The national economic downturn has slowed replacement in buildings of comfort cooling chillers that use chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and manufacturers predict that by year-end 48% of the original 80,000 CFC chillers will still rely on the refrigerants that were banned from U.S. production at the end of 1995 due to concerns about depletion of the Earth's protective ozone layer.

A survey of large tonnage liquid chiller manufacturers ARI (Arlington, VA) revealed that 2,931 CFC chillers were converted to non-CFCs refrigerants or replaced by new non-CFC equipment during 2001, with 3,124 more expected in 2002, leaving an estimated 38,281 CFC units still in use.

Release of the survey results followed recent publication of "Building Owners Save Money, Save the Earth," a brochure by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that says: "A new energy-efficient chiller can easily pay for itself in electricity savings, improved reliability, and lower maintenance costs...Building owners can typically pay back the investment cost of replacing an old CFC chiller in five years or less in virtually all locations that cool for more than three months a year. In fact, replacement chillers can pay for themselves in as little as two or three years, with a typical return on investment of 20% to 35%."

Chillers cool water that is circulated through a building to control humidity and provide comfort in offices, malls, hospitals, airports, factories, sports complexes, government buildings and institutions like colleges. The EPA noted that "Building owners around the world have saved millions of dollars in electricity bills through careful choice of upgraded air conditioning chiller installations and through complementary investments to reduce building cooling load. Today's chillers use about one-third or less electricity compared to those produced just two decades ago."

Despite the cost savings, the pace of replacements and retrofits has been slower than expected. At the current pace, it will likely take manufacturers until the end of this decade to phase out the tens of thousands of CFC chillers still in use. Manufacturers said that in 2002 they expect 360 conversions and 2,764 replacements bringing the total to 41,719 units or 52% of the original 80,000 CFC chillers in place in the early 1990s.

The slowdown in the global economy in 2001 was seen in the shipment of 7,171 non-CFC chillers for new buildings and CFC replacements here and abroad, a 7% decline compared to the 7,731 units shipped in 2000. However, factory shipments are at least double the pace of 15 years ago when in 1987 they totaled 3,744 units.

Prior to the introduction of non-CFC chillers more than 10 years ago, building owners usually chose units using CFC-11, CFC-12 or hydrochlorofluorocarbon-22. EPA rules require recovery of those refrigerants, which can be used to service units still in service when the refrigerant is reclaimed to meet purity limits set in ARI Standard 700. Non-CFC chillers use alternatives accepted by use by the EPA, which include hydrofluorocarbon refrigerant HFC-134a, HCFC-123, HCFC-22, HFC-410A and HFC-407C.

Use of the alternative refrigerant chillers has resulted in the saving of billions of kWh of electricity annually in the United States. According to the EPA brochure: "Building owners with obsolete CFC equipment compete for dwindling supplies of reclaimed refrigerants and parts-paying higher prices and risking refrigerant shortages. Savings from electricity costs alone pay back the investment at high rates of return - even at low energy prices."