Peter Powell

In smaller refrigeration applications in Europe, the refrigerant isobutane is commonly used. That is not the case in the United States because the refrigerant has an A3 safety rating due to flammability issues. Instead, the United States relied first on CFC-12 and now on HFC-134a, both of which have the preferred A1 safety rating.

But now a major manufacturer of refrigeration equipment is attempting to change the equation in the United States. And that could make the already complex refrigerant marketplace even more interesting.

In a press release, GE announced that it has submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “a request for approval to use isobutane as a refrigerant in household refrigerators. The petition was filed under the Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) program.”

In an exchange of e-mails with GE, I asked about the flammability issue with isobutane, which is a hydrocarbon refrigerant with a designation of HC-600a or R-600a. “It is true that isobutane is flammable, but there will be less than 2 ounces used in the refrigerator,” was the reply from GE.

“We will also have our refrigerators listed by the third-party certification agency UL in accordance with the standards these agencies have to access and address flammability risks and ensure the safety of refrigerators/freezers using these types of refrigerant. Isobutane is currently approved by the EPA as an aerosol propellant in similar amounts for use in common household products such as bathroom cleaners and air fresheners.”

According to GE, “Upon gaining EPA approvals, GE plans to include isobutane in a new GE Mongram® brand refrigerator currently in development for introduction in early 2010. GE will begin test marketing Monogram refrigerators in select locations.”

There is yet one more part of the equation and that is the acceptance by contractors and end users to the idea of a kitchen refrigerator running on isobutane.

“Conversion of the household refrigerators to hydrocarbon refrigerants will be dependent on EPA approval and favorable public policy supporting the transition,” GE said.

I asked about the mindset of contractors dealing with an HC refrigerant rather than CFC-12 and HFC-134a. I was told, “Most contractors and technicians have limited or no experience with R-600a. Concerns about safety are the reasons, which is why the building codes in some cities restrict the use of this refrigerant and the rating agencies have been cautious as they developed standards for product use.”


But then GE touched on what it feels will be the linchpin in the acceptance of HC refrigerants.

“The global focus of HFC refrigerants as major contributors to climate change is one reason why alternatives like R-600a, with its low global warming properties, must be re-evaluated. That re-evaluation starts with the EPA review under the SNAP program. We are confident that EPA will approve use of R-600a as a safe alternative to HFCs. That decision will trigger follow-on evaluations by UL and other agencies and the lifting of restrictions in building codes. With appropriate safety standards developed, safety concerns will be allayed and a market for R-600a use as a refrigerant will develop the same way a market for products using the same (or larger) amounts of R-600a, for example, as a propellant. The contractors who learn how to work with R-600a products will get ahead of the curve as product use expands.”

So there you have it. If the use of isobutane does get EPA approval for refrigerators, a major manufacturer plans to enter the market with such a product.

The manufacturer contends that contractors can and will learn to deal with the refrigerant - and that I can believe. Contractors in this industry learned to deal with the pressure and moisture issues of working with HFCs. And plenty of contractors in Europe and Asia have long been working with isobutane in domestic refrigerators.

Less clear, but still implied in all this, is the potential of HC refrigerants being used in larger charges perhaps even up to commercial applications. If domestic refrigerators are allowed to use the refrigerant and such equipment gains acceptance, what about small ice machines, or reach-in coolers? What about larger systems? Does the amount of charge make a difference; or is giving approval for a couple of ounces in a hermetic system just the first step on a path of approval for use in larger equipment?

The answers aren’t known yet. But just by the fact that we can even pose the questions signals potential big changes in the always-changing refrigerant sector.

Publication date:02/02/2009