In 1995, there were approximately 80,000 large tonnage liquid chillers using chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the United States. By the end of 2002, the number had been reduced to just fewer than 39,000 units, according to the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI). These CFCs have been banned from production in the United States due to concerns about depletion of the Earth’s ozone layer.

ARI stated, “New, non-CFC chillers are vastly more efficient, reducing electricity and maintenance costs. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), ‘A new, energy-efficient chiller can easily pay for itself in electricity savings, improved reliability, and lower maintenance costs in five years.’”

The News asked representatives of ARI and the Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Institute of Canada (HRAI) to comment on the progress of chiller conversions and replacements.

“Conversions are far outweighed by replacements,” said Ed Dooley, ARI’s vice president of communications and education. “Sometimes conversions are necessary because of access problems of replacing a chiller in a building. There are various degrees of conversions, with a complete conversion, a sort of heart transplant, providing the greatest energy savings. That’s why replacements are more likely than conversions.”

ARI gathers chiller statistics from a survey of chiller manufacturers who report to ARI the replacements and conversions of CFC chillers. ARI compiles the individual responses into aggregates, which are then released annually as the ARI chiller survey results.

Warren Heeley, HRAI president, said, “We annually contact the four major chiller manufacturers in Canada (Carrier, York, McQuay, and Trane) and request their numbers for the previous year concerning conversions or replacements of CFC chillers.”

Economic And Ecological Effects

Last year’s slow U.S economy had a negative impact on chiller conversions and replacements. “Replacement of CFC chillers at home and abroad has been slowed by the downturn in the economy, just as shipments of non-CFC chillers were affected by the slowdown in building construction in recent years,” noted Dooley.

Figure 1. Shipments of centrifugal chillers. (Courtesy of ARI.)

Conversions are also lagging in Canada. “Our experience has shown that chiller owners are not in general placing priority on ‘doing the right environmental thing’ and changing out their CFC chillers,” said Heeley. “It was somewhat disconcerting to learn in 1999, when we did the baseline number, that barely 15 percent of the CFC chiller stock had been converted or replaced. Years 2000 and 2001 continued this slow trend. Year 2002, though, is hopefully showing an upward trend.”

Dooley said that simple mathematics shows the logic of replacing an outdated and less-efficient chiller. “Because non-CFC chillers are more efficient and reduce operating costs, the payback for a replacement unit is very attractive,” he said. Chiller replacement information is available from the EPA at ARI’s Web site (, and hard copies of “Building Owners Save Money, Save the Earth — Re-place Your CFC Air Conditioning Chiller” are available from the EPA.

Motivating Building Owners

Besides saving money and increasing efficiencies, the issue of converting or replacing chillers using CFC refrigerants is an emotional and ecological issue, too. But what motivates chiller owners to make the change?

“I would say up to the point where the federal and provincial governments released their plan for phasing out the use of CFCs in chillers, there was no pressure or expediency for owners to convert or replace these machines,” said Heeley. “The leak detection technologies and the leak-tight approach to this equipment that has evolved over the last 10 years have dramatically decreased losses, and with standby inventories of CFC-11 still available, there was very little pressure on owners to move away from CFCs.”

Figure 2. Estimated number of 80,000 CFC centrifugal chillers replaced and converted by year, as well as the estimated total number of CFC chillers on Jan. 1, 2006. (Courtesy of ARI.)

Dooley said that replacements are slowed by the availability of alternative refrigerants and the ability for chillers to be converted to use these refrigerants.

“All refrigerants, whether HCFCs or HFCs, are thoroughly tested and must be determined to be acceptable for use in the U.S. by the EPA’s Significant New Alternatives Program (SNAP),” he said. “EPA has further stated, ‘The optimal choice is to consider all SNAP-approved alternatives as acceptable, viable alternatives, and to choose those that best meet the criteria and produce the highest return on investment.’

“The EPA has also accepted a wide range of non-CFC fluorocarbon refrigerants for use in replacement chillers including HCFC-22, HCFC-123, HFC-134a, HFC-410A and HFC-407C.”

Building owners are certainly not motivated by the threat of any fines, since compliance to the phaseout isn’t necessary for a few more years. “There are no penalties other than higher operating costs incurred by the CFC chiller owner,” stated Dooley.

What Contractors Can Do

The role of the HVACR contractor in chiller conversion or replacement is a very important one, according to both ARI and HRAI.

“Contractors can play an important role by informing their customers about the options they have in replacing their CFC chillers such as HFC, HCFC, and ammonia units,” said Dooley. “It’s hard to imagine any CFC chiller owner not being contacted multiple times by now about the replacement or conversion of his unit. Some are waiting to retrofit their buildings and to make the change as part of an integrated building management plan that could reduce cooling load through lighting, insulation, and window glazing improvements.

“Others may be discouraged by the outdated depreciation laws, by which the U.S. Treasury’s tax code uses a 39-year depreciation for chillers. Because this depreciation schedule does not properly consider the economic life of the unit, it does not encourage replacement of existing CFC chillers.”

Heeley explained, “The typical process for chillers is that a contracting company will have a service relationship with the chiller owner. As part of this relationship, the contractor and owner will have an understanding of the owner’s plans to change out the chiller and work towards a certain timetable based mostly on budget concerns.

“In Canada, there are regulations working their way through the federal and provincial systems that will require CFC chillers to be converted or replaced when the chiller requires a major overhaul. With these regulations in the works, it provides contractors with additional rationale for having the owner move more quickly with the conversion/replacement process.”

“The general public today is largely unaware that CFCs are being phased out of commercial building air conditioning and refrigeration just as few seem to know that CFCs are no longer used in new home refrigerators, automobile air conditioning or aerosol sprays,” said Dooley. “By making the process transparent, the various industries have perhaps shortchanged themselves from the credit they deserve.”

Heeley said, “My sense is that the general public has little or no knowledge of this issue and, in general, the public interest in the whole ozone issue is very low in Canada because the public thinks the issue is over. This is not based on any feedback other than learning from an environmental group in Canada (Friends of the Earth) that they are currently receiving almost no donations directed at the ozone issue.”

Dooley said that the issue of conversion and replacement should create job security for contractors.

“Building owners around the world have saved millions of dollars in electricity bills by replacing CFC chillers, but the job is far from finished,” he stated. “By the end of 2003, there will still be an estimated 36,000 — about 45 percent of the original 80,000 CFC chillers — still using CFCs in the U.S. and thousands more in other countries.

“This will assure replacement business for contractors and manufacturers through at least the end of this decade.”

Publication date: 07/14/2003