Changes in the Air

by Katie Lee

The changing HVAC/R landscape: phaseouts, dates and decisions.

By Elizabeth Ortlieb

Silently and mostly invisibly, HVAC/R keeps one cool or warm indoors. But did you know a vital substance to make this heating and cooling equipment run — refrigerant — is undergoing a massive shift globally that could take many end-users by surprise?

Yes, some of the most common and popular refrigerants used in HVAC equipment today are being phased out. In fact, the end of the HCFC refrigerant phase out has almost arrived, signaling the second transition established in the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.

Put into effect in 1989 by the international community, the Montreal Protocol phases out Generation I (e.g., CFCs) and Generation 2 (e.g., HCFCs) refrigerants that have ozone-depleting potential (ODP). CFCs, a type of refrigerant with the highest ODP, were the first to be phased out; in fact, since 2010, there has been effectively a worldwide ban on the use of CFCs.

Cold and Cheap Has Its Drawbacks: The Transition Away from HCFCs

Now, attention turns to HCFCs, refrigerants with the second-highest ODP and indeed amid a phase out. End-users must pay heed to important phase out dates and deadlines to avoid disruptions to budgets and/or operations. As an example, let’s look out a widely used HCFC refrigerant, R-22, with an impending deadline.

On or after January 1, 2020, no new or imported R-22 will be allowed into the United States. Then, the only available material will come from recycle, which today accounts for less than 10% of needs. To complicate matters more, as recently as 2014, R-22 equipment was readily available for sale in the U.S., comprising a significant percentage of total equipment sales.

And, now, today, those machines are only 3 years old but less than 3 years from being unserviceable and obsolete. Cold and cheap — these R-22 units may have been at one time. But not anymore. Basically, R-22 is indicative of how generations of refrigerants can lapse before the equipment does.

Even more, the prices for R-22 will continue to rise, and a shortage looms. This sounds dramatic because it is. There is simply not enough refrigerant to fill all the needs for all the equipment in service using R-22 in the United States. To put to this situation in perspective, there are only two bottles of R-22 per HVAC technician available in 2017; one bottle per technician in 2018; and about a half a bottle per technician in 2019.

The point is, be wary throughout this transition. To avoid HVAC shortcomings, know your assets, your equipment and your refrigerant demands. Clearly define maintenance responsibilities to qualified personnel, meet with contractors, and, last but not least, come up to speed on regulations that could impact you.

Decisions, Decisions: Don’t Just Default to Any HFCs

On your journey away from HCFCs, you will most likely be faced with two options: (1) retrofit or (2) replace. Retrofits, for instance, can impact performance and operating costs, and most notably, can cause a potential for significant increases in energy costs to achieve the same cooling capacity.

And before you think you are in the clear by avoiding HCFCs altogether, not so fast. HFCs, the third generation of refrigerants, have already begun to phase-down. Just look to the EPA’s Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) rulings, particularly Rule 20 and Rule 21. HFC R-404A is one such popular refrigerant impacted by SNAP decisions.

It is being phased down and will be unacceptable in several air-conditioning and refrigeration end-uses very soon. As an illustration, R-404A will be unacceptable as of January 1, 2021, in new retail food refrigeration, and it will be unacceptable in new centrifugal chillers and positive displacement chillers as of January 1, 2024.

Consider the LCA of the Material — Not Just the Equipment

In short, for decades, we have gotten away with using only two criteria to judge HVAC equipment: cold and cheap. But, we are now entering a world that truly considers the impact of our choices not only financially but also environmentally, and we are trying to find the right alternative refrigerants, ones that have high performance and are also safe to the public and to the environment.

The fact of the matter is, refrigerants will be continued to be phased out or down. And overall the next several years, a whole new generation of equipment and refrigerants will be introduced. The status quo — choosing HVAC units simply for providing comfort and being cheap — will no longer work. And that’s a good thing. That means that, instead of only considering the life cycle analysis (LCA) of equipment, we will give more focus to the LCA of materials, which is long overdue.

Furthermore, since these HVAC appliances have such a massive impact on building-energy spend, especially considering the national average refrigerant leak rate of 25%, benchmarking programs will become more important. Currently, 20+ jurisdictions across the country have energy benchmarking programs, and participating in them is a great first step towards visualizing your maintenance impact, lowering your energy bill, extending equipment life, and controlling variable costs (that are likely sneaking by with these phase out dates and deadlines which are making materials harder to come by).


— Elizabeth Ortlieb is a policy analyst at Trakref, focusing on environmental sustainability programs and initiatives, both mandatory and voluntary, with an emphasis in effective refrigerant management. Email the author at [email protected].

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