Changing landscape of refrigerants: what contractors need to know

Dec. 9, 2016
When it comes to understanding the refrigerant landscape contractors should understand the following: HCFCs are phased out on Jan. 1, 2020. No amount of ozone depletion potential (ODP) is okay for the environment. Europe has not banned R134a for chillers. R1233zd is available today and should be used instead of R123 in low pressure machines. Lower GWP may come with trade-offs.  
Image: iStock/ThinkStock.

Global commitment to a healthy, sustainable environment is changing the landscape of the industry. Navigating this change has become convoluted due to regulation changes, media scrutiny and competitive forces contributing to a complex and often misleading message on what is fact and what is myth related to HVAC refrigerant use in the United States and abroad. 

Building operators want to know that the HVAC investments they make today will still be the right investment in 20 to 30 years. Contractors are in the best position to advise them with fact-based discussions about refrigerant requirements and guide these long term investments in the right direction.

Contractors should gain understanding around how HVAC manufacturers they specify are addressing regulation changes, so they can answer related questions from their customers. Fluency in this landscape has long term business benefits for contractors and will help improve existing relationships as well.

When it comes to understanding the refrigerant landscape contractors should understand the following:

HCFCs are phased out on Jan. 1, 2020: HCFCs are approaching end of life: Jan. 1, 2020, is the deadline for phase-out of R123 in new equipment and 2030 for service. Alternatively, R134a can be used in new chillers until Jan. 1, 2024, in the United States and used for servicing existing equipment for many years after that; there is no defined service end-date for R134a.

Contractors should remind customers not to use HCFCs at all. There are better HFO and HFC alternatives available today that will continue to be available in the future.

No amount of ozone depletion potential (ODP) is okay for the environment: Stratospheric ozone protects us from ultraviolet rays and the ozone is depleted by chlorine-containing compounds that reach the upper atmosphere. CFCs and HCFCs contain chlorine, which has ODP and the Montreal Protocol requires that all refrigerants with ODP be phased out of new HVAC equipment by Jan. 1, 2020.

Next generation refrigerants will require essentially zero ODP and low global warming potential.

Europe has not banned R134a for chillers: Europe has banned certain HFCs in highly emissive applications, like automobiles, where mobility makes cooling systems more susceptible to leaks. However, there is no restriction for chiller applications on HFCs with global warming potential less than 2500 including R410A and R134a.

Regulatory activity is underway, but HFCs currently remain the right choice for HVAC equipment: Two significant regulatory actions recently occurred. In September 2016, the EPA announced specific refrigerants including R134a and R410A can no longer be used in new chillers, effective on Jan. 1, 2024. Existing chillers can continue to use these refrigerants after January 2024 to service equipment.

In October 2016, 170 countries including the United States agreed to amend the Montreal Protocol to phase down HFCs to about 10 percent of current levels, by 2036. Given the transition to the new administration, it is unclear whether the United States will adopt the amendment.

With the uncertainty over regulation today, contractors have an opportunity to clarify what this means for their customers:

  1. R410A and R134a can be used in new equipment until Jan. 1, 2024. R134a and R410A will be available after 2024 to service existing equipment and in refrigerant blends including R513A, R513B and R450A, all of which are about 40 percent R134a.
  2. The gradual phasedown allows time for regulatory approval of new alternatives and continued use of A1 refrigerants R134a and R410A.

R1233zd is available today and should be used instead of R123 in low pressure machines: If considering a low pressure machine, R1233zd is the only low GWP “A1” refrigerant choice available today. Equipment must be designed to use R1233zd from the start; it is not a retrofit for R123: R1233zd operates at higher pressures and different volumetric capacity than R123 and will require ASME code construction of the heat exchangers.

Even the identified retrofit alternative for R123, R514A, requires equipment changes to operate. And R514A, according to ASHRAE standards, is designated with the higher toxicity of “B” and will reduce the capacity and efficiency of an existing R123 machine.

Lower GWP may come with trade-offs: Many lower GWP refrigerants have lower efficiency than the refrigerants we use today. For chillers, the majority impact on climate change comes from generating electricity to run equipment, versus refrigerant emissions. Containment is critical as well: if they are not released into the atmosphere, refrigerants have no direct impact on global warming.

A better indicator of the global warming impact is “total equivalent warming impact” (TEWI), which measures direct and indirect emissions of greenhouses gases.

The bottom line: It’s important that contractors advise their partners to use R134a and R410A for the next five years because they are available, they are safe, and most of all, they are efficient.

HVAC manufacturers have an opportunity to lead the way in establishing rigorous and responsible measures to contribute to the fight against climate change. Contractors and other providers and advisors connected to HVAC industry bear responsibility for championing accurate dialogue related to the state of refrigerants.

William (Bill) Dietrich is product general manager, chillers at Daikin Applied. He is heavily involved in Daikin Applied’s ongoing work with regulatory groups related to changes in refrigerant requirements that impact HVAC manufacturers. He is an active member of AHRI and ASHRAE, and has earned an AHRAE Distinguished Service Award. 

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