Stephen Spletzer, senior technical sales engineer for Arkema, King of Prussia, PA, knows refrigerants. He also knows the history behind the current phaseout of the refrigerant R22, and what contractors’ transition options are when moving forward in a reduced R22 world.
Speaking at the Refrigeration Service Engineers Society Annual Conference in Tucson, AZ, Spletzer reviewed the recent history of refrigerant regulations, retrofit issues, the refrigerants available to HVACR contractors, and the impact of refrigerant selection on the operation of refrigeration and air conditioning systems.
Speltzer began his 90-minute presentation with a review of the recent history of the most notable international treaties aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It started with The Montreal Protocol of 1987 laid out the framework for phasing out CFC and HFFC refrigerants.
“R22 would still be here if not for the Montreal Protocol. It’s been hailed as a success, and a shining example of what companies can accomplish when they work together for a common goal,” Spletzer said.
Ten years later in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was enacted. It was also designed to address global warming, and had a large impact on global warming policy related to refrigerants. However, according to Spletzer, by not ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, the U.S. left the committed nations at a crossroads, as those commitments are soon to expire.
The answer was found in 2009, when The Copenhagen Accord was formed, as a new phase in addressing climate change. Leaders from 155 countries agreed to non-binding greenhouse gas reductions. The U.S committed to a non-binding, 17% reduction by 2020.
At the national level, Spletzer said, much activity has resulted from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Massachussetts v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). There, the high court ruled that greenhouse gasses were pollutants under the Clean Air Act, and that it would be up to the EPA to decide whether or not these gasses posed a threat to health and welfare of the U.S., or whether the science was inconclusive. As a result of that decision, the EPA issued two findings: the “endangerment finding,” and the “cause or contribute finding.”
Spletzer explained that the “endangerment finding” states that well-mixed concentrations of greenhouse gases are a threat to current and future generations, and must be regulated. These gases include methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), carbon dioxide(CO2), sulphur hexafluoride (SF6), perfluorocarbos (PFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).
The “cause or contribute” finding determined that mobile emissions sources, such as automobiles, are major contributors to pollution. And, while there was no legislative action combined with these findings, Spletzer said they provided the framework for what came next: the greenhouse gas reporting rule and the tailoring rule for stationary systems.
The greenhouse gas reporting rule states that suppliers of fossil fuels, industrial greenhouse gasses, manufacturers of automobiles and automobile engines and large emitters (25,000 metric tons of CO2 equipment and higher) must begin reporting where the source of those emissions. The first report is due in Spring of 2011. According to Spletzer, the report will hopefully provide the EPA a more precise idea of where emissions are coming from and help direct future regulation.
The tailoring rule (source EPA): On September 30, 2009, EPA announced a proposal that is focused on large facilities emitting over 25,000 tons of greenhouse gases a year. These facilities would be required to obtain permits that would demonstrate they are using the best practices and technologies to minimize GHG emissions.
R22 Phaseout Schedule
Spletzer reviewed the R22 phaseout schedule as it currently stands: as of January 1, 2011, HVACR manufacturers will no longer be permitted to produce new systems containing R22 refrigerant; and, the amount of R22 the industry can produce has been reduced by the EPA Allocation Rule. By 2015, hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) production must be reduced by at least 90%. It will remain at that level until 2020, when all R22 production must cease.
Shortages of virgin R22 may eventually occur, but at this time, Spletzer sees no cause for concern. “Based on the EPA’s estimates, the U.S. has less R22 allocated as a country to produce than the service demand requires. This gap will probably be in existence for several years to come. Some people warned that a very hot summer in2010 would cause shortages of R22. I didn’t see any shortages, and we had one of the hottest summers on record in 2010. Maybe it was due to the fact that the economy has been in the tank for the last two years, and people had purchased enough R22 prior to the economic downturn.
“The bottom line is, the supply will get tighter. Therefore, we need to see a significant increase in reclaim and recovery activity of R22 and other refrigerants, and we need to see an increase in R22 retrofit activity for systems where it makes sense,” Spletzer said. He also reminded contractors that this is a consumption ban, not a use ban.
“After 2020, you can still buy R22 to service systems as long as you can find it, just like you can still use R12 today,” he explained.
Spletzer explained three approaches to an effective R22 transition program:
1. Service as usual. Fix the leaks on systems, and just keep topping them off as necessary. For some systems, this makes the most sense, especially if your systems are tight, and if there are no good retrofit options. If this is your strategy, your first goal should be leak elimination, because as time goes by, those leaks will become more expensive.
2. The replacement option. To replace existing R22 equipment with HFC equipment. This is the least popular option because there’s a high up-front cost with this option. However, depending on the age of the equipment, and advances in energy efficiency, you might see a relatively short payback period.
3. Refrigerant recovery. Recovered R22 can be used in systems belonging to the same customer/owner. If you have a 100-store supermarket chain as a customer, and they decide to replace the equipment in one store, you can use the R22 reclaimed from that store for another system in another store.
Spletzer explained that a replacement product is a product intended for newly-designed systems. “For example, we phased out R12 in cars, and automotive air conditioning systems were redesigned for [the replacement product] R134.”
A retrofit refrigerant is used for servicing existing systems when the original refrigerant is no longer available or affordable. Using a retrofit could reuire the contractor to change out hoses, oil, line sets, TXVs, and other components. Typically, replacement refrigerants that have similar properties to the original product can also be used to retrofit those systems, such as R134A in automobiles.
Spletzer clarified the meaning of ‘retrofit.’ “When I say ‘a retrofit,’ I mean that the system integrity essentially remains whole. I don’t mean that you tear out every part of the system but the compressor, replace it, and put in a new refrigerant. System integrity remains intact,” Spletzer explained.
Replacements for R22
Spletzer reviewed the most popular refrigerants now used as R22 replacements.
1. For air conditioning in large chiller type systems: R134A is the most popular replacement.
2. For smaller, light commercial and residential systems, R410A is the dominant replacement, and you also see some R407C (used mostly in imported equipment from Asia).
3. In commercial refrigeration: most have been redesigned for R404A or R507A. Both are very similar. “We estimate about 80% of that market has gone to R404A, and 20% to R507A,” Spletzer said.
4. In recent years R407A has emerged for use in the commercial refrigeration market. R407A was originally designed as an R502 retrofit/replacement during the CFC phaseout. According to Spletzer, R407A didn’t fare very well, because there were refrigerants that better matched the properties of R502 that weren’t CFCs and didn’t require an oil change. That viewpoint has now changed.
“R407A has come to be viewed as a better match to R22 in refrigeration, because its global warming potential (2107) is almost half that of R404A or R507A (3985),” Spletzer revealed.
Spletzer acknowledged that there are refrigerant, equipment, and labor costs involved in retrofitting equipment. “None of the retrofit refrigerants work as well as, or are as efficient as, R22,” he said. “But this doesn’t mean you can’t see superior performance after a retrofit. You can, but that typically results from either a very specific application, from the use of new technology, or from optimizing the system during the retrofit.
“Additionally, none of the retrofits are ‘drop-ins,’ and none of them are miscible with mineral oil or alphabenzene. “Finally, there’s no single product out there that will work in every type of R22 system. If you service a wide variety of R22 equipment, you’re going to need more than one solution in your arsenal,” he said.