WASHINGTON, DC — The big question surrounding the use of HFCs as refrigerants has been whether or not their global warming impact would eventually be found unacceptable.

A recent report to the Alliance for Responsible Atmospheric Policy, however, has declared that earlier statements of R-134a’s global warming impact “substantially overstate[d] the net warming impact of HFCs, given the significant contribution to energy savings that the unique properties HFCs provide in many applications.”

Moreover, the report says the production output of HFCs will not match the peak amount of CFCs and HCFCs produced in the late 1980s because of the tightness of today’s systems and also because of more stringent servicing practices carried out by hvacr technicians.

In short, the report offers a convincing argument for increasing the use of this refrigerant in stationary and automotive systems. The objective of the study was to document the overall performance of specific HFCs compared to other fluids and technologies in the key applications where HFCs have emerged as replacements for CFCs and HCFCs.

The report, Global Comparative Analysis of HFC and Alternative Technologies for Refrigeration, Air Conditioning, Foam, Solvent, Aerosol Propellant, and Fire Protection Applications, was prepared for the Arlington,VA-based alliance by Arthur D. Little, Inc., Cambridge, MA.

Taking a long, hard look

A relatively new refrigerant, HFC-134a has replaced ozone-depleting CFC-12 for use in automotive air conditioning, and has also found acceptance, along with HCFC-123, to replace CFC-11 in the big chiller market.

But, like any new refrigerant manufactured under the long shadow of the Montreal Protocol, HFCs have had to be evaluated under the equally long shadow of the Kyoto Protocol for their contribution to greenhouse gases.

The analysis of HFCs should also be seen in the perspective of the 10 years remaining for using HCFC-22 in new equipment, especially the very large unitary sector. R-22’s use can continue for servicing existing equipment through 2019, after which its consumption under the Montreal Protocol will be reduced to 0.5% of the cap. Refrigerant manufacturers have met this limit every year since its effective date in January 1996.

The recent study prepared by Little finds that HFCs’ contribution to the global warming of greenhouse gases is relatively modest (less than 1%) and likely to remain so. The report also asserts that the net warming impact of most HFC use “is close to zero or provides a net reduction in [global] warming.”

Over the next three decades, the report says the real villain will be carbon dioxide, which will account for more than three-quarters of global warming.

This could have a greater long-term effect on hvac system efficiency. Higher efficiency means less energy is used; therefore, CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants are reduced.

Warming impact

The report uses a yardstick called LCCP, the Life Cycle Climate Performance. This provides “the cradle-to-the-grave” warming impact of any product, including those that use fluorocarbons.

According to the report, not only do HFCs protect the ozone layer, their “societal cost” saving is huge, measured at $16 billion for the United States and at $34 billion for the world. Those big numbers account for HFC use in the refrigeration and air conditioning sectors, as well as use in foam insulation, solvent cleaning, aerosols, and fire protection.

The report shows the vast annual global production of refrigerant-bearing products. These include 60 million household refrigerators, 20 million mobile air conditioners, 8 million unitary products, up to 15 million room air conditioners, 100,000 chillers, 50,000 supermarket refrigeration systems, 1 million self-contained commercial refrigeration systems, and 1 million beverage vending machines.

But these numbers, large as they are, pale behind the millions of units in service around the globe.

These include 500 million household refrigerators, 200 million mobile air conditioners, 100 million unitary, 150 million room air conditioners, 2 million chillers, 1 million supermarket refrigeration systems, 10 million self-contained commercial refrigerators, and 10 million beverage vending machines.

A full copy of the report is available from the Alliance for Responsible Atmospheric Policy, 2111 Wilson Blvd., Suite 850, Arlington, VA 22201; 703-243-0344; 703-243-2874 (fax).