The recent refrigerant delistings made under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) program have made some customers — especially in the supermarket refrigeration sector — skittish about making a major investment in new refrigeration equipment. They’re wondering if the smoke has truly cleared, or if they’ll be facing more new and unexpected regulations again in the near future.
Their hesitation is understandable; along with all the refrigerant phaseouts and phasedowns they have witnessed in the past decade, they’re aware of new efficiency standards on the way from the U.S. Department of Energy. If customers are going to make a move, they want to be sure the time is right to move, and they’re moving in the right direction.
The world of refrigeration and refrigerants has become a very complicated place. Mike Thompson, CMS, vice president of the Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES), recently told me, “When I started in this industry the question was, ‘Do you want the white can or the green one?’ Now there are dozens of refrigerants to choose from. And the changes are going to keep coming. There are no more quick fixes. We’re at a place in the universe right now where we have to decide on a permanent solution.”
Paul Anderson, senior group manager of engineering at Target Corp. recently discussed how Target — a Fortune 500 company with more than 1,800 stores in 49 states — has been testing a number of various new system options in the grocery sections of its stores. These systems included cascade CO2 systems, R-290 (propane) systems, self-contained units with HFO blends, and hybrid R-134a/CO2 direct-expansion systems. These systems, when judged by Target’s metrics of energy use, capital investment (both equipment and installation), uptime, maintenance and repair, and sustainability (carbon impact) all had some upsides and downsides.
But most telling of all was Anderson’s simple explanation for Target’s interest in looking at all of these options. He noted that many stores recently retrofitted their systems to use refrigerants with a lower ozone-depletion potential (ODP), but now have systems that use refrigerants being phased out because of concerns over their global-warming potential (GWP). “Didn’t we just do this?” he asked.
Anderson’s question was rhetorical, but his message was clear: The next time Target makes a major investment in refrigeration equipment, it wants a long-term solution that will enable forward movement and concentrate on selling groceries.
So what will the “permanent solution” be? Most people in the refrigeration industry, as well as savvy customers such as Anderson, understand that there is no one silver bullet.
Natural refrigerants will grow. They already are. And they have a growing number of ardent supporters. But the chemical refrigerant manufacturers have been solutions providers in the refrigeration industry for decades, and keep rising to new heights (or lows, if referring to GWP and ODP) with each regulatory challenge thrown their way.
In all likelihood, look for the future to include both naturals and synthetics, probably more often than ever before working in combination such as in Target’s hybrid R-134a/CO2 system.
For contractors, the key will be their ability to keep up with the changes, educate their customers, and convey to impatient or skittish customers all the options available to them. As always, times of great change are also times of great opportunity. Be prepared to be your customers’ guide through today’s changing refrigerant landscape and you’ll be rewarded with steady business and grateful long-term customers.