German manufacturers Bosch and Liebherr took the refrigeration industry by surprise earlier this year when they announced a move into propane/butane refrigerant technology. Almost all other producers faced with the challenge of replacing CFCs have opted for HCFCs, which are under pressure from environmentalists because they too are ozone depleters, or for HFC-134a, which is a potent greenhouse gas.
The two companies took their lead from east German producer Foron, which pioneered the technology with initial backing from Greenpeace (ENDS Report 218, p 23 ). They claim that their new products are on a par with refrigerators employing HFC-134a in terms of energy efficiency, and are among the most energy-efficient appliances on the market.
By purchasing the German fridges, the DoE is now clearly seeking to inspire UK manufacturers to follow the German lead. Its move is a pay-off for a persistent campaign by Greenpeace to wean UK producers off fluoro-carbon technology.
Taking delivery of one of the new fridges, Environment Minister Tim Yeo said that it was "vital that users of CFCs and HCFCs look at the available alternatives and get up to speed now if they do not want to be left behind by competitors...I hope that the purchase of this fridge will encourage other organisations to stop and think about ozone-depleting substances when making purchasing decisions."
A spokesman for Hotpoint, the UK's leading manufacturer of domestic refrigerators, said that UK companies are still evaluating the performance and safety of propane/butane technology and are wary of the additional costs involved. However, he told ENDS that on environmental grounds "ultimately" the technology "is the route that everyone will go down."
But he noted that demand for such products in the UK has lagged behind that on the continent. Hotpoint attributes this to the fact that "the UK consumer is not on the whole environmentally concerned and not prepared to pay the extra money" for a more environment-friendly product.
This observation is borne out by Liebherr, which notes that in the Netherlands it sold 2,000 of its new fridges within a month of placing them on the market. In the UK, in contrast, only 200 have been sold since June.
Bosch and Liebherr told ENDS in March that their new fridges would be arriving for sale in the UK within weeks. Models of larder fridges - without ice-boxes or freezer compartments - are now on sale at some major retailers, although the regional electricity companies' retail outlets have been criticised by Liebherr for shunning the new products because they have not been approved for conformity with the relevant British Standards, even though they meet German and European (CEN) safety standards.
Meanwhile, Bosch has become the first company to introduce a fridge with an ice-box that also uses propane/butane. This is claimed to have a comparable energy efficiency to the same type of fridge run on HFC-134a. Liebherr says that its own version will be available shortly. Both firms are also exploring ways of extending the use of the technology to the rest of the domestic fridge market, including fridge/freezers and freezers. This is technically more difficult because of the much larger charges of refrigerant employed.
Both companies say that switching to propane/butane has meant large capital investments because of the flammability of the gases. However, they believe that the level of demand has already justified the investment.
The new fridges cost o20-30 more than the old CFC-based products, but UK producers point out that the German fridges are already among the most expensive on the market and have only a fraction of the UK market for domestic fridges.
ICI, a major supplier of HCFC-22 and a rapidly expanding producer of HFC-134a, has admitted to being surprised at the speed and strength of the German move towards hydrocarbon technology. But the company says that the domestic market represents only a very small proportion of refrigerant consumption and that it is now focussing its efforts on the larger commercial refrigeration sector.
However, its efforts even there may be thwarted to an extent by German manufacturers who are actively looking at the use of ammonia and other secondary coolant systems as methods of avoiding or reducing the use of HCFCs and HFC-134a (ENDS Report 221, pp 9-10 ).