Its Only Natural Or Is It?

Sept. 1, 2008
Mom used to say things like, s only natural that oil and water dont mix, or Common sense tells us that running with a Popsicle in your mouth isnt smart,

Mom used to say things like, “It’s only natural that oil and water don’t mix,” or “Common sense tells us that running with a Popsicle® in your mouth isn’t smart,” or “Everyone knows you can’t fight city hall.” Natural, common sense, common knowledge — all were innocuous phrases that Mom used to neatly sum things up and yet, to me, were vague at the same time.

I wonder what Mom would say about having ammonia in the house in the form of residential air conditioning. Trust me, it wouldn’t be, “oh well, it’s common in Europe.”

Yet today, the Europeans are strongly encouraging other countries to move more quickly toward the use of “natural” refrigerants. In Europe, the move has already been made and it’s really here in America and in other stubborn holdout nations, where we guffaw, and fight change, and hang onto the old, tried-and-true refrigerants that are actually safe to use, but could pose environmental challenges.

Shame on us.

In Europe, these natural refrigerants are hailed as the best environmental solutions to the purported climate crises and even the ozone dilemma. Yes, I’m talking about ammonia, as well as carbon dioxide (CO2), and other beauties like propane and butane.

Ammonia? Natural? Not the stuff that we use in commercial refrigeration warehouses here in the U.S. You can’t get anymore man-made than that. I read somewhere on the Internet that natural ammonia refrigeration takes place in something called the Natural Nitrogen Cycle, or in the form of human perspiration.

OK . . . but the stuff that’s used as refrigerant today isn’t found wild in nature. And by the way: it’s volatile and toxic if not used correctly.

Still, ammonia and the others are hailed as the “good guys,” unbeatable climate protectors. These refrigerants are being used in white goods worldwide and are being considered for use in residential and light commercial systems.

It’s common knowledge that if sealed in selfcontained systems, they work fine, thank you very much. But if used in residential or light commercial comfort system applications, I’m not so sure what happens when service and repair work needs to be done. But hey — that’s the contractor’s problem, right?

Hopefully you can tell that I’m being somewhat tongue-in-cheek here. In my opinion, whether a refrigerant is natural or man-made shouldn’t matter. It’s the resulting efficiency, safety, cost, and impact on the environment that should. But in typical fashion, fervent environmentalists tend to go overboard. I find it funny how many people are (to quote today’s vernacular) down with climate change and green with the need to LEED®, to the point where it’s sometimes hard to separate reality from fantasy.

The fact is, U.S. HVAC manufacturers, in conjunction with the Federal government, have been investigating the use of alternative refrigerants for years. From an economic, as well as a realistic standpoint, man-made refrigerants are currently more efficient and safer to use in residential/light commercial applications. It was common sense for us to turn toward chemicals like R-410A. As an industry, we’ve turned to it in a very big way.

However, even R-410A could find itself on the extinction list because of its high global warming potential. Will the government mandate its phase out before an economically viable alternative is universally available?

It’s possible. But let’s hope not.

I say, we keep the doors wide open and continue investigating ALL alternatives —including CO2, acoustic and magnetic refrigeration, thermoelectric and air-cycle refrigeration, and water vapor compression. Perhaps we can find ways to make evaporative cooling, absorption, and Stirling Cycle refrigeration affordable in residential and light commercial applications. Maybe there’s a better refrigerant yet to be discovered and made commercially viable.

But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we work and live based on our ability to condition our spaces and refrigerate our foods and medicines. You can’t fight city hall, but we can work toward finding the means to economically and environmentally refrigerate without throwing the baby out with the bath water (I had to toss that in — sorry). It’s only natural, isn’t it?