Clients must act in face of looming refrigerant crisis

BESA, Building Engineering Services Association, air conditioning, refrigerants, R410A
Time to stop burying heads in the sand — Graeme Fox.

The air-conditioning and refrigeration industry is braced for a turbulent 2018 as supplies of crucial refrigerants fall off a cliff, says Graeme Fox of BESA.

History is repeating itself. Clients are burying their heads in the sand over a rising refrigerant crisis. The same thing happened when CFCs were banned in the 1990s and again in the build up to the withdrawal of R22 in 2010. Today it is HFCs.

Doing nothing has never been an option, but because human nature tends to drive people to do nothing for as long as possible, we now face potential chaos as end users scramble for ever-diminishing supplies of HFCs from the end of this year when tight new quotas come into effect.

Under the terms of the European F Gas Regulation, by 2030 only 21% of the current amount of HFCs now used by the industry will be in circulation. However, the reduction in the use of HFCs is being reached in steps, and the first big one will be taken at the end of this year when all EU member states are required to cut HFCs by 37%.

The speed with which different types of HFC are removed from use is based on their CO2 equivalent global warming potential (GWP). R404A has a high GWP of 3922 and will, along with all other refrigerants with a GWP above 2500, be banned in new stationary refrigeration equipment from 2020 — and that includes for service and maintenance purposes.

UK refrigerant suppliers have already hiked medium- to high-GWP refrigerant prices by 30% across the board, with high-GWP gases double the cost they were this time last year. Users of R404A (and another high-GWP gas R507), for example, were confronted with a 60% price rise in a month — and the price of medium-GWP gases like R410A will rise sharply next year.

This is all happening just when many local-authority clients, in particular, face austerity cuts, which makes any conversation about retrofitting or replacing air-conditioning equipment extremely uncomfortable. Yet, if you are running a hospital or a 24-hour/365-days-a-year kitchen making ‘meals on wheels’ for elderly residents, you will pay through the nose if the system breaks down or, worse, face the fact that there is no refrigerant available for service, maintenance and repair.

One major manufacturer has already announced that it will stop producing 404A this year —yet people are still designing systems and manufacturing equipment that depends on 404A to keep operating. There are ‘drop-in’ replacements available, but all can significantly change the performance characteristics of equipment that can shorten their operating life and make them subject to more frequent breakdowns — such as higher running compressor temperatures.

There are long-established alternative fluids for some applications like hydrocarbons (HCs), ammonia and CO2, but these require engineers to deal with limitations on charge volumes, some toxicity, flammability or higher working pressures. There is also no known non-flammable alternative for 410A, for example.

As a result, contractors need the right training and also must make sure they are using the appropriate recovery equipment to deal with flammable and toxic substances.

Sticking with the lowest-GWP refrigerants is still an option for now and R32 is being widely used in small ‘split’ air-conditioning systems. It is one of the components of R410A, but has a GWP of just 675 — approximately one third that of R410A — and has higher volumetric capacity, which means system charges can be reduced to further help meet tightening HFC quotas.

A new type of refrigerant is gaining traction — hydro fluoro olefins (HFOs) — which are thermally stable and have a very short atmospheric life. They are included in a new refrigerant classification A2L designating ‘mildly flammable’ gases and have been mandatory for all new cars since January. Traditional HFCs have been banned in cars for several years.

However, HFOs are not ‘drop-in’ replacements, so anyone designing a system today that might need to use traditional HFC gas should consider the cost implication of that system being ripped out and replaced with one specifically designed to operate with HFOs or another alternative in a few short years.

Air-conditioning and refrigeration manufacturers continue to issue strong safety warnings about the danger of using the wrong type of refrigerant in their equipment. They also point out that refrigerants are carefully selected as an integral part of the overall system design — taking into account safety, longevity of the equipment, energy efficiency, cost and environmental impact.

There have been several serious incidents where flammable gas was used to replace R22 in domestic air conditioners in the US and a number of other countries around the world. The issue of counterfeit gas is another alarming trend, which will become particularly lucrative for smugglers as HFCs become more expensive.

The UK’s long established registration scheme for handling refrigerants. Refcom, is monitoring this situation closely on behalf of the sector and, along with the professional body ACRIB, continues to focus on driving up professional standards. It has been a legal requirement since July 2009 for all businesses that install, maintain or service stationary equipment containing or designed to contain F gas refrigerants to obtain an F Gas company certificate.

Refcom is working with the Environment Agency to ensure the regulations are properly enforced and refrigerant reclamation carried out. The scheme now accounts for more than 80% of company certificates covering the UK refrigerant-handling market. This makes it a key component of the UK’s efforts to control emissions of greenhouse gases and tackle global warming, and it will be supporting ever-more strenuous efforts to maintain safety while the sector transitions to new gases.

Graeme Fox is senior mechanical engineer at the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA).

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