Whatâ??s Next for Hydrocarbons?In March, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), through its Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) program, approved several low-GWP (global warming potential) hydrocarbon (HC) refrigerants for use in refrigeration and air conditioning applications, subject to use conditions. The approval — which had been expected for some time — drew a mixture of reactions ranging from support to concern.

Tom Morris, director of business development, Honeywell Fluorine Products, said Honeywell is supportive of the EPA’s efforts to work with industry and other stakeholders to allow the introduction of lower-GWP refrigerants including those that are designated flammable. But, “although the EPA’s recent SNAP approval is a step forward for flammable HC refrigerants, there are other hurdles for these products including building codes that would need to be modified,” he said.

Morris added Honeywell has developed and introduced a wide range of low- and reduced-GWP fluorocarbon-based products that offer no or low flammability and have been listed, or are in the process of being listed, under the SNAP program and are being adopted in air conditioning and refrigeration applications worldwide.

Maureen Beatty, vice president of operations, National Refrigerants Inc., expressed concern about the process by which the EPA’s decision was made. She noted that the SNAP program was designed to replace ozone-depleting substances, not to approve low-GWP refrigerant replacements.

“I realize the EPA was just trying to do what the president had instructed it to do, but to leapfrog approvals for ozone-depleting-substance substitutes they’ve had on file for a while and go forward with low-GWP replacements is a little concerning from a process standpoint,” Beatty said.

She added that National Refrigerants is also concerned about the provision that allows the venting of HC refrigerants, but not R-32.

“I’m not sure the industry has completely defined what that supply chain will look like,” Beatty said. “As an EPA-certified reclaimer, we’re not in a position at this time to take back recovered R-32. The industry has not yet addressed cylinders and valves for recovering flammable refrigerant, and our distillation and separation columns currently are not designed for pure, flammable refrigerant.”

In Beatty’s opinion, although these EPA approvals are likely to provide a boost for HC refrigerants and possibly spur the development of new products that can use HCs, she still believes it’s too early to count out fluorocarbons.

“In our viewpoint, there are some other promising nonflammable substitutes that will be coming forward for larger applications,” she said. “The fluorocarbon manufacturers are working hard to come up with good, efficient, safe, nonflammable, low-GWP solutions, and some of the things they’re working on are promising for the refrigeration and air conditioning industry.”

At Dynatemp Intl., Brad Kivlan, vice president of operations, said the company has been following the trend toward low-GWP HCs in Asia and Europe for several years and fully intends to support domestic demand for these products. He noted, several manufacturers offer a lineup of compressors for HC applications, and there appear to be a number of other manufacturers that are committing research and development dollars to this venture. In addition, in many applications, Kivlan stated, there is significant evidence HCs can be an even more efficient and cost-effective refrigerant than hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) or hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

He said he feels the biggest challenge to service technicians will be the safe handling and proper application of HCs refrigerants.

“In Asia, for example, several manufacturers had the capability of manufacturing HC-based equipment before codes were established to ensure the safe handling, installation, operation, and disposal of the equipment and its related refrigerant,” Kivlan said.

“The introduction of HC-based equipment, and its adoption rate, will depend on the time it takes to establish guidelines for proper installation and servicing procedures. Since the EPA is currently reviewing Section 608 of the Clean Air Act, it would benefit industry stakeholders to voice their support for technician training and certification for the safe use, handling, and disposal of hydrocarbon refrigerants.”

Steven P. Mella, CEO, ComStar Intl. Inc., said there are two sides to the EPA’s approval of HCs for certain refrigeration applications — the equipment manufacturer side and the aftermarket/contractor side.

“OEMs are working toward using HCs in their systems; it’s really just a matter of who comes out with the right product first,” Mella said.

He noted there’s some hesitation among OEMs because of the liability a corporation could be subjected to if an explosion or fire were to occur — although, in most cases, the HC charge of a system is very small.

“The liability issue is always there, and that’s part of the slow process. Once someone introduces these products across the board in the U.S. market, everyone will join in. But, I think a lot of the OEMs don’t want to be the first.”

Mella’s company manufactures and distributes several HC blends, and he is optimistic that, as OEMs come to understand the differences between using blends and pure HCs, they’ll have more success in creating new products. Blends, for example, can produce greater cooling capacity with a much smaller refrigerant charge than a pure HC, such as propane or isobutane. This could help manufacturers create new products while meeting the EPA’s charge limits for HCs.

“Our biggest hurdle working with the OEMs is that most of them have never worked with HC blends,” Mella said. “But, it’s only a matter of time until we see more products that use HCs or HC blends, because they have extremely low GWPs, and they’re zero ozone-depleting. They’re coming, but it’s a long process because engineers are still learning how to use blends instead of single HCs.”

On the aftermarket/contractor side, “There is no aftermarket until there are products in the market, and, at this point, there are very few,” Mella said. Contractors who will be servicing equipment that contains HCs should have training in how to handle and transport the refrigerants, and how to service the equipment, he added. “For example, you can’t use a soldering torch when you’re dealing with HC refrigerants.”

Mella also strongly cautioned contractors not to retrofit R-22 systems with propane or other HCs.

“Existing R-22 systems are not designed for flammable refrigerants,” he said. “You need systems with explosion-proof components, such as switches that won’t create a spark. Buying propane and using it to convert R-22 systems is not only against EPA regulations, it’s very dangerous.”

Patti Conlan, refrigerants market manager, Arkema Inc., said the company supports the SNAP process to approve new refrigerants, but expressed concern that the venting of HCs will be allowed for a small group of materials.

“From a product stewardship, environmental, and safety standpoint, it was surprising to see the EPA allow it [the venting],” Conlan said. “We feel it could cause some confusion for contractors, because the EPA is telling them it’s OK to vent these flammable materials. Granted, it’s a limited charge, but what types of practices will be enforced as part of this program?”

Conlan pointed out that allowing venting of HCs may lead contractors and technicians to believe it’s now acceptable to vent other refrigerants.

“The EPA has been saying, ‘You can’t vent refrigerants, period.’ Now, they’re saying, ‘You can vent certain charges in certain applications,’” she said. “Comments were received by the EPA that preferred maintaining the no-venting prohibition for all materials, but, obviously, the EPA decided to go in a different direction.”

Conlan also called for the EPA to provide training for contractors to ensure they know exactly how the venting rules apply and to ensure they properly handle flammable refrigerants.

SIDEBAR: Approved SNAP Refrigerants

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently approved the following refrigerants through its Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) program:

• Ethane in very low-temperature refrigeration and non-mechanical heat transfer;

• Isobutane in retail food refrigeration (stand-alone commercial refrigerators and freezers) and vending machines;

• Propane in household refrigerators, freezers, combination refrigerators and freezers, vending machines, and room air conditioning units;

• The hydrocarbon (HC) blend R-441A in retail food refrigeration (stand-alone commercial refrigerators and freezers), vending machines, and room air-conditioning units; and

• Hydrofluorocarbon (HFC)-32 (difluoromethane) in room air conditioning units.

The EPA also exempted all of these substances, except HFC-32, from the Clean Air Act venting prohibition.

— Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Publication date: 5/18/2015 

Want more HVAC industry news and information? Join The NEWS on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn today!