Forks in the Refrigerant Road
The R-22 phaseout and SNAP actions on HFCs present end users with a dilemma
The phaseout of R-22 is now going full throttle. As contractors work to navigate the challenges of this transition they are forced to adapt to a constantly changing refrigerant landscape caused by the the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) regulation of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). Some alternatives to R-22 are already falling by the wayside for certain applications. This means many contractors can’t help but feel anxious about recommending refrigerant solutions as acceptable alternatives today knowing they could be unacceptable in the future.
Current regulations are focused on eliminating the use of higher-GWP (global warming potential) refrigerants, where practical (see Table 1). This necessitates that lower-GWP alternatives are, or will be, available as substitutes. Choosing the right path forward, refrigerant-wise, will be critical to the future success of many applications.
REFRIGERANTS FOR AIR CONDITIONING
R-22, an ozone-deplet-ing hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC), is being phased out in accordance with the Montreal Protocol. Its use in new equipment has been banned since 2010, and production/importation of this fluid for system service will cease as of January 2020. The large installed base of R-22 systems will rely heavily on reclaimed refrigerant and retrofits for years to come. However, as of July 20, several products that have been used as R-22 retrofits are no longer acceptable options for many refrigeration applications (see Figure 1).
Retrofits of R-22 in air conditioning systems remain largely unaffected by recent EPA Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) program activity. Several retrofit options have seen widespread usage, including R-407C, R-422B, R-422D, and R-438A. While none of these fluids is a drop-in, and all have their limitations, they provide an avenue for extending the useful life of many systems.
It’s important to note that one of the latest EPA SNAP proposals would render unacceptable flammable hydrocarbon (HC) and HC-blend refrigerants for the retrofit of unitary split air conditioning systems and heat pumps for residential and light commercial applications. Technicians should verify their retrofit solutions are SNAP-approved (see https://www.epa.gov/snap) for the applications in question.
REFRIGERANTS FOR COMMERCIAL REFRIGERATION
The commercial refrigeration market, on the other hand, will see many more changes. Servicing of systems currently using higher-GWP refrigerants, such as R-404A, R-507A, and R-422D, can continue. However, the retrofitting of R-22 supermarkets to these products, for example, will cease. End users who converted early on to these products will require lower-GWP solutions for future retrofits.
Many supermarket chains have actively used R-407A and R-407F as R-22 alternatives for years, both in new systems and retrofits. Conversion protocols are well established and include the likes of polyolester (POE) oil changes, replacement of elastomers, and adjustment of pressure controls and expansion devices. These products are proven performers and continue to be viable service options for R-22 refrigeration applications. While there is no immediate need to consider lower-GWP retrofit options for many R-22 systems, the confluence of the R-22 phaseout and SNAP activities on HFCs presents end users with a dilemma.
Delisting dates for R-404A and R-507A in new supermarket systems and remote condensing units are rapidly approaching (Table 1), and alternatives are required. R-407A and R-407F are established solutions that arguably represent the path of least resistance, at least for the short term. However, pressures to reduce the environmental impact of commercial refrigeration systems are only increasing. R-448A and R-449A are two lower-GWP refrigerants that have been SNAP-approved by the EPA for these applications. They are also positioned as retrofits/replacements for R-22, R-404A, and R-507A in medium- and low-temperature refrigeration systems. With less than one-third of the GWP of R-404A (see Figure 2), some consider these products to be the logical next step in refrigerant evolution. Given the ongoing refrigerant phaseout, R-22 refrigeration retrofits present many opportunities to end users wishing to try out these products.
Use of these refrigerants is growing, and early feedback from the field has been positive. However, given the newness of these products to the market, end users should consult with refrigerant, system, compressor, and component manufacturers to discuss potential issues and ensure as successful a retrofit experience as possible.
Finally, while some consider the move to R-448A and R-449A to be an obvious choice, others note these products are not truly low-GWP solutions. For those who favor a more natural progression (i.e. CO2, NH3, or HCs), such a move may be perceived as yet another fork in the road along the path to an environmentally sustainable solution.
Publication date: 11/7/2016