Sustainable Cooling: Strategies For Greener A/C Systems

Facility managers must be strategic about maintaining A/C systems to achieve sustainability and low emissions goals.

A/C Systems
(Photo: Adobe Stock/ Studio Harmony)

By Jordan Smith, globalFACT

Reducing the environmental impact of commercial air conditioning systems is increasingly important to comply with the F-gas, AIM, IRA, and Net-Zero Industry Act as countries strive to improve sustainability. Businesses can take steps to reduce their carbon footprint by improving their systems and making informed decisions. Here, we’ll explore six ways to achieve these goals, from refrigerant change-outs to passive cooling techniques.

Adopt a low-GWP HFC, HFO, or HFC/HFO blends

When the time is right, adopting low global warming potential (GWP) HFCs, HFOs, and blends not only allows businesses to reduce their carbon footprint and comply with environmental regulations but also improve their bottom line. Systems using these solutions offer exceptional thermodynamic performance resulting in improved energy efficiency and cost savings compared to so-called “natural” refrigerants. A switch to a low-GWP HFC, HFO, or HFC/HFO-based system can be scheduled at a convenient time and is completed quickly, with minimal business disruption.

Approach so-called “natural” refrigerants with caution

Carefully consider the downsides of refrigerants marketed as “natural,” such as CO2, ammonia, and hydrocarbons. While these materials may have lower GWP than other options, they often exhibit lower energy efficiency compared to low-GWP HFCs, HFOs, and blends, resulting in greater environmental impact. Each of these natural refrigerants has inherent flaws, such as high-pressure, flammability, and/or toxicity, which necessitated the development of fluorochemistry in the early 20th century. The industrial processes required to convert these so-called “natural” refrigerants into a usable form for refrigeration applications consume substantial amounts of energy and contribute to detrimental impacts.

Additionally, these options tend to be more complex and require more energy to achieve the same cooling effect, leading to higher energy bills and operating costs. For instance, CO2 systems experience significant performance drop-off during high-ambient operation when compared to conventional systems. Moreover, the installation and maintenance costs of these systems are higher due to the need for specialized equipment and expertise. It is essential to carefully weigh the potential benefits of using natural refrigerants against the associated costs before making a decision.

Conduct regular A/C system maintenance

Regular maintenance of commercial air conditioning systems is crucial. Proper maintenance can ensure the system is always operating in an optimized state and help prevent refrigerant leaks, which contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. If the system does not leak, there is no direct atmospheric impact. Conventional F-gas systems are easier to service, leading to a larger number of technicians trained in their maintenance compared to the specialized training required for complex CO2 systems. Regular system maintenance is essential for both efficiency and longevity and neglecting it can lead to increased energy consumption and repair costs.

A/C Systems
(Photo: Adobe Stock/ Jordan)

Use a smart thermostat

A smart thermostat controls temperature more precisely, which can improve energy efficiency and reduce emissions. Smart thermostats can also learn the building’s usage patterns and adjust temperatures accordingly, ensuring that energy is not wasted when the building is unoccupied. Additionally, many smart thermostats can be controlled remotely through a mobile app, allowing building managers to adjust the temperature and schedule changes even when they are not on site. This can help ensure that the building is comfortable for occupants while also minimizing energy consumption and reducing environmental impact.

Incorporate passive cooling techniques

Another way to reduce the environmental impact of mechanical cooling systems is by supplementing them with passive cooling techniques. Passive cooling uses alternative methods to regulate indoor temperatures, such as shading, cross-ventilation, and insulation. For example, a commercial building in a sunny location could install shading devices like awnings or use reflective coatings on roofs and walls to reduce heat absorption, which decreases the amount of energy needed to cool the building. With passive cooling, businesses can conserve energy and promote better air quality.
Dispose of equipment responsibly.

Proper disposal of a commercial A/C system at the end of life is necessary. When old units are not disposed of responsibly, refrigerant may be released into the atmosphere. To recycle an old unit, businesses should work with a mechanical contractor or contact a local recycling center that accepts appliances and schedule the safe removal of the unit, including recovery of the refrigerant by a certified technician before disposal. Proper disposal of air conditioning units and refrigerants reduces carbon footprint, promotes sustainability, and enables circularity by providing much-needed reclaimed refrigerant.

Taking proactive steps toward a greener future is both responsible and makes good business sense. Considering strategies such as a low-GWP HFC, HFO, or HFC/HFO-based systems can help to conserve energy, reduce carbon emissions, improve sustainability, lower operating costs, and even create a healthier work environment. As regulations continue to evolve and the focus on sustainability increases, businesses that adopt a low-GWP HFC, HFO, or blend will be better positioned for long-term success.

Smith has served as Executive Director of the Global Forum for Advanced Climate Technologies (globalFACT) since its inception in early 2018. He has over 20 years of experience providing public policy advice and representation on federal legislative and regulatory issues, with special emphasis on energy, environmental, natural resource, and healthcare matters. Mr. Smith’s experience includes developing and leading education and advocacy coalitions central to some of the most challenging public policy debates in the U.S. and across the globe.

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