Contractors have difficult choices ahead when it comes to advising their customers on what refrigerants to use, mostly because of the impending R-22 phasedown and phase-out, and the alternatives that are available. Earlier refrigerant phase-outs were all about the ozone layer, but the issue this time is the Global Warming Potential of refrigerants.
Contractors and wholesalers expressed their concerns about the phase-out during a recent refrigerant roundtable at the Mechanical Service Contractors of America convention.
Brian W. Glynn of Hughes Environmental Engineering, Montvale, NJ — CB’s 2010 Refrigeration Contractor of the Year — noted that refrigerant blends don’t work in flooded systems that require a single-component refrigerant.
Gary Parker, product manager for Refrigeration Supplies Distributor in Lake Forest, CA, pointed out the difficulty contractors face getting good advice. Equipment manufacturers won’t sanction alternative products, compressor manufacturers are motivated to sell new compressors, refrigerant manufacturers are more forthcoming than the others, but the coil manufacturers have no idea what some of these new products actually do when they travel through their coils. Contractors end up sometimes getting four different stories.
Changing refrigerants will be an enormous amount of work over the next decade. Dan Steffen, vice president for AAA Refrigeration Service, Bronx, NY — the Contracting Business.com 2008 Refrigeration Contractor of the Year — said each supermarket rack costs $25,000 to $30,000, and you have to identify every Schrader valve and O-ring for potential leaks. The work has to be done overnight at overtime rates. Additionally, supermarkets spend money on the things out front that customers see. Steffen said AAA has worked on racks that are 50-years-old.
The Europeans are ahead of us, especially in the field of natural refrigerants, and this will no doubt influence EPA rulemaking to some extent.
In the inaugural issue of Emerson Climate Technologies’ E360 Outlook, Emerson’s Director of CO2 Business Development, André Patenaude explained that, starting this coming January, Europe will begin phasing down high GWP refrigerants. There will be a service and maintenance ban on all HFC refrigerants exceeding 2,500 GWP as of January 2020. As a point of comparison, the GWP of R-22 is 1,810 and for R-134a it’s 1,430. R-404a, used in multiplex supermarket refrigeration systems, has a GWP of 3,922. The Europeans plan to drop the GWP limit to 150 for new commercial systems as of 2020. That leaves R-744 — CO2 — and propane and ammonia among the few refrigerants that will meet the standard. There’s also a new class of refrigerants, HFOs, or hydrofluoro-olefins.
An issue with CO2, said a refrigeration wholesaler in the MSCA session who requested anonymity, is that the systems he’s tested run at 200-PSI and they’re hot — great if you can recover the heat but they’d have to be water-cooled in southern climes.
Tecumseh Products Co. recommends HC refrigerant R-290 (propane) for self-contained commercial refrigeration equipment with capacities less than ½-HP, most of which are utilizing R134a today. Applications for R-290 include beverage coolers, reach-ins, vending equipment and, commercial refrigerators and freezers. (Read more about Tecumseh’s preferences on page 20 of this issue.)
But here’s the big question — how will these change-outs get done? Parker recommended that contractors look at the year 2020, and start working backwards. How many systems do your customers have that will need to be modified or replaced? Will they have the money set aside to do this? And, perhaps most importantly, will you have enough trained technicians to do this work?