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Regulations Bringing Refrigerant Change to Commercial HVAC Market

By David Hules

A number of well-known factors are driving change in the commercial HVAC market, including advances in building automation and connectivity, and increasing focus on comfort and air quality. One particular U.S. regulation might not be on the radar of many maintenance and engineering managers, but it will have a major impact on the types of refrigerants used in commercial HVAC equipment, specifically chillers. While this regulation is not in effect yet, as a key supplier to equipment manufacturers, it is important that Emerson prepares now to help the industry transition. For instance, the company has to work backwards from the implementation dates to adequately design, test and supply the components needed to work with potential new refrigerants. Part of that preparation also involves helping ensure that customers stay informed and that they understand the coming changes and the way they impact operations and infrastructure. As part of that effort, this article provides a snapshot of the state of the industry regarding pending refrigerant changes.

Finding replacements Under the Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) program from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), current popular refrigerants R-410A, R-407C, R-134A and others will be delisted in chiller applications effective Jan. 1, 2024. This step is prompting the evaluation of low global warming potential (GWP) replacement refrigerants for use in commercial chiller applications.

Four main criteria are central to this ongoing industry effort to identify low-GWP replacements for R-410A and other refrigerants. When combined with technology, a viable alternate refrigerant must:

  • Have proven safety properties and conform to building codes and safety standards
  • Be environmentally friendly with zero ozone depletion and low GWP
  • Offer long term availability at reasonable capital cost
  • Provide performance equal to or better than current refrigerants to keep energy use low

While a few low-GWP, high-performance natural refrigerants are listed as acceptable by the EPA — i.e., ammonia, propane and carbon dioxide — they are rarely used in chiller applications, primarily because of toxicity, flammability, and efficiency concerns, respectively. The most viable, low-GWP replacements approved by the EPA fall into the A2L safety classification. Of course, A2Ls present their own set of challenges that the industry is working to solve or minimize. The main challenge is that the refrigerants are mildly flammable, although not as flammable as propane. As a result, an effort is underway to update safety standards, such as those from UL, that will necessitate an update to building codes.

To be included in the next building code cycle, these updates need to be ideally finalized and approved by the beginning of 2018. Any delay in approval likely delays the timeline by which A2L-compatible new equipment becomes available in the market.

With an eye on all these moving pieces, equipment manufacturers are diligently redesigning systems to use these new refrigerants. While safety and building codes are still being drafted, the delisting deadline of Jan. 1, 2024, is a known quantity that is driving the chiller design cycle, including the optimization of components around A2L use.

At this stage, what should managers do to prepare for the coming refrigeration transition in commercial chiller applications? For right now, the best step is to stay informed and be aware that this transition is coming. Depending on the refrigerant options and building code updates, the equipment will be changing.

Industry experts and equipment manufacturers are working together to ensure that the transition is seamless and that viable refrigerant options are supported. The hope is that this process will better position the industry and each individual facility to reduce carbon footprints and minimize the impact of climate change through responsible energy use.

David Hules is director of marketing for commercial air conditioning with Emerson’s Commercial and Residential Solutions platform.

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posted on 10/25/2017