HFC Refrigerants to be Phased Out: What it Means for HVAC/R Contractors and Technicians

Whether you believe in global climate warming or not, there is a growing movement among government officials and leading scientists worldwide in finding alternatives to certain chemicals that are currently used as refrigerants in commercial, residential and automotive air conditioning units and refrigeration units. These chemicals have been studied extensively and some governments are pushing for alternatives, which will affect how technicians install and maintain HVAC/R equipment in the years ahead.

HFC Refrigerants to be Phased Out: What it Means for HVAC/R Contractors and Technicians

At issue are hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are used in many AC and refrigeration units today. HFCs were created to replace chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were found to be eating a hole in the Earth’s ozone layer.

But what scientists have learned over the years is that HFCs are just as harmful to the environment – but in a different way. HFCs produce gases (halocarbons) that contribute to global warming. Halocarbons, combined with the release of methane landfills and livestock, nitrous oxide from agriculture, and carbon dioxide from automobiles, trucks and buildings, represent the spectrum of gases that scientists believe are contributing to the greenhouse effect (source: “The Biggest Climate Change Story in the World this week is Quietly Playing Out in Rwanda, The Vox, Oct. 12, 2016). Scientists are worried that greenhouse gases will lead to global warming, which they believe is responsible for rising sea levels, super storms, and changing environmental conditions that is affecting plant and wild life.

In 1989, governments throughout the world signed onto the Montreal Protocol to phase out CFCs. As a result, industry turned to HFCs because they were deemed to be relatively harmless to the ozone layer. However, it turns out that HFCs are very efficient at trapping heat. With an increasing number of air conditioners entering the market worldwide, scientists are worried about the effect of HFCs in accelerating global warming.

Let’s put that into perspective: As countries such as India, China, and Vietnam become more prosperous, they will want to buy and install more and more air conditioning units. The summer heat in countries like India and Vietnam can be sweltering. So imagine, in just India alone, 700 million residential and commercial AC units coming online within the next several years – and with those units, millions of pounds of HFC emissions entering the environment.

The Holy Grail, so to speak, is to find a refrigerant that does not harm the ozone layer, doesn’t contribute to global warming, is cost effective – and provides the same quality in terms of refrigeration and cooling that could be achieved using CFCs or HFCs.

One of the biggest steps toward reducing the impact of HFCs came at the Kigali meeting in Rawanda (“Kigali Deal on HFCs is Big Step in Fighting Climate Change”, The Guardian, Oct. 15, 2016) in 2016 when 170 countries pledged to phase out HFCs in favor of more environmentally friendly alternatives.

According to Neil Stewart, who leads Fairfield Technologies Ltd., an international sales and technical support provider for YELLOW JACKET based in Europe, the discussion about using alternative refrigerants that have lower Global Warming Potential (GWP), is much further ahead in Europe than it is in United States. GWP alternatives may come to the United States in the future, most likely through regulation led by a state such as California, which has taken the lead in enacting ground-breaking environmental regulation ahead of other states and the federal government.

As of today, there is no worldwide standard for an alternative refrigerant to replace HFC refrigerants. Potential alternatives that are being used throughout Europe include a combination between “natural” fluids such as butane, propane, ammonia and CO2, and low GWP synthetic fluids.

From an environmental standpoint, these alternatives are considered to be more environmentally friendly than HFCs and available at a relatively reasonable cost for manufacturers.

However, from a service perspective, some of these GWP alternatives pose a new risk as they are slightly flammable or highly flammable. HVAC/R technicians will need to take extra care (and potentially more time) to safely service units filled with fluids.

In addition to these alternatives, Stewart says that chemical manufacturers on both sides of the Atlantic will be developing other synthetic fluid alternatives (particularly in the U.S.) as HFCs are phased out over the next ten years.

“The race is on to develop new alternatives,” says Stewart. “The HFC phase out applies not just to residential and commercial AC units and refrigeration units, but also to the automotive market as well. For the automotive market, we’ve heard about one auto manufacturer that is experimenting with converting CO2 into a refrigerant.”

As HFCs are replaced by alternative fluids, HVAC/R technicians will need to take appropriate precautions during their servicing procedures. Stewart offers these recommendations:

  • Ensure the recovery unit is approved by the manufacturer for use with A2L refrigerants.
  • When charging or recovering from an AC or refrigeration unit with A2L refrigerants, use equipment with a power cord that is at least 10 feet (3 metres) long to avoid a spark.
  • Make sure the recovery unit has an ambient pressure switch. This will switch the unit off at ambient pressure and will prevent contamination of the refrigerant tank in case of a leak in the system. Potentially creating a combustible mixture of refrigerant, air and compressor oil.
  • Use an approved recovery tank. The European recovery tanks are identified with a red strip and left handed threaded valve.

To help HVAC/R technicians prepare for the growing use of these new refrigerants, Ritchie Engineering has developed the YELLOW JACKET® RecoverXLT™ recovery machine.

The RecoverXLT2-AP is specifically designed for the new lower GWP refrigerants including R-32, R-1234yf and R-1234ze as well as the most common CFC, HFC and HFO refrigerants, including R-22, R-404A, R-407, R-410A, R-448A and R-449A.

The YELLOW JACKET RecoverXLT2-AP Refrigerant Recovery Machine features a twin cylinder ½-hp oil less compressor and a gravity drain condenser. The unique “ambient pressure switch” and three metre power cord comply with current safety requirements in both European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia/New Zealand.

In addition, YELLOW JACKET recently introduced the ManTooth Pressure-Temperature-Vacuum Pressure (PTV) Gauge system. Wireless gauges help technicians work smarter and faster. The new YELLOW JACKET ManTooth PTV is part of a full line of wireless, smartphone-controlled gauges that offers quick and accurate temperature readings when maintaining and repairing cooling and refrigeration systems. The ManTooth PTV gauge (in single and dual units) works in conjunction with the ManTooth 2.0 app, which calculates and displays a system’s actual readings in an easy-to-read format for iPhones, iPads, and Android devices. The ManTooth 2.0 app allows HVAC/R technicians to easily select from among all known GWP alternative refrigerants during a service call.

“This is a dynamic issue within the HVAC/R industry,” says Stewart. “It is continuing to change and evolve and we at YELLOW JACKET are committed to provide HVAC/R contractors and technicians the latest information to help them understand what’s happening, and the impact of those changes on their business, and in conducting service calls.”