By BRANDON MARSHALL, The Chemours Company
For the past the 35 years, the many state, national, and global initiatives and regulations protecting the environment have been highly influential in driving changes in the HVACR industry. Today, we find ourselves at a critical crossroads, requiring everyone from mechanical engineers designing HVACR systems to the end users operating and maintaining them to decide the best direction forward.
At the heart of the decision-making process lies the refrigerant market. Within this market we find products that, due to regulations, are declining in supply, giving rise to next-generation technologies that prove to be long-term efficient solutions for a multitude of HVACR applications.
What brought us here
By the early 1930s, the industry was benefitting from the introduction of Freon™, a set of solutions that served society well for generations, and still does in some capacity today. The HVACR industry felt the impact of environmental regulations starting in 1987 when the Montreal Protocol drove the global phaseout of compounds that had an ozone depletion potential.
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To replace chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and later hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), science innovated hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)—including Freon™ NU-22B™ (R-422B) and Freon™ MO99™ (R-438A), refrigerants optimized to replace R-22 in retrofit applications.
For years, these alternatives did the job by offering zero ozone depletion potential (ODP) and comparable performance. Another major change later came from the 2016 Kigali Amendment, which focused on phasing down HFCs.
Research and development led to the next solution, hydrofluoroolefin (HFO) refrigerants, which performed just as well, had zero ODP, and offered significantly lower global warming potential (GWP). HFO and HFO blends have been in use for several years in new equipment and retrofits. The solutions under this umbrella include products such as R-449A and R-513A.
Then, the January 1, 2022, launch of the EPA’s HFC phasedown—implemented under the American Innovation and Manufacturing (AIM) Act—spurred more change. Today, HFO-based refrigerants are on a fast track to becoming the dominant solution across the board for the HVACR industry.
The road best traveled
Because R-22 reigned for generations as the best solution for HVACR systems, today it can still be found in broad use, from retail and industrial refrigeration to residential air conditioning. However, in 2020, U.S. regulations prohibited the production or importation of R-22.
Today, the only supply available to service these systems comes from recovered R-22, and that supply is being depleted quickly. Based on what I’ve seen lately, maintaining R-22 systems is not going to be an option much longer.
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In fact, I’ve experienced it not being an option at all for customers requiring a sizable charge. With that in mind, it is critical for owners and operators running R-22-charged systems to retrofit or replace their systems as soon as possible. Relatively easy, performance-comparable retrofit solutions utilizing R-422B and R-438A exist that are widely available for a multitude of residential and light commercial air conditioning applications, while HFO blends such as R-449A and R-513A have been utilized extensively in commercial refrigeration applications.
Because of the AIM Act phasedown, the industry may see supply challenges for HFC eventually reaching the critical point where availability is minimal. By the year 2024, the EPA mandates a 40% reduction in production and consumption of HFC refrigerants, so now is the time to consider your options.
Ask yourself, “Is a retrofit for a system charged with R-22 or another HFC refrigerant such as R-404A reasonable? Or is the wiser path to evaluate new equipment for the near future?”
Use of HFO refrigerants—offering zero ODP, significantly lower GWP, better efficiency, and comparable performance to their HFC predecessors—has increased over the years. Often referred to as A2Ls, referencing their ASHRAE safety designation, these products, such as R-1234yf, R-454A, R-454B, and R-454AC, are becoming used more and more in new equipment. They are mildly flammable, and offer low toxicity, reduced energy consumption, and a significant reduction in GWP compared to legacy products.
The transition has already started in many cases with manufacturers announcing their future refrigerant decisions. Johnson Controls, for example, selected Chemours Opteon™ XL41 (R-454B) as the refrigerant for their ducted residential and commercial HVAC products and their air-cooled scroll chiller applications. Also, both Carrier and Rheem made it the primary refrigerant to replace R-410A in their ducted residential and light commercial packaged products sold in North America.
Regardless of the type, purpose, capacity requirements, or refrigerant in the system, everyone can start with the same steps to determine their next move in today’s regulatory landscape:Assess the equipment,considering its age, frequency of repair or increase in maintenance needs, and if the cost of continued repair is outpacing the cost of new equipment plus potential cost savings from a new system;
Systems utilizing next-generation HFO refrigerants are being developed today as a solution to meet sustainability objectives, improve energy efficiency, and gain better performance. If you can safely and economically get by with current equipment for another year or two, it may be worth it. From there you can upgrade when new-generation equipment becomes approved and available in your market.
To understand more about A2L and what’s driving their adoption, I recommend visiting this site.
About the author
Based in Wilmington DE, the author is regional marketing manager for thermal and specialized solutions at The Chemours Company. With more than 14 years of experience in the HVACR industry, serving in a variety of roles including contracting, engineering, and technical marketing, he holds a BS degree in HVACR Design Technology from Pennsylvania College of Technology and an MBA from Maryville University.