Natural, HC Refrigerants Spell Change — Not Doom
Examining the impact refrigerants lacking recovery requirements have on recovery and reclamation
What does the growing popularity of natural refrigerants and hydrocarbon (HC) refrigerants bode for the recovery and reclamation industries?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not currently mandate the recovery and recycling of natural refrigerants, such as carbon dioxide; HCs, such as propane, isobutane, blends like R-441A, or ethane; or ammonia.
Through recycling and emissions reduction regulations implemented in the Clean Air Act section 608, the EPA does not require special handling, such as the recovery or recycling, of these refrigerants based on current evidence that their release would not pose a significant threat to the environment.
The question remains: What long-term implications will this have on the refrigerant-recovery industry, which has been built on recovering chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) — refrigerants that are increasingly being phased out? The answer: Change is on the horizon, but demise is not imminent.
Although the growth rate for natural refrigerants in the Americas will be high, the impact in the marketplace will be relatively low until around 2030, according to Robert Hennessy, vice president, refrigerant and environmental services, A-Gas Americas.
“What that means is there will be zero impact on the refrigerant reclaim and recovery sectors until that time,” Hennessy said.
And, while natural refrigerants don’t have to be recovered as of now, as time passes, Hennessy suspects there will eventually be rules and regulations against venting at some point in the future.
“There really is no reason at this point why naturals should be recovered, but, as they continue to grow in popularity, recovery may become more important in the next 10-15 years,” Hennessy said.
Chris Carroll, national sales manager, Mastercool Inc., agreed, although he doesn’t see a compelling reason why natural refrigerants should be recovered. Naturals and flammable refrigerants are being utilized on very small systems and, therefore, are likely to have a minimal impact on the recovery and reclamation industries, he noted.
DOES THE COST JUSTIFY RECOVERY?
Although natural refrigerants are said to be safe to vent, it really depends on the situation, said Bob Belvick, product manager, service tools, Inficon. He pointed out that venting an HC, such as propane, in a confined space creates a hazard for explosion or fire while venting CO2 in a confined space could pose a serious risk for technicians if the level of CO2 in the air prevented them from getting enough oxygen.
In addition to safety, Belvick favors recovery over venting because “recovering refrigerants, natural or not, saves money,” he said. He added, however, at this point, recovery machines are generally not capable of recovering flammable refrigerants.
Belvick, like Hennessy, doesn’t see the recovery industry going away any time soon.
“You’ll eventually begin to see explosion-proof or intrinsically safe recovery machines able to safely recover flammable refrigerants,” he said. “Also, for the foreseeable future, there will be other refrigerants — HFCs, HCFCs, and CFCs — in existing systems that, by law, cannot be vented and will require recovery. These refrigerants will become more expensive as natural refrigerants increase in usage, and so their recovery will be even more important.”
Dave Marple, product manager, portable instruments, Bacharach, takes a practical view of recovering natural refrigerants.
“From a global warming standpoint, natural refrigerants have minimal to no impact compared to traditional halogenated refrigerants, such as R-22,” he said. “However, it is wasteful to not recover these refrigerants. We could cut down on production demand and waste by recovering what is already in use.”
Marple is also pragmatic about what the growth of naturals may mean for the long-term future of the recovery and reclamation industry.
“It will take a long time for naturals to become prevalent,” he said. “But, on the commercial and industrial scale and in those applications, I think it will be worthwhile for people to recover natural refrigerants due to the waste. Why vent the refrigerant if it’s still viable and could be recovered and reused?”
However, Karl Johnson, engineering director, Ritchie Engineering Co., said the low cost, small charges, and potential hazards they present to technicians make HC refrigerants impractical to recover and reclaim.
“A home refrigerator, for example, is going to contain no more than 50 grams of HC refrigerant — that’s less than 2 ounces,” Johnson said. “On larger commercial systems, the circuits are limited to 150 grams, which is less than 6 ounces. So, the quantities that would be recovered would be very small.”
What this would likely lead to, Johnson said, is technicians carrying around partially filled canisters of flammable refrigerants in their trucks, creating a safety hazard.
“Even though the quantities are small, a technician who recovers HCs from 100 units over time will have accumulated a fairly sizable quantity of a potentially explosive mixture,” Johnson said. “Keep in mind that if technicians are recovering from a system that has a leak in it, they will be pulling in both flammable refrigerant and air, concentrating that mixture in a canister and then driving around with it.”
Another aspect to consider is that HCs are very inexpensive. Johnson noted that if the EPA was to mandate recovery, it would almost certainly cost more to recover an HC refrigerant and take it to a reclamation plant than it would to buy new. And, recovered flammable refrigerants would likely end up being destroyed rather than reused.
“When you look at the cost of an HC compared to an environmentally friendly new refrigerant such as R-1234yf, the -1234yf costs up to 80 times as much,” Johnson said. “And it must be recovered. The chemical companies would like to see the playing field leveled, and they’re lobbying to make it a requirement that everything has to be recovered, including HCs. So, time will tell how this all plays out.”
Looking down the road, Johnson said he anticipates there will always be a need for recovery equipment, although it might be a different kind of equipment than what’s being used today.
“I can envision a day when we’re using refrigerants that are so benign and non-hazardous that they won’t need to be recovered anymore, and obviously we’re keeping an eye on that because a big part of our business is making machines that recover refrigerant,” he said. “I think what ultimately may come about is a different type of recovery machine. When you pull refrigerant from a system, you’re pulling out oil, too. I think there’s going to be a need for recovery equipment that is designed to remove that oil and make sure the refrigerant is vented safely. So, it may be a different type of machine, but there will still be a machine sold for dealing with appliances that use flammable or natural refrigerants.”
HANDLING FLAMMABLES WITH CAUTION
Jerry Dykstra, environmental compliance facilitator, Rapid Recovery, has misgivings about reintroducing HCs into the refrigerant market on a large scale. He noted that part of the reason synthetic refrigerants were invented years ago was to replace HC refrigerants and address some of the inherent safety issues caused by the flammability of HCs.
“The move back to HCs, and the EPA’s current regulations regarding venting HCs, concern us from a safety standpoint,” he said. “From an environmental standpoint, we don’t know what the impact may be when we start venting large amounts of hydrocarbons into the atmosphere. But, from a safety standpoint, [HCs] are certainly more dangerous for technicians than the nonflammable refrigerants technicians are used to working with.”
According to Dykstra, the risk of venting HCs inside a confined space is well known; however, even if HCs were to be vented outdoors, it would have to be done very cautiously.
“We’ll likely need regulations guiding what areas HCs can be vented in, how far the venting would have to take place from ignition sources or other flammable materials, and so on. Even now, when you go to a store or gas station that sells propane for your backyard barbeque, there are warning signs that say, ‘Danger, no smoking, stay 50 feet away.’ So, it seems likely that the EPA will have to provide more clarity in its venting regulations.”
In addition, Dykstra said Rapid Recovery is especially concerned about technician safety when dealing with larger systems that may contain a mix of synthetic refrigerants and HCs.
“What happens if we’re dealing with mixed refrigerants?” Dykstra asked. “They can’t be vented, so recovery units will have to be re-engineered to handle flammables. And storing and transporting flammables is a lot different than storing and transporting refrigerants. It becomes a very dangerous situation for technicians.”
Mark Key, vice president of sales and marketing, Redi Controls Inc., noted the increase of flammable refrigerants in the marketplace means a need for different handling practices for service technicians as well as recovery units capable of handling flammable refrigerants.
“There’s going to be a shift, and it’s going to be important that the guys in the field don’t use the wrong units,” Key said. “Those servicing cascade systems and environmental chambers may start seeing an increase in the amount of flammable additives as system manufacturers strive to maintain the higher efficiencies required by law. Although flammable additives are not typically used to increase efficiency, they are used to assist in proper oil migration throughout the system, and as newer refrigerants are expanded in these areas, some are requiring a larger percentage of flammable additives to move the oil. One may also expect to see very high-pressure flammable refrigerants emerge.”
Mastercool Inc.’s head engineer, Steve Gillespie, pointed out the need for technician training.
“Just because natural and flammable refrigerants do not have to be recovered does not mean technicians can just vent a system willy-nilly,” he said. “CO2 is at a high pressure and needs to be released in a controlled way to do it safely. It is also toxic in high concentrations, so it needs to be done in a well-ventilated space. And, common sense is needed to prevent accidents with flammable refrigerants. So, we need to train technicians how to deal with these refrigerants.”
Gillespie added that there must be a clear distinction made between mildly flammable A2L refrigerants, such as R-1234yf, R-1234ze, and R-32, and the very flammable A3 hydrocarbons.
“It takes a lot to get an A2L refrigerant to burn, and, even then, it burns very slowly,” he said. “The fear is equipment designed for A2L refrigerants will be used for A3 refrigerants because technicians will think, ‘They’re both flammable, so why not?’”
On the reclamation side, Carl Grolle, owner and president of Golden Refrigerant, said he doesn’t see much of a market ever existing for reclaimed HCs or naturals as those refrigerants aren’t compatible with current reclamation processes. The industry would have to start entirely new processes to reclaim them, which is a tall order when the secondary market simply isn’t there.
“I think it’s very doubtful that naturals are going to take over 100 percent of the refrigeration market,” Grolle said. “I suppose it’s possible, and if it does happen, our industry would have only 15 or 20 years left to service older equipment before we went the way of the stagecoach. But, I don’t think that’s going to happen. The next generation of chemicals — the hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs) and combinations of HFOs with low-GWP HFCs — are going to be tailored to the bigger equipment, and that’s going to be enough of a base for the reclamation industry. It’s going to continue to be a part of the industry landscape for the foreseeable future.”
A more immediate concern, Grolle said, is the challenge less sophisticated reclaimers may face once R-22 and R-134a are no longer major players.
“Things are going to change dramatically,” he said. “The blends are much tougher for us to work with. You either have to keep them in or return them to specification, and that’s not nearly the same straightforward process as just removing the contaminants. Smaller reclaimers who don’t have the technical capacity to work with blends containing four or five components are likely to find it tough.”
Jay Kestenbaum, senior vice president of sales and purchasing for Airgas Refrigerants, said that although current EPA regulations don’t call for recovery and reclamation of HCs and natural refrigerants, he finds it unlikely that these refrigerants won’t eventually come under scrutiny. He noted that HFCs didn’t need to be recovered when they were first introduced.
“We’re an industry targeted by the EPA,” Kestenbaum said. “Since the days of CFCs, the EPA has obtained information on production, usage, consumption, and venting percentages. And, once they had that information for CFCs, they went after it on HCFCs and then HFCs. So, the question is, now that the EPA has its hands around our industry, do we really believe we’re going to get back to being allowed to vent? For better or worse, ‘venting’ is a bad word environmentally.”
Kestenbaum also expressed concern that if the EPA were to allow a class of items to be purposely vented, it might inadvertently help promote venting of items that should be recovered.
“I think it opens up the door for confusion,” he said. “What’s OK to vent and what’s not? And, if technicians get into the habit of going into facilities without a recovery cylinder, how easy does it become to vent an item that should have been recovered?”
Ultimately, Kestenbaum sees the venting of refrigerants as a very tough issue that’s made all the more difficult by the fact that systems don’t contain 100 percent pure refrigerant.
“Systems also contain oil and, often, contaminants,” he said. “Even if it’s only a tiny drop of oil that would get vented, the industry is already under scrutiny. What if a system is flooded, contaminated, or topped off and contains a mix of refrigerants? If the mixture is a certain percentage of HCs, is it permissible to vent? Where do you draw the line? It opens up too many questions.
“In my gut, I feel someone will come up with some environmental concern that would require recovery of all refrigerants,” Kestenbaum concluded. “Our industry has been scrutinized through every transition, and I just find it hard to believe that we’re ever going to be given a green light to vent.”
For more information on 40 CFR 82.154(a) of the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations, visit http://bit.ly/40CFR82-154a.
Publication date: 4/4/2016