By BRIAN S. SMITH, Director of Global Marketing, Chiller Solutions, Building Technologies & Solutions, Johnson Controls

On Oct. 15, 2016, 197 countries gathered in Kigali, Rwanda, and signed the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer. The signing countries agreed to address greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions through a phasedown of hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants in all industry sectors. The goal of this landmark agreement is to achieve an 80- to 85-percent global reduction in carbon-dioxide equivalence by 2047. For manufacturers, this means providing products that use low-global-warming-potential (GWP) refrigerant technologies while improving equipment operating efficiencies.

The action taken in Kigali affects all industries that use HFCs. For developed countries such as the United States, the first step-down date is 2019, and the goal is 10-percent reduction of the baseline. In the United States and Europe, this goal will be met or exceeded based on already identified and finalized regulations, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) Final Rule and the European Union’s F-gas (fluorinated gas) Regulation, which has identified phasedown plans for HFC refrigerants in new equipment for the foam, automotive, and commercial refrigeration industries.

The HVACR industry supports the Kigali Amendment. It is a global agreement with built-in accountability and enforcement mechanisms.

This transition, however, is not without challenges.

Flammability

First, many of the proposed alternatives to existing refrigerants, including all of the alternatives to R-410A, are mildly flammable. The use of these refrigerants in applications in which they have not been proven to be safe raises questions related to equipment standards, building and fire codes, construction practices, manufacturing processes, material handling, and life-safety procedures.

Impacts on Efficiency and Sustainability

Some of the lower-GWP alternative refrigerants reduce equipment efficiency. This means additional energy is required to produce a specified level of cooling, which can lead to higher emissions. What’s more, decreased efficiency can cause building owners and mechanical engineers to specify larger or additional equipment to meet cooling requirements, leading to increased first costs and, again, higher emissions. In some cases, reduced efficiency cancels the benefits of using a lower-GWP refrigerant.

Availability and Costs

Many of the proposed alternative refrigerants are not yet available in large quantities (most refrigerant producers are forecasting the bulk of their production to come online in 2018 and beyond). The limited availability of these new refrigerants can mean significant premiums. As long as the supply remains limited, the first cost may be prohibitive. Additionally, the risk is greater, as is the potential for downtime. And in cases in which flammability is an issue, there may be costs associated with facility safety equipment, increased ventilation requirements, and higher insurance premiums.

Conclusion

It is important to note equipment owners are not yet required to switch to a new refrigerant. At this time, HFCs, unlike hydrochlorofluorocarbons R-22 and R-123, are not scheduled for phaseout, which makes them a safe, economical option while alternatives are studied.

All of this is to say the selection of low-GWP refrigerants should be made with careful consideration of flammability, equipment efficiency, sustainability goals, and availability. Only by understanding the full impact of each on safety, emissions, and cost can decisions that are truly beneficial to building owners and the environment be made.