Spurred by the Montreal Protocol, the 1987 international treaty focused on curbing greenhouse gas emissions, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created a schedule to phase out substances believed to contribute to the depletion of the earth’s ozone layer.
A major milestone in that process occurred at the start of 1996 when 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. (To date, there are limited quantities of reclaimed CFC refrigerants remaining in the market.)
Today, the U.S. 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 United States for use in new equipment. 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 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.
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, 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.
And even in a climate of effective recovery and reclamation, there may be a challenge in having enough HCFC supply to meet the needs of existing equipment. This is because between 2010 and 2020 the amount of HCFCs being manufactured will decrease gradually, according to limits decreed by the EPA.
To address the inevitable reduction in HCFC availability, manufacturers have been charting a course for a sustainable plan. As a result, a number of companies now offer refrigerants that can be used as alternatives to HCFC in existing equipment.
Karim Amrane, director of regulatory and public policy at the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute in Arlington, VA, expects a smooth transition. “The industry will be ready for the phase out insofar as equipment will be available with alternative refrigerants starting on January 1, 2010,” Amrane says. “In fact, there is some equipment already available today.”
The use of alternative HFC refrigerants in equipment designed for HCFCs can involve varying levels of cost and effort. For instance, some alternatives require modifications to existing equipment. Others may only involve a change in maintenance practices. For example, not all HFCs are compatible with cooling equipment that uses mineral oil in its operation; however, those HFCs that are compatible enable operators to continue using the equipment without major modifications. In addition to speaking with vendors, facility managers can learn more by accessing the list of EPA-approved refrigerants from the agency.
Another milestone in the HCFC phase out schedule will occur at the start of 2020, when most HCFCs will no longer be permitted to be manufactured at all. The only supplies available will be what already exists in the marketplace. The practices that end users and suppliers adopt in the meantime will affect the levels of existing supplies.
Through simulated modeling on the refrigerant market during the 10-year period between 2010 and 2020, the EPA predicts there may be a shortage of HCFC refrigerants around 2015. Amrane says, “With the production caps on HCFCs in place, the EPA has asserted that without an extensive reclamation process in place, there may be a shortage at some point. So 2015 might be tight. We are watching this so the industry can respond accordingly.”
Kevin O’Shea, marketing manager, North America at DuPont Refrigerants in Wilmington, DE, notes that a significant decrease in the HCFC consumption (production plus imports less exports) cap in 2015 may foster a potential shortage. “At that time, the cap will drop from 35% to only 10% of the original HCFC cap. That indicates the potential for a pinch point in the supply, since DuPont estimates current aftermarket demand at approximately 20% of the original cap. Unless there is strong movement in refrigerant management planning, such as moving to alternatives and tightening service practices, there could be a tight supply.”
Facility managers who are planning to purchase cooling and refrigeration equipment before 2010 can consider the long-term investment within the framework of the phase out schedule.
“There is already equipment available on the market specifically for use with HFCs,” says Amrane. “For the facility manager who is thinking of replacing equipment, as we get closer to 2010, it is a good time to look at these options.”
Information for this article was provided through interviews with Armane and O’Shea. Alternative refrigerants approved by the EPA can be found at www.epa.gov/ozone/snap/index.html.