Monday July 7, 2014
The first of a two-part article discusses the R22 phaseout in the U.S. and how the industry in Europe is handling the conclusion to their R22 phaseout process.
Images courtesy of Star Refrigeration/Azane.
This article, the first of two on refrigerant phaseout, reviews the timetable for the R22 phaseout and the likely implications for the industry. As the phaseout of R22 in the U.S. begins to take effect, owners and operators are faced with a difficult question: what is next after R22? Also addressed here is how the experience of the refrigeration industry in Europe can be used as a reference to provide guidance through the maze of refrigerant phaseout options.
Packaged ammonia chiller Packaged ammonia condensing unit
R22 is an excellent refrigerant. Its use in the residential, commercial and industrial sectors has been unrivaled for decades and millions of tons have been produced and used every year. R22 is employed in a wide range of cooling applications from condensing units to large distributed systems with central machinery rooms.
However, R22 is an ozone-depleting substance that is now being phased out under the Montreal Protocol. The Montreal Protocol was signed in 1987 after the discovery that a number of manmade gases were contributing to the destruction of the ozone layer. R22 is a hydrocholofluorocarbon (HCFC), and the chlorine in this compound can cause damage to the ozone layer.
Under the Montreal Protocol, the use of R22 in new equipment has been banned in most countries, including the U.S., since 2010. In Europe, local regulations were used to accelerate the phaseout such that R22 has not been permitted in new installations since 2002. The European R22 phaseout process will come to a conclusion at the end of 2014, and as of Jan. 1, 2015, it will not longer be possible to service R22 systems, even using reclaimed or recycled refrigerant. This difference in phaseout timetables means that many lessons have been learned in Europe, and other regions can benefit from the experience gained.
This graph shows the allocation estimates from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the continuing R22 phaseout.
The industry is entering uncharted territory in the United States. The EPA's phaseout timetable for R22 means that the amount of R-22 produced is being gradually decreased until a complete ban on production comes into force in 2020. The result of this phaseout will be a steady—and very noticeable—reduction in the availability of R22. The effects are already being seen. The year 2013 saw R22 hit record prices, and the continuing reduction in availability will lead to prices increasing even further. As the amount of new refrigerant entering the market decreases, suppliers will look to reclaim and recycle used refrigerant. However, demand is already outstripping supply.
The cost of R22 will continue to rise and this will lead to some existing R22 systems becoming uneconomical long before the substance is banned altogether. For systems of all sizes, it may soon be more economical to replace a complete system rather than face the ongoing cost of recharging due to leakage. Some end users will attempt to avoid the effects of the ban by building a stock of R22. However, this is a high-risk strategy since one large leak could lead to the loss of their entire stockpile. There is also the risk that legislation could come into force against such practices. For the vast majority of refrigeration plants, the double threat of uncertain availability and increasing refrigerant prices is leading to consideration of other available options.
The good news is that there are plenty of options available to allow for a smooth transition away from R22. For smaller systems in residential and commercial applications, it may often be sensible to simply replace the entire system. For larger condensing units and distributed systems, a wide range of drop-in refrigerant options are available, typically consisting of blends of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). These have been developed to operate at similar pressures to R22 at specific operating conditions, thereby requiring minimal modifications to the existing system. Alongside these are the existing HFC refrigerants such as R-404A and R-507 which can also be retrofitted in R22 systems, though this might require significant changes to the system design to provide the same cooling performance.
The problem with many of these drop-in replacements is that HFCs are greenhouse gases, which have an uncertain future due to their contribution to global warming. The U.S. government has highlighted that a reduction in HFC consumption is one of the key targets in their plans to address climate change. While a firm timetable is yet to be published, it is only a matter of time before restriction on the use of HFCs come into place.
The European Parliament has already voted on a timetable for the phaseout of HFC refrigerants. Bans on placing new equipment onto the market are due to take effect shortly and will result in a complete ban on new equipment by 2022. This is a clear message that Europe is moving away from man-made refrigerants altogether and toward natural, environmentally friendly alternatives, such as ammonia, hydrocarbons or carbon dioxide.
This may be possible with modifications to an existing system, but in many cases, it can be more cost effective to install a new plant. Recent advances in technology mean that these natural refrigerants are available in a wider range of applications than ever before.
- Plug-in hydrocarbon units for supermarkets have gained a significant share of the market in Europe and there are estimated to be around 500,000 such units in use today.
- In addition, there are estimated to be around 2.7 million "HFC-free" ice-cream freezers and bottle coolers in use right now. The success of this technology has been boosted by a commitment from a number of global companies to move away from systems using HFCs. These systems are using hydrocarbons, such as propane or carbon dioxide.
- In Europe and Japan, thousands of carbon-dioxide based refrigeration systems, both cascade and transcritical, have been installed in supermarkets over the past few years and this trend is also set to continue. A number of large U.S. supermarket chains are beginning to follow suit.
- In the case of ammonia, new heat-exchanger technology means that low-charge ammonia condensing units have been developed as like-for-like replacements for R22 condensing units in medium-sized applications. This type of system has been in use in Europe for more than 20 years and the technology is now available in the U.S.
End users are now faced with a choice: they can opt to move away from R22 as soon as possible so that their business has the maximum amount of time to adjust to the new technology, or they can conserve cash by delaying the change but run the risk that the overstretched engineering resource will not be able to meet their urgent demands when action is ultimately required. In Europe, both courses of action have been followed. Those who opted for change either updated the refrigerant in their equipment to an HFC or replaced the equipment with a natural refrigerant alternative.
Those who have delayed updating are finding that they do not have sufficient time to design, install and commission systems quickly enough as the supply of R22 dries up. Some facilities were forced to make rapid conversions to HFC blends. While a conversion to an HFC may make sense in some cases, it is not the right solution for everyone.
For the refrigeration industry in the U.S., there is one clear message for owners and operators of R22 equipment. Phaseout is a reality. It is happening today and needs to be on your agenda. Experience in Europe has shown that businesses that have addressed this issue of phaseout early have benefitted in the long term. A plan should be developed to look at alternatives to R22 and assess the business impacts in terms of cost and business continuity.
Businesses who have switched to natural refrigerants have avoided the double step of moving to HFCs and then having to switch again at a later date. They have also reaped the added benefit of the improved reliability and efficiency of natural refrigerant systems.
At first glance, the array of available options might suggest that the transition from R22 to an alternative fluid is going to be easy. However, when you get into the details some challenges appear. Plant condition, refrigerant glide, material compatibility, oil, cooling capacity, power, leakage, system pressure and system downtime are just a few of the issues to look into when assessing whether to change refrigerants or install a new system.
Part 2 of this article, "R22 Phaseout: What You Need to Do," will review in more detail the various options available after R22, and will set out some key considerations to help you plan for the future.