It doesn't seem like a decade has went by since the Clean Air Act of 1990 was passed that placed stringent restrictions on CFC- and HFC-based refrigerants. What began as a flurry to convert and replace CFC chillers has slowed to a trickle. A report by the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI) issued earlier this year says that CFC chiller replacement and conversion dipped in 1999 to 3,085, down from 4,241 units in 1998.

At first glance, that dip is amazing, considering that the 1995 Montreal Protocol banned production of these Class II substances by the end of that year. According to ARI's report, of the estimated 80,000 CFC chillers in existence in the early 1990s, 61% of those have not been converted or replaced. Since the ban, 31,516 CFC chillers have been taken out of service. ARI estimates that there will be 517 conversions and 3,271 replacements of CFC-based chillers in 2000. The survey concludes that it will take 10 more years to eliminate CFC chillers totally. This is good news for the manufacturers, as demand will hold steady over the next decade as the inevitable occurs.

These figures surprise Ed Dooley, vice president of communications and education with ARI. "A lot of units have come out, but a surprising number are still in service," he said.

Why hasn't the pace kept up with the estimates?

Engineered Systems conducted an informal survey on this very question and found out that there were three reasons: existing CFC-based chillers are still in good condition, refrigerant reclaimed from converted machines can sustain other non-converted machines, and funding for conversion/ replacement has not materialized.

Still In Good Condition

Just because CFC refrigerant production was stopped doesn't mean the machines that use it were going to disappear. The ARI study bears this out, and it's true for William O. Slone, P.E., associate director, Department for Facilities Management for the Commonwealth of Kentucky. His agency is in charge of capital construction projects for practically all Kentucky agencies and he says that many of these agencies have chillers operating with the old refrigerants.

"The R-11 machines still in operation are typically newer, less than 15 years in age, and are in good condition," Slone said. "For example, our Capitol complex is served by four R-11 machines that were installed in 1990. They are relatively efficient, run well, and we don't think it makes sense to replace them solely on the refrigerant issue."

This mirrors the philosophy of Ted Martin, regional manager for Corporate Real Estate for Electronic Data Systems, in Plano, TX. "The strategy we are using is that we will consider conversion if we have to either replace an entire chiller or if the units require a major overhaul. We don't think we should convert a machine that is tight and efficient just for the sake of doing it," he said.

Leak detection and recycling are helping maintain the supply of CFC refrigerants, so conversion isn't as urgent as previously thought. Michael Manchello, assistant director of the physical plant, at the University of Medicine & Dentistry (Stratford, NJ) believes that the predicted shortage of CFC-based refrigerant has not yet materialized.

"Initially there was a scare there wouldn't be refrigerant available," he said. What is often the case, he adds, is that reclaimed refrigerant can sustain other machines until those machines are ready for conversion.

Slone agrees. "We have recovered R-11 from earlier retirements, plus the R-11 market has stabilized, and availability of the recycled refrigerant is good," he said.

There probably will always be a reasonable supply of CFC refrigerant available, albeit at an increasingly higher cost if people have to buy it instead of reclaiming it from converted machines, said Dooley. "People also stockpiled large amounts when the ban was announced," he added.

When the ban was implemented, many chiller owners believed that actual enforcement would begin in 2000, Dooley said. When the deadline of December 31, 1995 was announced, there was a heightened awareness among owners to accelerate their conversion plans. "Old, leaky units were replaced immediately," he said, because older machines were easier to work on.

This isn't to say that the CFC-based machines will never be converted. It will just take longer to do it.


Money, or lack thereof, is the reason that some chillers have been converted and the reason others have not.

According to Jon Shaw of Carrier Corporation (Syracuse, NY) there are three different options and price ranges for building owners: containment (addressing leaky units), conversion, and replacement.

"The least-cost alternative in addressing an existing chiller is to stop the leaks through the addition of containment devices, approximately twenty thousand dollars," he said.

Conversion is a more expensive option, Shaw said, costing around $40,000, with an additional $25,000 for containment. There are other costs as well, such as upgrading the mechanical room to meet ASHRAE 15 compliance, usually representing another $20,000.

"After an investment of eighty-five thousand dollars, the chiller is old and less efficient than before the conversion," Shaw said.

Many building owners are opting for converting chillers when they begin performing major scheduled maintenance.

Out of five machines, funding has allowed Manchello to convert two. Of those already converted and those in the process of being converted, the reasons for doing so included compliance, environmental issues, and scheduled overhauls of the chillers.

Dooley agrees with this approach and adds, "A building owner may choose to replace a chiller in accordance with a renovation." Downsizing chiller size may be possible if other retrofits were performed that reduced the heat produced in a building, such as window glazing, he added.

Shaw says that the payback after replacement is usually three years, but is the better road to take.

"In the lifecycle cost comparison, replacement is the less expensive option, because the new machine will be less costly to operate in years two through twenty-five, as opposed to the containment or conversion model, which will likely have to be replaced at some point in the cycle," he said.

The flip side of this coin is lack of funds available for such projects. Joe Stchur, director, plant operations for Detroit Medical Center, said that chiller conversions don't seem to be a high priority at his institution. "I request (beg) each year to have my R-11 units upgraded and the monies have yet to be approved," he said. Due to a recent 10-year overhaul on his R-11 units, he doesn't see conversion happening any time soon.

Dooley says that building owners should check with manufacturers and research what the lifetime costs of a new unit will be in terms of energy efficiency and maintenance.

Another money issue that is associated with chillers is that when the ban on refrigerants was passed, the depreciation timetable of 39 years on CFC-chillers wasn't accelerated, says Dooley.

"The government didn't give building owners any equity or tax fairness on equipment," he said. The result is that chillers are depreciated after 39 years whether or not they are converted. "It might be another factor," Dooley said. "A lot of little things add up to a slow process."

No Looking Back

Dooley and the ARI stress the benefits of converting or replacing CFC chillers with environmentally friendly, higher efficiency, non-CFC chillers. After 44% of these chillers are replaced and converted, ARI estimates state that the new machines will reduce energy usage by 7 billion kWh, which adds up to a savings of $480 million annually. Further, ARI says that the new units will avoid production of 4 million tons of carbon dioxide and save enough energy to provide for the annual electrical needs of approximately 740,000 households.

According to Dooley, buildings in the year 2000 are 50% more efficient than buildings built in the 80s due to advances in design, lighting, insulation, and window glazing. These, along with non-CFC chillers, all help save energy. Of those already converted, the environmentally friendly message appears to be the reason. Dave Drzewiecki, manager of utilities operations for Bayer Corporation (Elkhart, IN) says that his chillers were converted to attain compliance. His building contains mostly ammonia refrigeration but also has a few isolated HCFC chillers.

Manchello doesn't question the decision to convert his chillers. "It makes perfectly good sense," he said.


If building owners haven't already done so, Dooley recommends that those who haven't converted or replaced their equipment yet should monitor CFC supplies carefully. Steps should be taken to develop a refrigerant management plan to avoid leaks and to maintain service records of equipment. "By now I hope most people have instigated a refrigerant management plan," he said.

The reality is that the chillers will have to replaced eventually. A sound replacement plan, combined with a scheduled maintenance program or renovation, is the best way to take the plunge and is the path that most building owners are on. Shaw agrees. "Every building owner or facility manager has a bottom line to think about. It's not in the capital budget to replace a system that is working." ES