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Ammonia: the green cooling alternative

Author : Malcolm Coates is safety and environmental manager for J & E Hall

11 May 2018

Cooling in commercial buildings faces new challenges. Changes to the law mean that where refrigeration and air conditioning is employed high global warming potential refrigerants are being phased out.

The pressure is on premises and facilities managers to find new ways of keeping interiors, equipment and products cool.

The move from high GWP gases in refrigeration and air conditioning systems is well under way. The EU’s F-Gas emissions will be cut by two-thirds by 2030 – compared with 2014 levels.

A reminder of the consequences of ignoring the F-Gas Regulations has been issued by the Government. From April 1, those who breach the F-Gas Regulations in England and Scotland can face fines of up to £200,000.

The onus is on the refrigeration and maintenance industry to rise to the challenge as it looks to reduce our reliance on the gases that harm the planet. Ammonia is a versatile, effective and efficient natural refrigerant.

The F-Gas Regulations’ stepdowns now make it the refrigerant of choice for many installers and end-users. Ammonia is a green alternative to more commonly-used industrial refrigerants and there are excellent reasons for choosing it for an application.

Primarily, it is a natural refrigerant, which does not deplete the ozone layer and has excellent thermodynamic qualities which give it a wide temperature range.

Like any refrigerant, ammonia has to be treated with respect but it has a fine safety record and is used in many applications in the food processing and drinks industry.

New technologies are extending its range of admirers and it has been employed successfully in large cold stores where the scale and range of cooling can be enormous.

Ammonia has been around since the beginning of time and I have every confidence that it has hundreds of years of use to come in refrigeration. The benefits are many. With zero ozone depletion and zero global warming potential it is a future-proof alternative to high GWP HFC refrigerants which are being phased out under the F-Gas stepdowns.

Many of these older style refrigerants are still in use in the industrial and commercial sectors. Ammonia has fantastic thermodynamic properties, is widely available and can be employed at very low temperatures – as low as -40°C in some instances.

It is cheap to buy and use which means it can make a significant impact on energy bills.

Importantly, ammonia – even in small quantities – has a recognisable odour which can be viewed as its greatest single safety asset. With systems now capable of running on only a few kilograms of ammonia, the potential for leaks can be controlled easily.

As with any refrigerant it’s all a matter of understanding that risk. Refrigerants are not bad in themselves – its how you handle them.

Before any work takes place we visit the site, speak to the managers, operators and maintenance engineers, and from these discussions complete a full risk assessment for the customer.

This gives them a true picture of what to do to keep the site running efficiently and how to react in an emergency.

We also offer training where we sit down with managers and staff to explain what happens on site – this includes every aspect of the system – to ensure that they understand fully what’s involved in working with ammonia.

With the F-Gas stepdowns now firmly in place and supplies of virgin HFC gases, particularly those with high GWP ratings, in short supply, it’s a good time to consider switching to a green alternative like ammonia.

It’s efficiencies and environmental properties make it a superb choice but the key to success is to ensure that the system is installed and designed correctly and that the people using it are well trained and fully up to speed with all that’s needed safety wise.

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