The focus on refrigerants as an environmental issue has provided both a challenge and an opportunity to the air conditioning and commercial refrigeration industry. Manufacturers have met the challenge by re-engineering their products to work efficiently using non-ozone depleting refrigerants, as well as ensuring the responsible use and containment of refrigerants in their manufacturing facilities.

At the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI), we’ve worked to help the industry meet those challenges, as well as demonstrating and communicating its commitment to improving life and the environment.

Through establishing industry standards, certifying equipment and components, leading a “Responsible Refrigerant Use” initiative, and providing support for enhancing technician training, ARI is building a greener industry that produces efficient equipment, and therefore reduces energy consumption and energy demand.

Refrigerants play a major role in the efficiency of air conditioning and commercial refrigeration equipment. As the working fluid within these products, their ability to work at various pressures and temperature conditions is reflected in the design of this equipment. Two of the most widely used refrigerant families by the industry over the past four decades have characteristics that have allowed engineers to design highly efficient systems. However, they have been targeted as ozone-depleting substances by the Montreal Protocol and in the United States under the Clean Air Act. Under these decisions, production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) was halted in 1996, and the production hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) is scheduled to cease by 2010.

Cool And Efficient Buildings Act

While CFCs are no longer being manufactured, equipment using these refrigerants is still operating today in many commercial buildings. As part of ARI’s agenda to reduce the peak electrical demand of the industry’s products, the association advocates for measures that will help to retire older cooling equipment using CFC refrigerants in large commercial buildings.

In the past 10 years since the CFC ban took effect, only 46% of the estimated 80,000 large-tonnage CFC chillers in the U.S. and Canada have been replaced or converted to enable the use of non-CFC refrigerants. ARI reported that in 2004 an estimated 36,000 CFC chillers still operated in North America. New non-CFC chillers reduce maintenance costs, use less electricity, and can be at least 40% more energy efficient than the CFC chillers installed only 20 years ago, according to the EPA.

The replacement of inefficient CFC chillers has been slower than expected due, in part, to federal tax laws, which require a depreciation of the chillers over 39 years. However, the current depreciation period is not a realistic measure of the average life span of commercial rooftop air conditioners or chillers, which typically ranges from about 10 to 20 years. When the depreciation of this equipment spans over 39 years, there is no incentive for building owners to switch to newer, more efficient technology.

A solution for speeding up replacements has been presented. A bipartisan bill, the Cool and Efficient Buildings Act (H.R. 1241), introduced by Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-MI), would shorten the current depreciation schedule for commercial cooling system equipment from the present 39-yr schedule to a more realistic 20-yr period.

A new depreciation schedule will satisfy four important policy goals by encouraging the replacement of old chillers: enhance energy efficiency, reduce carbon dioxide and CFC emissions, and provide a growth impetus for the air conditioning and refrigeration industry. With the combination of a new depreciation schedule and escalating energy costs, business owners will opt for newer, more efficient cooling systems.

Air conditioning manufacturers have made great strides to improve chiller technology and to make this equipment more reliable and energy efficient. When properly sized for the space and properly maintained, a new, efficient and reliable chiller is more cost effective, conserves energy, and has far less of an environmental impact than a typical older chiller.

Tighter Chillers

Besides improved efficiency, upgrading to newer commercial cooling equipment can also help building owners and managers meet federal refrigerant leak requirements. Chillers manufactured today are much tighter. Manufacturers of this equipment have been working to reduce refrigerant losses through basic design changes. Some new models offer annual leak rates as low as one-half of 1%, which is helping building engineers and managers comply with regulations, conserve refrigerants, and keep chillers operating at peak efficiency.

Under Section 608 of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, when building owners or operators of an appliance that normally contains a refrigerant charge of more than 50 lbs discovers that refrigerant is leaking, they must take corrective action. Not doing so can result in significant fines.

ARI’s Standard 740-1998 addresses the issue of leaks during refrigerant recovery and recycling. The standard establishes acceptable and realistic levels of refrigerant loss during recovery activities, and it sets testing procedures for certifying recovery and recycling equipment. Using equipment that conforms to ARI standards is essential to complying with the EPA requirements.

Transitioning From HCFC'S to HFC'S

The majority of central air conditioning systems used for residential buildings that are being manufactured today still use an HCFC refrigerant, known as R-22. With only about three more years until HCFC production is halted, manufacturers are beginning to transition to HFC refrigerants. Widespread use of HFCs as a substitute for CFCs and HCFCs will dramatically reduce the air conditioning and refrigeration industry’s contribution to worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.

In the U.S., some unitary air conditioning manufacturers are producing equipment using one of two HFC blends, R-407C or R-410A. Homeowners now have the choice of buying an air conditioning system using R-410A or R-22. Equipment using R-410A is highly efficient because industry engineers have designed equipment that takes advantage of its heat transfer properties.

Many manufacturers, though, still face a huge transition to produce equipment using R-410A. With only three years until HCFC production is completely phased out, it would appear that the air conditioning and refrigeration industry has a lot of work to do to meet that dead-line. Still, the industry hasn’t been procrastinating. It has been very busy re-engineering its product lines and its manufacturing facilities to meet another federal government mandate.

By January 23, 2006, manufacturers had to reengineer their product lines and their manufacturing facilities in order to achieve the minimum seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER) of 13 for central air conditioner systems and heat pumps. The new minimum represents a 30% increase in efficiency over the previous federal minimum of SEER 10. The industry spent millions of man-hrs and dollars in order to meet this mandate.

Now, it faces another enormous looming deadline. But a great deal of work has occurred behind the scenes to meet the HCFC 2010 phase-out target. The Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Technology Institute (ARTI) has been leading a full basket of pre-competitive research. These projects will provide the fundamental science needed by design engineers to develop products using this new refrigerant.

Responsible Refrigerant Use initiative

If properly contained, reclaimed, and recycled, a refrigerant has little direct impact on the environment. Indirectly, through, the energy needed to power air conditioning equipment can significantly contribute to power plant greenhouse gas emissions. That is why using an efficient refrigerant is an essential step toward improving the environment.

In fact, HFCs have contributed to a decrease in global warming emission of all halocarbons and, with application of best containment practices, have the potential to significantly reduce refrigerant-related greenhouse gases. HFCs also reduce carbon emissions. Compared to its predecessor HCFC refrigerant (R-22) and other alternative refrigerants, HFCs can absorb and release heat very efficiently, making cooling equipment far more efficient.

The air conditioning and refrigeration industry has explored the use of other alternatives to HFCs, such as ammonia, hydrocarbons, and CO2. While these refrigerants each have their niche, they cannot serve most air conditioning and refrigeration applications safely and efficiently.

To ensure continued availability of these plentiful, efficient, economical refrigerants, HVACR manufacturers are leading an effort to ensure that appropriate steps are taken to minimize refrigerant emissions by reviewing how refrigerants are handled in their own plants.

Half of the manufacturers who responded to a recent ARI industry survey said they have built their manufacturing facilities with a zero emission goal, and more than 70% of the respondents of the same survey said they have already reduced emissions in their plants between 25% and 75%. To further the industry’s emission reduction efforts, ARI recently launched a “Responsible Refrigerant Use” initiative. The program is designed to help plant managers take every appropriate step to contain refrigerants and minimize releases.

The effort consists of five objectives. The first step in the initiative was the development of theResponsible Use Guide for Minimizing Fluorocarbon Emissions in Manufacturing Facilities, released in March 2006. Endorsed by the EPA, the guide provides a recommended set of industry practices to be used in facilities where refrigerants are produced, used, stored, or prepared for transport.

Another important part of the initiative is the development of an industry standard establishing practices and procedures that will reduce inadvertent releases of chlorine containing and other halogen containing refrigerants, such as CFC, HFC, and HCFC refrigerants.

Through industry consensus, ASHRAE has published ANSI/ASHRAE Standard 147-2002, Reducing Release of Halogenated Refrigerants from Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Equipment and Systems. It provides the industry with design and practice standards that reduce the likelihood of refrigerant emissions to help ensure that losses can be recognized and repaired in a timely fashion. Conformance to ASHRAE Standard 147 is recommended to anyone involved in the design, laboratory testing, equipment manufacturing, field assembly, service, operation, or disposal of systems containing halogenated refrigerants.

Another important measure that ARI believes is critical to the continued use of HFCs is to strengthen and enhance Section 608 of the Clean Air Act. Currently, this provision prohibits the intentional venting of CFC and HCFC refrigerants. However, inconsistencies in the application of these regulations have led to unclear guidelines for technicians and equipment owners. These inconsistencies, combined with a lack of enforcement from the EPA at the technician level, have resulted in an atmosphere of complacency regarding regulations. Our industry must take a proactive approach to control the emissions of HFCs - and all refrigerants.

Critical to the industry’s success in preserving the use of HFCs is demonstrating their proper use among those professionals who service and install their equipment. ARI and the industry have been working to improve technician training in secondary and post-secondary institutions, as well as by providing continuing education to technicians who already work in the field. An important part of this effort is promoting the federal government’s use of NATE-certified technicians. As the largest owner and tenant of both commercial and residential buildings, the federal government could provide immense leadership to the nation by embracing NATE-certified technicians as the gold standard. Employing knowledgeable technicians who understand the correct practices for responsibly using and reclaiming refrigerants will help the nation meet its environmental goals.

Once HFCs and other refrigerants are reclaimed by technicians, they need to be responsibly recycled or discarded. As part of its overall commitment to improve life and the environment, ARI is exploring the development of a voluntary, industry-led program to ensure the desired quality of refrigerants while encouraging reuse. It may mean employing financial incentives throughout the value chain to encourage the return and recycling of all refrigerants. ARI has established a program to test and certify refrigerants to ensure their quality meets industry standards. This means ensuring that there are free-market recycling enterprises in order to meet the demand for high quality recycled refrigerants. ARI is also investigating the feasibility of developing a program to responsibly destroy unusable refrigerants.

Finally, as part of this initiative, ARI is working with other associations within the industry in a broad-based coalition to establish and promote common responsible-use goals for HFCs. This industry coalition will approach the EPA, Congress, and the Administration with a unified message regarding the actions that must be taken to preserve the use of HFCs in this country.

The responsible use of refrigerants chain has many links. From the chemical companies that make refrigerants to the reclaimers who recycle them, we must identify opportunities to contain these chemicals to reduce their impact on the environment.

Through ARI members’ cooperation and full participation in the “Responsible Refrigerant Use” initiative, industry can demonstrate its environmental responsibility while preserving effective, efficient, cooling comfort through the continued use of these vital refrigerants.