Refrigerant Poker: When to Hold 'em, When to Fold 'em

Many contractors and supermarket decision-makers have not taken a single step towards implementing R-22 alternatives.

As the days fly by, the time for implementing a gradual and organized HCFC refrigerant replacement strategy is also slipping away.

Come January 2020,  R-22 and R-142b refrigerants will only be available from their stockpiles or from domestic suppliers who reclaim R-22. Either choice will be helpful in maintaining R-22 systems that are still kicking.

Jay Kestenbaum, senior vice president of sales and purchasing, ASPEN Refrigerants, contacted CB shortly after seeing an earlier version of this article, to report that R-22 prices have not continued to rise, but have in fact dropped since this time last year.

"R-22 is priced now in a range that will allow business customers and homeowners to choose to maintain their R-22 systems until they have achieved their full lifespan value from those systems," Kestenbaum says.

With one more year of new R-22 production to come, Kestenbaum says 4 million pounds of R-22 will come into the U.S. market next year. Each year, he says, the refrigerant industry has reclaimed approximately 9 million pounds of R-22.

The phaseout of various refrigerants were once again a hot topic during our 2017 Refrigeration Roundtable, our annual idea-sharing meeting of refrigeration contractors and supermarket executives.

Our discussion of refrigerant replacement options began with the grim realization that many contractors and supermarket decision-makers have not taken a single step towards implementing R-22 alternatives. In some cases, entire supermarket chains are dragging their feet, due to the perceived cost and hassle of change-outs. They either don’t realize the chaos they are setting themselves up for, or as discussion moderator Keilly Witman — president, KW Refrigerant Management Strategy — suggested, they believe that a “silver bullet” refrigerant solution will soon appear to solve their problems. KW Refrigerant Management Strategy is a consulting firm specializing in refrigerant management strategy for the supermarket industry. 

Given all of this procrastination, our Refrigeration Roundtable discussion moderator Keilly Witman, president, KW Refrigerant Management Strategy, asked the panel if there is a general feeling among servicing contractors that some kind of ‘silver bullet’ refrigerant solution will someday appear, which will make their ultimate refrigerant decisions that much easier.

"We don't have a crystal ball that sees into the future, so you have to make the best choices you can today,” said Bryan Beitler, vice president/chief engineer, Source Refrigeration & HVAC, Anaheim, Calif. “It seems that advising contractors to find the lowest global warming alternative is about the best we can offer," he said. "No single individual can predict the future, but we're doing the best we can today.”

THE REFRIGERATION ROUNDTABLE WAS SPONSORED BY

 

 

 

“For existing stores, your options are going to be pretty limited," said Ken Welter, P.E., manager of refrigeration and design for Baltic Trail Facilities Management, LLC, because of the existing store infrastructures. "If the store has an R-22 system, your expansion valves and pipe sizes are all there to accommodate that gas, so I couldn't use R-513 or an R-134 equivalent. You can't use that gas because the pipe sizes aren't right for it, the compressors aren't right for it. You're looking at using an R-407-type gas versus an HFO blend. I don't know that there's another practical option out there for an HCFC retrofit."

Welter shared that Baltic Trail is in the enviable position of having plenty of R-22 for future service needs, thanks to advanced planning.

"We've been retrofitting R-22 stores for better than 10 years, and we're basically at the point where we're self-sufficient in our own refrigerant needs," Welter said. "So, as we continue with retrofit programs, we'll be able to supply that maintenance gas out of our own bank. For most that are moving away from R-22, their decision is going to be R-407, R-448 or R-449."

"From my perspective, both for an environmental reason and an energy/cost reason, going to a lower, legitimate  GWP refrigerant is the right choice. In any event, the decision is really between those gases; you don't have a lot of options.

“New construction is a different story. Whether using natural refrigerants or low GWP full-blend types of refrigerant, in cascade, transcritical, or distributed self-contained type equipment. There are many options. The bigger decisions are being made in new construction," Welter said.

Solutions are to be applied according to the store layout and existing systems, which is something anxious customers must understand and accept, added Bill Almquist, president, Almcoe Refrigeration, Dallas, Tex.

Energy Saving Practices

Moderator Keilly Witman asked panelists to name some simpler practices they find to be helpful in saving energy. Panelist Pete Marotta, director, refrigeration and sustainable store planning, Grocery Outlet, Oakland, Calif. called such simple practices the “low-hanging fruit.”

Marotta said case cleaning is an often-ignored practice that would help improve system efficiency. “It’s the simplest low-hanging fruit that you could find to make that system, even an older, legacy system, more efficient.”

Bill Almquist recommended persistent, daily refrigerant leak detection by every technician, in every store they visit.

“Technicians shouldn’t go into a store without a leak detector. Just walking by a case you’re going to find something that may have escaped detection until you put 300 pounds of refrigerant into the system. That’s a good example of a very simple step: just equip the technician with a leak detector. They shouldn't go to a store without it, because they’ll find problems that they would have walked by otherwise.”

Almquist shared that Almcoe had provided the maintenance director of a regional supermarket chain with leak detectors for all of the chain’s store managers, along with the necessary instructions on how to use them. It worked.

“We have averted a lot of leaks [at that chain], a lot of what could have been catastrophic leaks,” he said.

Almquist added that adding new and better technology to the technician’s tool belt can be a significant challenge, due to the pressure contractors are under to offer a low service prices. For many contractors, their qualification test is, their hourly rate and refrigerant price.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this online story failed to mention that after 2020, reclaimed R-22 would be available from reclaimers.

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