue using the refrigerants they are allowed to use while keeping systems as leak-tight and energy efficient as possible — at least as much as their customers allow. At the same time, contractors must be ready to adjust to newer refrigerants when they enter the market. Some of the newer refrigerants might be a close match to existing equipment, while others will result in equipment redesigns. That was made clear in a number of papers presented at Purdue.

Right now, a lot of the newer refrigerants — whether low-GWP f-gases or naturals — are being installed by equipment manufacturers. Independent contractors will need to get into the mix sooner than later, especially in regard to the aftermarket.

So, any time an educational conference, wholesaler event, or manufacturer school includes seminars and classes with words like low-GWP HFCs, HFOs, CO2, or HCs in the title, sign up immediately and get yourself, your techs, and your service leaders enrolled. The upfront dollars for registration and travel may keep you in business in the future.

Publication date: 8/11/2014 

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