If reclamation of refrigerant is to be a key factor in preserving supplies of HCFC-22, that is an axiom yet to be wholly embraced by contractors.
In a survey of a number of major U.S. Environmental Protection Agency- (EPA) certified reclaimers (13 were contacted with five replying by publication deadline) the consistent message was that the technologies are in place to bring R-22 back to ARI-700 purity standards and procedures are in place to get the refrigerant from the jobsite to the reclamation site. But while the sector continues to show activity, it is not what many forecasters thought it would be - or should be - by now.
“We have seen some increase in activity that has been spurred by heightened awareness,” said Chuck Broadus of Airgas Refrigerants. “However, the basic slowdown due to a weak economy and no sign of a supply shortage in 2010 resulted in less reclamation activity than anticipated.”
“While we have increased the number of customers served, the overall reclamation activity is less than we anticipated, and there appears to be a lack of urgency,” said Kevin Zugibe of Hudson Technologies. “We have attributed the current market conditions to the continued price declines of R-22 and excess virgin product available on the market.” Zugibe said statistics from the EPA suggest that reclamation levels in 2009 “retracted back towards levels prior to the 2006 period.”
Gordon McKinney of Refri-Claim said his company is showing some uptick, but the industry as a whole is not showing that. “This is primarily due to a weak economy and because many in the industry are now convinced the original supply-demand models were off. In other words, the amount of R-22 being recovered annually is not going to double.”
Patti Ellingson of RemTec did note “an increase in participation in our refrigerant buyback and recovery program.” She credited “disposal cost, published environmental fines, environmental consciousness, and a desired income for refrigerants” as factors.
Likewise, Patti Conlan of Arkema said her company has seen “our reclaim business grow over the last year through new customers and increased customer volumes through our user-friendly program.”
SMALL PERCENTAGESSome of those surveyed pegged the amount of refrigerant currently coming in for reclaim at less than 10 percent, far short of totals the EPA said was needed to ensure long-term supplies of R-22.
Conlan said, “The EPA is counting on an increasing amount to reclaim each year to meet R-22 market demand starting at 20 percent and growing to 29 percent of total demand in 2014.”
Part of the slowness may be due to apparently ample supplies of virgin R-22. Said Zugibe, “With the current supply of virgin material, we have not seen inadequate supplies of R-22.”
Ellingson said, “With the sluggish economy, there was a decreased demand for R-22, so we did not see the shortage in the supply that was initially projected.” She added, “The use of reclaimed R-22 in the field is still in the early stages. As a whole we have not seen the demand for reclaimed R-22 in the HVACR industry.”
Added McKinney, “The industry today has a surplus of virgin R-22 when all the models called for a multimillion pound deficit. Many believe this surplus could continue on through next year and beyond, depending on economic conditions and weather patterns.” McKinney went on to speculate that even if supplies of R-22 tightened in the future, contractors might turn more to the plethora of HFC refrigerants that have been introduced to the market as R-22 alternatives rather than take the reclamation route.
DRY SHIPFor the most part, the issue of the manufacture of R-22 condensing units during 2010 for field charging with the refrigerant is unclear regarding R-22 supplies.
“A significant quantity of (such) units would have to be installed to begin to dent the glut of R-22,” said Zugibe.
“Installation of dry-shipped units will increase the installed base of R-22 equipment,” said Broadus. “This will increase demand for R-22. The impact on supply of R-22 will depend on the number of units installed which is unknown at this time.”
For McKinney, the influx of R-22 equipment could take pressure off production of HFC-410A which is used in new R-22 residential air conditioning systems. “There was a serious supply-demand issue with R-410A this year, and companies are already bracing for another challenging year in 2011.”
One result of the dry-ship issue will be “more demand for R-22, in effect causing an increase in price,” said Ellingson.
Conlan said the development will “increase the R-22 service demand, although it is difficult to determine the full impact.”
WHAT TO DOReclaimers are committed to the continual promoting of their services. And that includes continuing education of contractors and wholesalers as well as the various financial program incentives.
Said Broadus, “This involves education. Publications, governing agencies, industry associations, and industry participants should continue to run editorials, conduct seminars, and provide information about the importance of recovering refrigerants, not only to comply with regulations but also to protect future supply and increase profitability. Regulatory agencies should continue to enhance enforcement activity to ensure appropriate disincentives existing for noncompliance. And there needs to be simplification. Industry reclamation companies should continue to work to simplify, improve, and streamline the processes for contractors to return used refrigerants for reclamation.”
Education remains a high priority for RemTec as well, said Ellingson. “RemTec International continues to actively participate in education and direct communication with our current as well as potential customers through trade shows, social media, e-mail notifications, print advertising, and personal contact.”
Arkema’s Conlan said her company’s efforts in this regard involve, in addition to education, “increased financial reimbursement, promotions, free shipping with one pallet and reduced shipping quantities, and reduced cylinder prices.”
McKinney noted his company’s refrigerant swap program which he said “allows them (contractors) to avoid the financial and physical liabilities associated with cylinder transfer.”
IMPROVEMENTIn the end, the current economic climate needs to be improved. Said Zugibe, “Positive economic signs must be provided.” Conlan said, “Education and financial incentives will increase contractor participation.”
But beyond that, there is still the need for contractors to believe in the need to reclaim. Said Ellingson, “Those who understand the need to reclaim have and will continue to participate in a responsible program. However, it is unfortunate that many contractors communicate that they do not see a value in reclaiming. Over the past year, in an effort to increase participation and to ensure that R-22 is being returned, many distributors have started encouraging their customers through a rebate or discount on refrigerant purchases, based on the amount of R-22 that they return.
“I believe offering educational sessions through ACCA [Air Conditioning Contractors of America], MCAA [Mechanical Contractors Association of America], AHR [Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigerating] Expo, Comfortech, and other industry educational forums - as well as a rising cost in R-22 - will help encourage additional reclamation participation.”