The HVACR industry is undergoing another refrigerant transition, as HFCs such as R-410A and R-404A are being phased down in favor of new, lower-GWP refrigerants, such as R-32 and R-454B. Unlike the last transition, which shifted from the use of one nonflammable refrigerant to another, many of these new refrigerants are mildly flammable (A2L), so additional training will be needed in order to safely use them.
Building codes in most states do not currently allow the installation of comfort cooling units that contain A2L refrigerants, so this type of equipment will likely not be in widespread use for another year or two. However, “it is still vital for contractors to use this time to get the proper training on how to safely handle and use A2Ls, because, in the end, it will affect all HVAC professionals,” said Wes Davis, director of technical services at ACCA.
ACCA is one of the entities that is offering A2L training for the HVACR industry. Their program was developed based on the ASHRAE and UL safety standards and provides an introduction to the new refrigerant; instruction on how to handle it safely; and a review of tools that will be needed to work on equipment with A2L refrigerants.
To ensure accessibility, ACCA designed its A2L training program to be affordable for entire teams. The program is available any time of day, 24/7, lasts just over two hours, and includes a digital workbook. Upon passing a test, technicians earn a certificate of completion that demonstrates a commitment to keeping customers and employees safe.
The ESCO Group has also developed an affordable training program for A2L refrigerants, entitled Low GWP Refrigerant Safety: Flammable and Mildly Flammable Refrigerants. The program consists of a manual (available in print or online), an e-learning-style course, instructor PowerPoint presentations, and a closed-book safety certification exam. ESCO also offers train-the-trainer courses for those who want to offer low-GWP refrigerant safety courses.
The 50-question, closed-book, safety certification exam validates that a person possesses the knowledge to safely work with low-GWP refrigerants and covers the following competencies:
- General flammable refrigerant safety knowledge;
- Core ACR knowledge;
- Flammable system service safety;
- Flammable system installation safety; and
- Flammable refrigerant transportation and handling safety.
ESCO has also partnered with the Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Institute of Canada (HRAI) to provide A2L training for stakeholders across Canada later this year.
But the time to start training is now, said Jason Obrzut, director of industry standards and relations at ESCO. “The industry has always been able to adapt to an ever-changing landscape, and leveraging new technology and refrigerants to produce extremely efficient, safe systems has been the norm. As with any industry transition, staying well informed is one of the main keys to being prepared. Training is another key component to a successful transition.”
Another place to look for more information regarding A2Ls is AHRI, which created its Safe Refrigerant Task Force to help ensure a smooth refrigerant transition. Its website offers a number of resources, including webinars, articles, and fact sheets, as well as a listing of service tools that will be needed to use with A2L refrigerants.
According to the Task Force, “The HVACR industry’s safe transition to low-GWP refrigerants requires proper training of all stakeholders to safely and responsibly transport, handle, install, and service equipment with ASHRAE Standard 34 Class A2L refrigerants. While the majority of the physical and chemical properties of A2L gases are very similar to the traditional ASHRAE Standard 34 Class A1 refrigerants (CFCs, HCFCs, and HFCs such as R-134a and R-410A), stakeholders must be aware of the properties of these lower flammability refrigerants and trained to mitigate associated risks.”
The Task Force is in the process of completing its Guide to the Safe Refrigerant Transition, and two chapters are currently available on its website. The first chapter, entitled “The Changing World of HFC Regulations,” covers the history of recent refrigerant transitions, including an overview of why most countries around the world are looking to phase down the use of HFCs. The chapter also covers the similarities and differences in refrigerant classes and the potential risks they introduce.
The second chapter, entitled “Chemical, Physical, and Environmental Properties of ASHRAE Standard 34 and ISO 817,” looks at flammability classifications of refrigerants and discusses the various properties of A2L refrigerants. This chapter concludes by noting that many of the basic chemical and physical properties of new generation A2L refrigerants are very similar to previous generation A1 (CFC/HFC) refrigerants and are readily available. In addition, the chapter notes that flammable refrigerants will only be used in new systems/applications designed and listed by a third-party laboratory to mitigate risks, and where allowed by appropriate codes and standards, unless approved by an authority having jurisdiction (AHJ).
Distributors and manufacturers will also play a key role in training HVACR professionals in the safe use of A2L refrigerants, so contractors should make sure they are aware of any of these educational opportunities. Manufacturer training will be particularly important, as each type of unit will have specific instructions regarding how to properly install it.
For example, when it comes to charging, it will be specific to the capacity of the unit, as well as the air space that the system is servicing, so what works for one area may not work for another, said Obrzut. “It's not going to be a universal number. It's going to be determined by the charging chart that manufacturers are going to provide based on the cubic volume of air and the location and capacity of the unit.”
Site selection will be another issue, as manufacturers will have to detail where a unit may or may not be installed. There will be a lot to learn, which is why industry experts are urging contractors and technicians to start now.
“You're going to have to learn how each of the manufacturer’s systems work, so start with general safety training, then work your way up to manufacturer training,” said Obrzut. “However, all industry stakeholders should seek out training before the market shifts to these new systems. Those who wait until the last minute may find themselves on the outside looking in.”