Peter Powell

Item from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) dated Monday, Feb. 28:

The EPA has issued final approval for a new refrigerant for use in motor vehicle air conditioning systems that does not deplete the ozone layer, which helps protect the environment and people’s health. The new chemical, HFO-1234yf, may now be used in air conditioning for new cars and light trucks. When used appropriately, this chemical can reduce the environmental impact of motor vehicle air conditioners and has a global warming potential that is 99.7 percent less than the current chemical (HFC–134a) used in most car air conditioners.

EPA’s recent standards for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from light-duty motor vehicles provide an opportunity for automakers to receive credit for adopting a chemical with less climate impact as a cost-effective way to meet the new standards. Using HFO-1234yf is one option available to automakers.


There is much to be said about this announcement because it is possible that someday HFOs might impact those of us in stationary HVACR. But not right now.

The history of this goes back to Europe, as do most matters related to refrigerants in North America. A number of years ago, European legislation banned the use of R-134a in automotive air conditioning both in response to advocacy efforts from environmental groups and issues related to leak rates.

While there are no legal actions currently in the United States that would require a similar ban stateside, the mere fact that the EPA has okayed the use of an HFO refrigerant in automotive means such a switch could take place without the need to seek EPA approval at that time.

THE STATIONARY SECTOR

In the stationary sector, there are no plans at this time to make any move away from HFCs and, in fact, there is little interest to offer any legislation that would mandate a phase down in production or use of HFC refrigerants.

At the same time, refrigerant manufacturers have been doing research for a number of years in making HFOs work in stationary HVACR equipment. And it does seem to work.

The issue is the fact that the refrigerant has an A2L safety rating. All HCFC and HFC refrigerants have A1 safety ratings, while A2 rated refrigerants are so rated because of flammability or toxicity. HFOs fall on the low end of A2, thus the ‘L’ as in having extremely low flammability potential – apparently pretty close to an A1, but not an A1.

The issue then becomes, will OEMs and contractors who have long dealt with equipment that have HCFC and HFC refrigerants and A1 safety ratings be willing to deal with equipment running on HFOs and having an A2L safety rating?

WILL THEY NEED TO?

Perhaps the question to be asked currently is, “Will they need to?” As I noted earlier, there is nothing on the U.S. horizon indicating a stationary equipment shift to HFOs. (I’m not sure how active that issue might be in Europe.)

I do know the automotive sector drove the stationary sector to shift away from CFCs to HFCs eventually. (Automotive went from CFC-12 to HFC-134a without HCFCs in between.) So, will the move away from HFCs to HFOs in European automotive have the same impact on the United States automotive market? And if so, when?

Then … and this is a big ‘then’ … will the shift happen in stationary? Dangling over that is the safety rating. In Europe, service technicians have been working with flammable refrigerants like propane in domestic refrigeration for forever, while that isn’t a factor in the United States domestic sector.

So if stationary does make the shift from HFCs to HFOs, it would be a rethink on equipment design and servicing - as well as a major mind shift on the part of contractors from dealing with A1 refrigerants to dealing with A2L refrigerants.

And for now that sounds as likely as the Cubs ever winning a World Series.

Publication date: 03/28/2011