HFC phase-down agreement announced

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Large refrigeration, AC systems will be first target

By Simon Blake

An international agreement that will see some of the industry’s most widely used refrigerants restricted to reduce global warming will have little effect on contractors and wholesalers – in the short-term, say Canadian industry officials.

On Oct. 15, in Kigali, Rwanda, representatives from over 190 countries, including Canada and the U.S., signed an amendment to the Montreal Protocol that calls for the phase-down of hydro-fluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants. This includes refrigerants such as R-134a, R-410a and R-407c.

“It’s going to take a number of years before the contractor starts to see something significant,” remarked Warren Heeley, president of the Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Institute of Canada. “It’s a phase-down, not a phase-out; that’s a really important part of this,” he added.

The Canadian approach is very different from that in the U.S. Rather than banning certain refrigerants, Environment Canada will set maximum global warming potential (GWP) levels for refrigerants used with specific equipment, he added.

However, equipment owners will need to think differently. If they are installing new equipment today that will be in use for 20 years or more, they have to be concerned as to whether that particular refrigerant will be readily obtainable in the long-term. “Can I service the equipment? Will I be able to get that refrigerant and what’s it going to cost me in 15 years?” said Dennis Kozina, national sales manager for Emerson Climate Technologies Canada, Brantford, Ont. and chair of the HRAI Refrigeration Product Section.

Aren’t these the new refrigerants?

Although the agreement was made under the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, HFCs are not ozone depleting. They do however cause a dramatic increase in global warming when released into the atmosphere.

One might reasonably ask, did nobody think of this when ozone depleting HCFCs like R-22 were replaced with HFCs? “I think it was just that priorities changed over the last 10 years,” said Heeley. Authorities were gaining the upper hand on ozone depletion, but global warming was becoming a more serious problem.

HFCs have been on the market since the early 1990s. However, they were primarily used in commercial and industrial equipment. For residential air conditioning contractors, HFCs like R410a are the new refrigerants. “I think that’s why everyone’s getting the feeling, ‘well, we just got into that,” remarked Kozina.

In the developing countries, that change is only just now taking place. Moving from ozone depleting substances into HFCs has been much more difficult for them, added Heeley. “This is why they fought it for so many years.”

The Canadian approach

Each country is taking a different approach. And each province can be different, noted Kozina.

In Canada, Environment Canada has been working at the international level on the phase-down of HFCs for seven or eight years. Its website proposes the following measures that would prohibit:

  • The import of bulk HFCs for OEM use in certain types of refrigeration equipment by 2017
  • The manufacture of certain equipment that uses HFCs by 2017
  • The import of certain commercial refrigeration equipment that uses HFCs by 2017.

However, with the Montreal Protocol amendment in the works, those dates will have to be re-evaluated to bring them into line with the international agreement, noted Heeley.

The preliminary details of the amendment dictate that for developed countries such as Canada, a baseline will be determined based on HFC average use between 2011 and 2013 plus an additional 15 percent of the baseline HCFC use. Once this baseline number is calculated, a reduction schedule will begin in 2019 with a 10 percent reduction of the baseline. This schedule will ramp up the phasedown to 85 percent of the baseline by 2036.

More information is available at www.ec.gc.ca/ozone.

And Environment Canada, so far, has stayed away from unitary (mostly residential) equipment, focusing instead on large industrial and commercial refrigeration systems.

“They aren’t touching R410a (and other products) used in unitary systems at this point in time. That’s not to say they won’t make some moves in the next few years,” said Heeley.

Eventual restrictions on equipment using high GWP refrigerants will determine how long equipment that uses refrigerants such as R410a will be available. “It’s going to affect your product mix in the next 10 to 15 years simply because certain equipment using high GWP refrigerants will not be available,” he added.

What now?

If HFCs are being phased down, what refrigerants will contractors use in the future?

Things like CO2, ammonia and propane are all being used to some degree already because of their low GWP. “You will see CO2 more in supermarket applications and ammonia in applications where it hasn’t traditionally been used before.” This includes commercial equipment, said Kozina.

In residential air conditioning, refrigerants such as R32 will likely replace R410a, he added. “I know most of the manufacturers in North America have done some testing with it.”

R32 (methylene fluoride) is an HFC and is a component of both R410a and R407c, but it has a substantially lower GWP than either of them. It is also slightly flammable, which is a factor with most low GWP refrigerants.

One other refrigerant often suggested is R290, or refrigerant grade propane. It has a very low GWP and its characteristics are similar to R22. And, as previously reported, it is widely available in DIY air conditioning repair kits available at Canadian retailers. That’s something the industry has been trying very hard to stop because, as everyone knows, propane is extremely flammable.

“I don’t think you’re going to see pure propane put into air conditioning systems. That would be an extreme step. R32 is a more likely choice,” said Kozina.

As well, training will need to be upgraded. “The techniques needed to deal with these systems with flammable refrigerants are quite different,” noted Heeley.

However, the trade schools will have time to adapt because building codes must be changed before flammable refrigerants can be used. “Building codes take three to five years to change and we need to make sure trade schools incorporate something on the handling of flammable refrigerants,” said Kozina.

What next?

Each of the parties to the Montreal Protocol must approve the amendment, which could take some time. Once the governments of those 20 countries accept the amendment, it will come into force.

HRAI is encouraging Environment Canada to co-ordinate its efforts on phasing down HFCs with the international approach under the Montreal Protocol.

For Kozina, it’s the third time in his career that there’s been a major shift in refrigerants. “I wish we didn’t have to change again,” he laughs. However, he adds, it’s going to be a slow phase down and HFCs are going to be around for many years yet.

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