The HVAC Factor: HCFC Phase Outs On The Way

Colleen Hughes

By Colleen Hughes
Originally Published in the February 2009 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

In 1996, in an effort to phase out substances believed to contribute to the depletion of the earth’s ozone layer, the manufacture of products containing chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in developed countries was no longer allowed. This group of products included refrigerants used in comfort cooling and refrigeration equipment in buildings. The transition in 1996 was relatively smooth, largely due to the fact that a gradual phase out schedule enabled manufacturers, service providers, and end users to prepare for the change.

Today, the United States is preparing for the phase out of another substance deemed harmful to the ozone—hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) refrigerants. As of January 1, 2010, this type of refrigerant will no longer be allowed to be manufactured in, or imported to, the U.S. for use in new equipment manufactured after December 31, 2009. As with the CFC phase out, this will affect the use of refrigerants for comfort cooling and refrigeration systems. Among these substances is HCFC-22 (also known as R-22), a commonly used refrigerant.

As a result of the phase outs, new equipment has been designed for the next generation of refrigerants—hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), this class of refrigerants does not contain chlorine or bromine, which means it does not deplete the ozone layer. Equipment that uses HFC refrigerants will be the primary choice for those making HVAC purchases after 2010.

Chart: DuPont Refrigerants

However, this does not mean the existing equipment in facilities across the country will be rendered obsolete on January 1, 2010. The HCFC refrigerants themselves will still be permitted for servicing purposes. HCFC refrigerants manufactured as of January 1, 2010 and the supply already in the market has the potential to meet those needs. However, the amount available depends heavily on the effectiveness of recovery and reclamation practices carried out by end users and their vendors. While the reuse of these substances is not a new concept, the phase out has made end of life procedures even more important.

What Facility Managers Need To Know

Officials from the EPA and the air conditioning and commercial refrigeration industry agree there will be an R-22 shortfall following significant cuts in production that will occur in 2010 and again in 2015. This is likely to cause the cost of R-22 to escalate.

“We want to debunk the myth that there will be plenty of newly manufactured R-22 available for servicing,” says Jim Bachman, a national sales and marketing manager for DuPont Refrigerants. “This misinformation could cause facility managers [fms] to feel there is no urgency to this matter, which might result in them missing the opportunity to manage their HCFC refrigerants wisely.”

Fms should communicate with their building services providers to ensure these providers have an appropriate plan in place to cope with the refrigerant phase out. It may be time now for facilities to begin looking at replacement options and prepare for the eventual complete phase out of HCFCs. The two main choices most fms have are to plan to replace the equipment or retrofit with an alternative refrigerant that does the same job.

“Most important, planning now before we’re facing a shortfall will help fms turn the phase out into an asset rather than a liability,” says Bachman.

Banking Refrigerant
It is important to know that refrigerants can be removed from equipment and “reclaimed” for future use. A reclaimed refrigerant means it has been processed to remove the impurities existing in the dirty refrigerant that has been recovered from equipment.

The EPA requires recovered refrigerants to be handled by an EPA-certified reclaimer before they can be resold. The key is that EPA-certified reclaimers verify the purity of the reclaimed refrigerant by testing it according to the ARI 700 Standard for Refrigerant Purity. Fms can be assured that refrigerants meeting ARI 700 purity standards will not impede the efficient operation of their equipment. Companies that process refrigerant to ARI 700 specifications must be certified by the EPA. (EPA’s list of such reclaimers is available on its Web site—slated to be launched in March 2009.)

As refrigerant prices rise, reclaiming refrigerants will become more financially attractive. This likely will result in reclaimers offering incentives for recovered refrigerant. This should prompt fms and their contractors to handle their used R-22 more carefully, such as monitoring for, and quickly stopping, leaks and instituting other responsible use measures.

Understanding that R-22 will be scarce and more valuable in the near future, fms also may want to manage their existing refrigerant supplies as an asset and consider banking reclaimed refrigerant for continued use in their facilities. Banking refrigerant is similar to banking money; the recovered refrigerant can be returned or “deposited” with an EPA certified reclaimer who offers a banking program in which the reclaimer reprocesses the recovered refrigerant to meet ARI 700 specifications and stores it until the depositing facility requests a withdrawal.

“Banking will definitely stretch the availability of R-22,” says Maureen Beatty, vice president of operations at National Refrigerants, Inc., a Philadelphia, PA-based member of AHRI’s Chemicals and Refrigerant Reclaimers section. “Our company has noted increased interest from contractors and equipment owners around the country in banking their reclaimed refrigerants.”

As the market transitions from HCFC refrigerants to HFC and other versions, fms can stay on track with supply and demand for this aspect of HVAC operations. Knowing their options and preparing now will aid in a smooth transition.

Hughes is director of communications at the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI). As a trade association representing manufacturers of air conditioning, heating, and commercial refrigeration equipment, AHRI is an internationally recognized advocate for the industry, developing standards for and certifying the performance of many of these products. AHRI and its members have launched a new campaign with a Web site designed to help educate fms, contractors, technicians, and equipment owners about what this means for them. Fms can also download a sample refrigerant management plan from the Web site to help them comply with the latest rules and regulations.