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Cold Wind of Change

02 July 2010

The R22 changeover could affect your business unless you plan for its implications. Mike Turton explains the options currently available and likely trends in the years to come

IF YOU ARE A FACILITIES MANAGER responsible for refrigeration and air  conditioning equipment, you could be forgiven if you’re feeling a bit confused right now. Since the ban on using virgin R22 material came into force at the beginning of 2010, there are continuing problems about using this refrigerant including lack of availability, rocketing prices of recycled material, suitable drop-ins, costs of new systems, etc.
One thing that everybody agrees on is that doing nothing is the last thing you should do. R22 is an ozone-depleting HCFC refrigerant and as such is harmful to the environment. European legislation banned its use in new RAC systems and chillers from 2004. From 1 January 2010, the use of virgin R22 material has been withdrawn across Europe. Only recycled material is now available. This is a diminishing resource and demand is outstripping supply. Companies have started to stock pile material against future needs increasing costs substantially.
From 31st December 2014, all remaining recycled R22 material must be withdrawn from the market and it will be illegal to service a system containing this refrigerant once the total ban comes into force. So, with the clock ticking, what do you do first to address the problem? Simple – make a plan.
Make a plan
It is quite possible that your RAC systems are running efficiently and the last thing you want is the cost and disruption of making changes. That’s fine, but if you start planning for the inevitable now, you could save a lot of time – and money, later on.
1 Review and access: Start by reviewing all your RAC systems containing HCFC’s and then assess the risk they pose to your business, i.e. what would be the consequence
to your business if an RAC system was shut down due to nonavailability of R22?
2 Create a phase – out strategy: You have three options; ‘replace’; ‘convert’; or ‘leave as it is’. Having assessed each plant’s viability against operational criteria; (system type; age; condition; material availability and energy efficiency) prioritise equipment posing the greatest risk to your business.
3 Plan and budget for action: It’s unlikely that you will be able to implement all the ‘phase out’ actions in one go. However, you can now budget and plan for its implementation over a time scale that suits your commercial and operational resources.
4 Implementation: Implement the plan, monitoring progress and performance on a regular basis.
It is quite likely that many systems using HCFC refrigerants will continue in operation right up until the total ban on R22 comes into force in 2015. Since only reclaimed or recycled material is now available, users must manage their own stocks of recycled R22 or obtain supplies of reclaimed material. Strict operational requirements are now in force regarding recovery and storage of HCFC’s. The obligations for anyone handling or operating systems containing the refrigerant are now similar to F gas regulation, i.e regular leak testing; immediate repair by qualified contractors; detailed record keeping.
The options
Having accessed all systems using R22 refrigerants, it is inevitable that they will fall into
one of the following phase out categories:
● Replace R22: Older systems in poor condition, inefficient or not achieving target cooling load should be replaced with new systems that use a non-ozone depleting refrigerant such as HFC’s like R410a or ‘natural’ refrigerants. The latest RAC systems are much more energy efficient than comparable systems of just a few years ago. In many cases, energy usage can be reduced by up to 50 percent (using the latest high efficiency inverter systems)! Another potential saving is to re-use existing M & E services such as pipe work and cabling if possible. The saving, in terms of cost and disruption can be significant and is something that Weatherite takes into account when assessing existing systems, whilst bearing in mind any performance or warranty implications by linking new RAC equipment to older services installations.
● Convert: For installations where the RAC system is in good operational condition, conversion may be possible using an R22 ‘drop-in’ HFC refrigerant. A number of  products exist such as R417a for example. Whilst conversion may be a practical option, there are some important factors to consider.
(i) Many drop-in HFC refrigerants are expensive and may be less efficient than R22, reducing cooling performance or increasing energy usage.
(ii) Some manufacturers don’t allow drop-in replacements due to performance and reliability concerns.
(iii) Many HFC refrigerants work at higher pressures than R22. Their use on older equipment can expose system weaknesses or leaks not obvious before replacement.
(iv) Any conversion works must be carried out by experienced contractors to safely remove R22 gas and ensure refrigerant leakage does not worsen after conversion.
● Leave as it is: In a very few cases it may be appropriate to leave an RAC system as it is, but only where system shut down means it isn’t practical to undertake immediately. But remember, from 2015, R22 will be withdrawn completely from the market.
● Natural refrigerants: There’s growing pressure to replace HFC’s completely with ‘natural’ refrigerant systems incorporating propane or butane (hydrocarbon), or ammonia and carbon dioxide, which have a substantially lower impact on the environment than HFC’s. Many of the UK’s biggest retailers are adopting this technology.
In 2009 the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) launched its ‘Chilling Facts’ campaign with the publication of its first survey on supermarket refrigeration. The survey revealed that UK supermarkets were making a huge contribution to climate change through the HFC gases used in their refrigeration systems – as much as one third of their total carbon footprint. HFC’s are often several thousand times more powerful than natural refrigerants in terms of their global warming potential (GWP), but this wasn’t considered when they were accepted as the replacement for Ozone destroying HCFC’s in the 1990’s. The effect of HFC’s in climate change is becoming clearer and it is widely anticipated that the European Union will issue legislation curbing their use in commercial refrigeration when it reviews the F-gas regulation in 2011.
Historically, natural refrigerants have been considered less energy efficient. However there appears to be evidence that the latest systems can reduce energy usage by around 10 percent compared to HFC systems and with the amount of development work that’s now being done, expect that to increase. Natural refrigeration may seem a far off consideration for your business at present, but it’s something that should be kept in mind as, if the EU does legislate against HFC’s next year, it could have serious repercussions for the whole industry.
Mike Turton is Managing Director of Weatherite Building Service Limited, part of the Weatherite Group. The company offers totally impartial advice on all aspects of R22 replacement. Call 01922 741641 or email sales@weatherite-buildingservices.com


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