The elephant that is R22

Richard Cooper
Advice on the next stage of phasing out R22 — Richard Cooper.

Anyone with air-conditioning equipment more than about five years old could be in for a nasty shock after the end of this year. Richard Cooper explains why.

For anyone who has never heard the expression ‘an elephant in the room’ it refers to a massive issue that everyone is aware of — but no-one is talking about.

For all involved in the commercial built environment, the replacement of R22 refrigerant is just such an elephant. Whilst the subject is exercising air-conditioning and refrigeration companies, few beyond those sectors realise that they may well face serious problems with their equipment after the end of this year.

Air-conditioning equipment that is more than five years old will almost certainly be using R22. Properly maintained units can go on working for years, but owners may be shocked to find that they cannot get their systems fixed from January 2010 because R22 is not available.

This could leave buildings without heating and cooling, with hard-pressed companies facing the immediate cost of unscheduled replacement or having to buy high-priced reclaimed R22— if they can find it.

R22 has been identified as having ozone-depleting potential so the use of virgin R22 will be banned from January 2010. This means that any system will have to rely on reclaimed gas for routine maintenance or emergencies until its outright ban in 2015.

However, the latest information from the BRA (British Refrigeration Association) highlights how little R22 is being reclaimed and points to severe shortages come 2010. Most of the reclaimed R22 is also already spoken for by other industrial sectors, such as the petrochemical and refrigeration industries.

That’s why we at Mitsubishi Electric are on a mission to highlight the R22 problem so that we can allow building owners to start preparing now.

There are four basic choices, and owners need to be aware that reclaimed R22 is already increasing in price and may be in seriously short supply when needed.

This is where the first option of direct-replacement or ‘drop-in’ refrigerants may help. These have been developed to drop into an R22 system to keep the air conditioning going for the short term.

Elephant

However, each individual system is different, and it is impossible to tell whether this will work for yours, or how effective it will be until you get to the stage where you actually need to use it. Recent tests also indicate that direct-replacement refrigerants can hinder performance; in some cases they have even caused complete mechanical failure.

For cash rich companies, the second option offers a much better solution, especially if they can plan properly for the replacement of air conditioning and also make sure that they offset the expenditure against their annual tax bill under the Government’s Enhanced Capital Allowance (ECA) Scheme. I say much better because VRF air conditioning has come on in leaps and bounds in the last five years and seriously outperforms R22 systems in terms of efficiency, running cost and control, so it would certainly be worth starting the conversation on when to schedule replacement.

Although it will cost in the short term, the ECA scheme can help. You will also get reduced running costs of 50% or more and far greater control of your internal temperatures. Systems are available that heat and cool at the same time and also use excess heat to provide your building’s hot water. You may therefore find that you can remove that old boiler system at the same time.

Few businesses are likely to be able to plan for such capital expenditure in this current climate so the third option — replacement technology — could provide hope for many.

Replacement technology can allow you to keep all the existing pipework and even wiring to avoid disruption and downtime, whilst still benefiting from advanced technology. We have developed an audit tool that can help companies decide if such replacement is the right solution for their building.

With replacement, old indoor and outdoor units are replaced with modern R410A systems after the existing pipework has been specially cleaned and prepared. The work takes days rather than weeks and can avoid removing existing ceilings and minimise disruption.

This approach still allows companies to take advantage of the huge savings in running costs that modern systems can offer, whilst still qualifying for the ECA scheme.

As for a fourth option … well there really isn’t one because ignoring things and hoping the problem will not happen is simply not a sensible business solution.

Anyone planning to put their head in the sand and hope that their maintenance supplier can somehow find some reclaimed gas (from a reputable supplier) and has suitably qualified engineers on hand really could end up surrounded by elephant droppings!

Richard Cooper is a national marketing manager of Mitsubishi Electric, which is running a series of free seminars on R22 at its Hatfield headquarters. Visit the web site below to find out more and book your space.

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