HFCs and "natural" refrigerants vie to replace HCFCs

Proposed controls on HCFC refrigerants are opening new markets in refrigeration and air conditioning which are being fought over by producers of HFCs and the "natural" refrigerants, ammonia and hydrocarbons. But sales of equipment containing HCFCs remain buoyant - in some cases lumbering users with the prospect of difficult retrofits before the proposed HCFC ban in 2008.

As ozone depleters, HCFCs are to be phased out in the EC by 2015. But the European Commission has proposed tighter controls, including a ban on their use in most new equipment from 2001, and a ban on virgin HCFCs in existing equipment from 2008 (ENDS Report 280, p 48 ). The proposal also seeks to restrict supplies by imposing limits on the amounts placed on the market.

The incremental compliance cost to the refrigeration and air conditioning (RAC) sector, together with additional restrictions on CFCs, has been estimated by March Consulting at £90 million in a study for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. 1 Of this, £50 million is the cost of the ban on CFCs after 2000, and £40 million the cost of the HCFC restrictions. Some 84% of the total cost to the RAC sector will be borne by the industrial refrigeration and building air conditioning sectors.

Adding to these costs in the long run, industrial HCFC equipment is still being installed "on a significant scale", according to March - even though the EC proposal would force users to switch to alternative refrigerants or recycled HCFCs within nine years.

In contrast, HCFCs are not used in new domestic refrigerators or mobile air conditioning, and are little used in transport refrigeration or supermarket systems.

Speaking at a seminar hosted by the Institute of Refrigeration in London in November, Environment Minister Michael Meacher warned that it was vital to consider HCFC phase-out immediately.

According to the Institute, more than 400,000 air conditioning systems containing HCFC-22 are in use in the UK, with around 16,000 tonnes of HCFC-22 in use in the RAC sector. UK sales are running at around 7,000 tonnes per year.

Andrew Thomas of Linde Refrigeration (UK) and Radford Refrigeration, told the conference that very little research has been conducted on retrofitting industrial HCFC-22 systems in the UK. Although ammonia is "an obvious choice" for new installations, it would be too expensive.

Propane is an option, he said, but large-volume systems might have to overcome significant safety issues because of its flammability. Among the HFC blends, 407c and 410a are possible replacements, but he advised users that they should "budget to replace plant with R-404a or ammonia systems in the future."

For new industrial installations, the market is likely to be dominated by ammonia, hydrocarbons and 410a, according to Derek Moore, Sales Director of Sabroe UK. The "many advantages" of ammonia mean that "there is no doubt its use will increase in the future and it will be applied in areas currently dominated by other refrigerants," he told the seminar. Hydrocarbons are useful in industries such as oil, gas and chemicals with experience in handling flammable substances. Among the HFC refrigerants, 410a "will emerge as the clear leader" and, in combination with reciprocating compressors, produce the lowest total equivalent global warming impact of the HFC blends.

Many people in the industrial sector still have their "heads in the sand," warned March Consulting's Ray Gluckman. "It's an enormous irony that while it's difficult to convert large industrial plants and it's relatively easy to replace DX [direct exchange] plants, a lot of people in the market are still buying new equipment for large industrial systems which uses HCFC-22."

Following performance monitoring of hydrocarbon and HFC alternatives for industrial and air conditioning applications, David Butler of the Building Research Establishment said it was clear "there is no universal HCFC-22 replacement." US regulations have made it difficult to use ammonia, but it is widely used in Scandinavia and Germany, and has recently been used in a number of UK offices.

Similarly, liability fears have prevented acceptance of hydrocarbons as HCFC replacements in North America, although they are used in some DX chillers in northern Europe. They are "effective refrigerants", said Mr Butler, but their flammability restricts their use to low-charge systems and requires good site practice. Isceon 59, an HFC/isobutane blend marketed in the UK by Rhodia and Star Refrigeration, "appears to be a promising candidate", especially where it is difficult to change lubricants, while 407c is widely offered for new equipment and many existing systems could be converted to use it.

In the small air conditioning units sector, several major manufacturers are planning to market HFC systems. But their high global warming potential means there is "still an element of doubt over their long-term acceptance," warned Airedale Air Conditioning's Technical Director, Ted Clements. The main alternatives to HCFC-22 are the propane/ethane blend Care 50, marketed by Calor Gas, and HFCs 407c and 410a, he suggested. Ammonia is not compatible with the copper-based components in small packaged systems.

With good performance characteristics and an operating charge 40% less than HCFC-22, "it looks as if the environmentalists are right" about Care 50, said Mr Clements. But manufacturers are reluctant to change because of the perceived risks. "There is no recognised international standard product liability law covering the use of hydrocarbons," he noted. "Other issues, such as elimination of leaks, refrigerant volumes and lack of ignition sources, can be accommodated, albeit at a cost." Mr Clements expects to see an increase in the use of hydrocarbons which will necessitate significant changes to manufacturing methods and specialist training for contractors and installers. "Some form of registration scheme will be required to regulate its use," he said. The Government is considering such a scheme.