A Closer Look at the State of Refrigerants

Recent legislation is impacting the use of hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants, both globally and nationally. On the heels of these changes is confusion about legislation and the availability of certain types of refrigerants. On a global scale, the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol provides a global phase-down schedule for the use of HFC refrigerants in multiple sectors - including R-134a and R-410A - for the HVAC/R industry. While ratified across the globe by approximately 100 countries to date, the amendment has yet to be ratified in the United States. 

In 2016, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) put forward rules that banned the sale and installation of many types of commercial refrigeration systems using high global warming refrigerants. However, after litigation, the EPA was told it lacked the authority to tell manufacturers that had already moved to HFCs that they now had to move away from HFCs. However, most refrigeration equipment manufacturers had already moved forward with engineering low global warming options.

Most regional efforts to reduce the use of refrigerants with higher-GWP (Global Warming Potential) ratings call for a gradual reduction of HFCs rather than a complete phase-out or ban. The U.S. Climate Alliance currently has 24 member states and aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least at least 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 in accordance with the Paris Agreement.

States such as California, Washington, New York, and Colorado, as well as  several others, are proceeding with their own individual HFC phase-down programs in the absence of the federal SNAP Rules with the majority aligning with the SNAP 20 and 21 sectors. Refrigerants such as R-134a and R-410A continue to be the most widely used refrigerants in the HVAC industry globally, federally, and regionally, but are a key focus of state regulations due to their higher GWP values.


Economics Drives Refrigerant Transitions

Legislation is a factor in refrigerant transitions, but it is not the main factor. Building owners typically transition to new refrigerants when existing equipment becomes too expensive to operate or when the incumbent refrigerant becomes unavailable. A properly maintained chiller can run well past the expected equipment lifetime, regardless of the type of refrigerant used.

HVAC equipment should be replaced when an analysis of new equipment costs versus operating costs provides a good payback scenario or when the refrigerant used in the system is not readily available or becomes too expensive to replace. 

After a refrigerant is completely banned by legislation, a limited supply often continues to be produced for servicing. The Montreal Protocol allowed a 10-year service tail for hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) refrigerants R-22 and R-123 after they were banned from production in new equipment sales. When the service tail production ends the only remaining refrigerant sources are reclaimed and recycled refrigerant from existing equipment. It is critical that all recycled refrigerant is reprocessed back to its original specifications by a reputable reclaimer before being used in a different system.


Cost and Availability Concerns

Refrigerant price varies by availability and by region. Service tail production is limited in quantity and availability which typically causes the refrigerant price to increase as the service tail allowance runs out. New low-GWP refrigerant alternatives are typically more expensive than the incumbent, higher GWP refrigerants. Many lower-GWP alternatives are globally applied and available, but some have very limited production and use.

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