Commercial AC and the Phaseout of HCFC Refrigerants
Refrigerants, GWP, and Alternatives
In the 1990s, the U.S. passed the Clean Air Act which aims to reduce Global Warming Potential (GWP) substances. The EPA uses GWP as a measurement to gauge the potential gaseous emission from substances.
In 1996, all Class 1 Ozone-Depleting substances (ODS) were stalled. By now, there are no applications of Class 1 refrigerants. In fact, you most likely won’t ever use any Class 1 refrigerants.
Recently, the EPA started to halt production of all Class 2 ODS. This step, which started at the beginning of 2020, has a big impact on commercial building owners. The most common refrigerant, R-22 (also known as HCFC-22), is a Class 2 substance. Over 90% of all air-conditioning units use R-22. If your condenser or chiller was installed 10 years ago or later, then it probably uses R-22. Unfortunately, R-22 emits high volumes of Chlorine into the atmosphere.
In short, the Clean Air Act requires owners to be active in the phaseout of ODS.
Wondering what you need to do with your condenser or chiller? MBI Inspections can help! First, we explain what the different types of refrigerants are. Then, we outline what your options are according to the EPA. In addition, we look briefly at estimates for each of your options.
Finally, if you’re looking to reduce Global Warming Potential (GWP) even greater than what the EPA outlines, you may be interested in taking a look at some ultra sustainable alternatives as well.
Refrigerants are fluids used in refrigeration and air conditioning systems. Additionally, refrigerants vary by elements or gases used, type of element, safety, and method of heating/cooling. This article will provide a brief overview of these refrigerant types.
CFCs (Class 1)
CFC, short for Chlorofluorocarbon, are refrigerants that contain Carbon, Chlorine, and Fluorine. They’re the oldest type of refrigerant and are no longer in production. The most common CFC was R-12, however due to its extremely high ODS (1) and GWP (>10,000), all Class 1 CFCs were cut off in the 1990s. They release a great amount of Chlorine into the atmosphere and damage the Ozone greatly.
HCFC (Class 2)
The second generation of refrigerants, HCFC (hydrochlorofluorocarbon) contains one additional hydrogen atom than CFCs. The still-popular R-22 is an HCFC. As of 2020, the production of all HCFC refrigerants has halted and are currently being phased-out by the EPA. Like CFCs, these refrigerants release Chlorine into the atmosphere and generally have a high GWP. It will be difficult to continue operating with HCFCs in the future.
Hydrofluro-Olefins. These new refrigerants have an extremely low GWP and no ODS. They are the most environment-friendly refrigerant.
HFC, short for HydroFluroCarbons, are commonly used in AC units. Some of the most common HFCs include R-134A, R-404A, R-410A, R-125, and R-32. Many HFCs alone have a high GWP, like R-23 (>14,000) or R-236FA (> 9,800). However, there are HFC/HFO blends that reduce GWP and ODS.
The EPA outlines three options for owners of commercial AC units. Simply put, owners should:
- Convert existing system
- Buy new system
- Continue using HCFCs
1) Converting your existing system
Converting a current system may be ideal if you want to avoid purchasing a new chiller or condenser. However, it’s important to know that some systems cannot be retrofitted or converted. Contact an HVAC specialist to find more information about your system.
If it is possible to convert your system, then the outdated R-22 can be replaced with another refrigerant type. For example, the EPA lists four common alternatives to R-22, two of which are compatible with retrofitted systems (R-407C and R-407A).
EPA Common Alternatives
Retrofitting a new refrigerant requires an HVAC specialist. Make sure to contact your specialist for more information on converting your system.
2) Buying new
If you’d like to buy a new system, or if your current system cannot be retrofitted, then it’s good to know some options. Typically, MBI Inspections estimates replacement costs to be around $2,500/ton. If your unit is dated, it may be necessary to purchase new. Not only will this increase efficiency in your AC system, but it will also allow for alternative refrigerants which do less damage to the atmosphere.
3) Continue with HCFC
If you plan to continue using R-22, then be prepared for an expensive and potentially short-lived supply. Additionally, you will need to eventually switch to an alternative refrigerant. The EPA is currently “phasing out” the use of R-22 to allow enough time for owners to switch. The production has halted and you will need to recycle your unit’s R-22 or purchase the limited available refrigerant. Contact an HVAC specialist for more information about your system and how you will need to recycle or purchase.
Further Sustainable Refrigerants
It’s great to plan for the future! Domestically, EPA standards will continue to restrict refrigerants to reduce GWP. Many European countries already restrict refrigerants above 750 GWP. Some other alternatives that are below 750 GWP, remarkably lower than any of the four common alternatives listed (above), include HFCs, HFOs, and blends.
The data from the table (above) was gathered from Honeywell’s product descriptions and the European Commission.
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Brandon Nguyen-Calkins has a B.S. in Technical Writing and an A.A.S. in Architectural Technology. At MBI Inspections, he works as web developer and SEO manager, content writer, and report writer. Initially inspired by the aesthetics, Brandon started in residential designs and has now shifted towards the technical details. In his spare time, he enjoys sight-seeing on his walks and writing all kinds of works. He loves dormers and brickwork.