Refrigerant reclaimers used to be the red-headed stepchild of the HVAC industry. That’s what Carl Grolle, owner of Golden Refrigerant, told The ACHR NEWS it felt like for decades. Then the HFC phasedown hit. Now, refrigerants like R-410A and R-134a are being phased down in favor of lower-GWP refrigerants such as R-32 and R-454B.

Under the AIM Act, EPA is establishing a program to maximize reclamation of HFC refrigerants. Suddenly, reclaimers are in the spotlight.

There are just a handful of facilities in the U.S. to handle all the reclaim work the EPA is calling for. But there is still plenty of legacy equipment in use. One of the biggest issues will be stepping up the recovery and reclamation of HFC refrigerants for servicing these systems.

One of them is Golden Refrigerant, in Livonia, Michigan, where The ACHR NEWS joined Carl to get a boots-on-the-ground perspective into what the HFC phasedown is really going to entail. Here is what he had to share.

“We're excited as anybody about being able to grow our business, but it takes building space. It takes people. It takes equipment. It takes time for training, and the speed of the AIM Act and the speed of the phasedown seems to indicate they just want us to turn on a switch and do it. We are working as fast as we can.”
- Carl Grolle
owner of Golden Refrigerant

1. A steep cut in HFC production occurs next year, and it appears that not enough HFCs are being recovered/reclaimed to meet the demand for existing and new HVACR equipment. Just how dire is this situation?

CG: Direness is going to be determined by the market. As a reclaimer, we only see what we see. The refrigerants that come in here that are not mixed, we can reclaim pretty efficiently and pretty effectively and get them out. We've been seeing roughly the same amount of refrigerant being turned in every year, and they're expecting a big increase in reclamation. We're going to need to see an increase in refrigerant being turned in. The marketplace will tell us how dire it is ¾ if there are shortages or if the price goes up. But I myself, I can only reclaim what comes in.


2. What kind of increase in HFC recovery, percentage-wise, needs to occur in order to meet future demand?

CG: Obviously, whatever increase is needed in the marketplace is the increase that we need to see in recovery and returning to the reclaimers. Again, the simple refrigerants, when they come in to us, can be rather effectively reclaimed. The mixed refrigerants are a bit more problematic. One way that contractors could help the situation out is by adding more studious service practices, and if they're turning in refrigerant that isn't mixed, it will greatly increase the throughput of the reclaimers.


3. Why do you think contractors aren’t recovering refrigerant?

CG: From the contractor point of view, it's probably a cost to most of the contractors that are working on a flat rate scale. Their concern is getting the job done in an efficient amount of time. It takes extra time to bring the recovery machine and the equipment and properly reclaim the refrigerant. Their customer themselves doesn't really get any feedback on whether this was done effectively or quickly or not. And I just don't think there's enough incentive for them to do it right.


4. Do you think there are any incentives or regulations that could encourage more recovery?

CG: There already are plenty of regulations. What there isn't is effective enforcement, and the EPA has to determine at what cost and what viability if they want to go out and enforce those regulations. I think one inducement that would help is that the contractor, especially if they're trying to do the job quickly and mixing refrigerants, probably is paying a fee to dispose of the refrigerants or to turn them in. If the EPA could find a way that the reclaimers could handle the mixed refrigerant without cost, or if the EPA could figure out a way to increase the bounties for the refrigerant that is [turned in], it will provide a more of a financial incentive for the contractors to do the recovery correctly.


5. What could happen if more HFCs are not recovered and reclaimed?

CG: We’ll probably see one or two things. We’ll probably see price increases as the scarcity of refrigerant goes up and the contractors are going to have to outbid each other to get that supply. The second thing that we worry even more about is if there just isn't enough to go around, we could see shortages of this material, especially during peak times of the season. We have to ask ourselves: What would happened in a hospital or warehouse if they had a catastrophic failure in their system, they needed a full charge to get back up and running, and despite being willing to pay a higher price, they couldn't get that material at any cost? It would be pretty dire for that building.


6. Under the AIM Act, EPA is establishing a program to maximize reclamation of HFC refrigerants. What would you like to see EPA include this program?

CG: In my opinion, the EPA really missed a simple and very straightforward solution already. The EPA generated allowances, which they provided the chemical manufacturers and importers to bring in the HFC components, and they're going to use those HFC components to both make the newer refrigerants and create the service supply. But if you think about it, the reclaimers are really the entity that's most involved in making the transition smooth, and we came to the table and left hungry; we were given nothing. This causes us not to be able to finance all of our expansion. It diminishes our ability to blend out some of the contaminants of the harder-to-clean-up refrigerants, and it leaves the EPA in a position where they have to look at either providing financial support to the reclaimers or some other method of allowing us to expand at the rate they want us to expand.


7. Are there barriers that could be removed to increase the amount of refrigerant being recovered or reclaimed?

CG: I actually think that a huge barrier to everybody, from the reclaimer to the wholesaler to the contractor, is the cost of handling mixed refrigerant. We have put out some ideas that have so far been rejected. But the concept is that if we could voluntarily destroy or convert the mixed refrigerant back to components that are no longer damaging the environment — if we could get an allocation to replace that with new material — the chemical manufacturers would have an incentive to work with us because they'd be able to make additional material. We could finance the cost of destroying the mixed refrigerant that we can reclaim by the opportunity and the financial strength of being able to buy replacement refrigerant. This would solve the problem without any additional government costs. And we think it’s a very elegant solution, but it is not within the structure of the AIM Act. More likely, what's going to happen is EPA is going to mandate that certain applications only use reclaimed refrigerant. And we're quite concerned that if there's a shortage of reclaimed refrigerant, this will just add more stress to the system rather than providing a financial incentive for reclaim.


8. Are contractors recovering refrigerant correctly, and If not, what could they be doing better?

CG: Some contractors do a great job of recovering refrigerant. When we work directly with contractors, oftentimes we see good material after good material come from the same contractors. However, through the program that collects indiscriminately from the wholesalers and other contractors, we continually see mixed refrigerants. This is a result of less-than-thorough service practices. [It would be helpful if] contractors would make sure that their recovery machine is free of refrigerant from the previous recovery, that they're using a recovery cylinder that has not contained other refrigerants, or if it has, they use the vacuum to take it down to a [clean] level. And the third thing they need to do is really stop topping off refrigerants. There is no circuit out there that works great with a mixture of refrigerants. They’re creating something that might work some of the time, doesn't work all the time, and nobody in the world can recover because it's a unique mixture.


9. As a reclaimer, what are some of the challenges that you are experiencing as part of the HFC phasedown?

CG: One of the challenges is actually the growth that people are looking for out of the reclamation industry. We're excited as anybody about being able to grow our business, but it takes building space. It takes people. It takes equipment. It takes time for training, and the speed of the AIM Act and the speed of the phasedown seems to indicate they just want us to turn on a switch and do it. We are working as fast as we can to do it. The supply of individual components and HFC to blend things out or to dilute contaminants is not available to reclaimers, so that makes our life harder. Working with the blends is much more difficult than reclaiming a single molecule of refrigerant like R-32 or R-134a. So we're given a tougher job with less equipment to do it and less time to do it.


10. Any opportunities?

CG: On the flip side, the opportunities are that the reclaimers are finally welcome among the rest of society! Sometimes we feel like we've been the unclean in the unwashed, the way people have treated us [because] we've been reclaiming very inexpensive refrigerants, and now we're everybody's best friend. We kind of enjoy the popularity. And we want to do our best to live up to the opportunity that people are hoping and expecting us to do. As a reclaimer, one other thing that we're looking forward to is that the newer refrigerants are going to be A2L components, or A2L refrigerants. The building codes … are going to require us to rework our buildings, change or fire sprinkler systems, add in firewalls, and limit the amount of refrigerant we can have in our buildings. This is going to be a pretty big undertaking for most reclaimers, and it's going to take quite a bit of our attention and work going forward so we're ready to receive this material once it starts coming back from the service industry.