The R22 deadline approaches

While A-Gas is well equipped to reclaim refrigerants such as R22 at its premises near Bristol, it can only reclaim refrigerant that is actually returned — and a substantial shortage is expected.

With so much equipment using R22 still in service in the UK and the imminent deadline on the use of virgin R22 for servicing, the question of what to do next is thrown into sharp relief.

R22 is such a versatile refrigerant that no fewer than 11 ‘drop-in’ replacements are needed to cover its wide range of applications — from frozen storage, through chilled storage to air conditioning. That information comes from John Ormerod, commercial manger with A-Gas, an independent global supplier of refrigerants to refrigeration and air-conditioning markets.

That is just one reason why the ban on the use of virgin R22 in the EU from midnight on 31 December 2009 will pose major challenges to the RAC industry and its — largely unaware — clients. Not even virgin R22 already in the supply chain will be permitted to be used. An indication of the scale of the problem is that R22 is used in over 40% of air-conditioning and refrigeration equipment in use in the UK.

The reason for the ban is that HCFCs, such as R22, deplete the Earth’s ozone layer. Their ozone depletion potential is much lower than CFCs which are no longer used as refrigerants (0.05 in the case of R22)

Users hoping to source reclaimed and recycled R22 are likely to be disappointed. John Ormerod tells us that 2200 t of R22 was sold to the UK market in 2008, just to service leaks, but that only 210 t of R22 was reclaimed.

Sales of R22 to the UK market in 2009 are broadly similar to the previous year, with reclaimed product volumes up by 10%. Without the availability of virgin R22, market demands will surely not be met.

By the end of the year, very little virgin R22 is expected to be left in the supply chain. For its part, A-Gas will take back virgin R22 during the first three months of 2010 for free and send it to countries where its use is not banned.

Companies like A-Gas also have a key role to play in maximising the re-use of R22 that is already in the system, and the recent acquisition of Gasco’s refrigerant cylinder fleet in the UK will enhance that service. The first advice from managing director Ken Logan is to not to mix recovered R22 with other refrigerants but to put it into a separate recovery bottle.

Recovered R22 is a hazardous waste so it can only be reused on the same site or sent to licensed reclaimer — of which there are only three in the UK. Once contaminants such as acid, moisture, oil, non-condensibles and residues have been removed, the resultant reclaimed R22 is nearly as good as new.

It looks increasingly likely that the volumes of reclaimed R22 available will far short of potential demand demand. Planning for its phase-out is generally poor, notable exceptions being supermarket chains and the oil industry. Even then, R22 has a short time window — with a total ban on its use in the EU due by 2015, a date that may be brought forward.

The alternatives, suggests John Ormerod, are to replace existing equipment with systems that use refrigerants with no ozone-depletion potential or to retrofit with an non-ODP refrigerant.

He suggests that new equipment could use carbon dioxide, ammonia, hydrocarbons or HFCs.

Retrofitting options include the Isceon 9 series, RS range or other HFCs.

Although not every installation lends itself to retrofitting, there are plenty of examples of successful projects. One project that A-Gas was involved in was the replacement of R22 in two large water chillers with flooded evaporators. Each chiller had a cooling capacity of 2500 kW, and the best retrofit was RS45 since the client did not want to lose too much capacity. The chillers dated from 1974, and each required a tonne of refrigerant.

These chillers have 3.3 kV motors, not 440 V — so their replacement would also have necessitated the additional cost of a new transformer.

Following the successful retrofitting of RS45 into one chiller, the other was similarly treated — and not problems have been reported.

What is abundantly clear is that the demand for reclaimed R22 will far exceed the likely supplies and that retrofitting another refrigerant will not always be possible. That leaves replacing the equipment as the final option, and Ken Logan pragmatically observes that not only is air conditioning cheaper now than it was a years ago, but it is considerably more efficient.

Rather than being concerned about the immediate cost of replacing R22 systems, it could be better to look carefully at the medium- to long-term savings potential of new systems.

There has already been plenty of time. After all, Ken Logan asks, ‘What other industry gets 10 years’ warning of a substance being phased out?’

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