Hydrofluorocarbons occupy a market space that is very large and diverse ranging from residential through all types of commercial to industrial. While HFCs appear to be a good choice from a perceived safety benefit, they are still pollutants and increasingly regulated chemicals. Regulatory requirements are forcing HFC users to make a switch to lower global warming potential systems, and it is impacting different markets in different ways.

Kurt Liebendorfer, vice president at EVAPCO, said natural refrigerants are more competitive in specific markets, including the large food and beverage supply chain, the pharmaceutical industry, some niche energy markets, some sports markets such as ice rinks and arenas, as well as industrial markets such as manufacturing plants and chemical and petrochemical facilities. “Market adoption in these markets is really accelerating over the last couple years,” Liebendorfer said. “As this success continues in these core markets, then natural refrigerants will be wellpositioned to further expand into other traditional HFC markets.”

Liebendorfer said hydrocarbons are becoming prevalent in display cases and refrigerators, CO2 has growing adoption in supermarkets, and low-charge ammonia is growing in food cold storage and distribution.

Tristam Coffin, president of Livingstone Consulting, said natural refrigerants have always been in competition with HFCs on the industrial front. On the commercial refrigeration side, they are beginning to come into competition.

Glenn Barrett, an engineering manager at D.C. Engineering, said transcritical CO2 is now considered the system of choice by a few large commercial grocers. For commercial refrigeration systems, CO2 has a much easier path to implementation and acceptance when compared to ammonia.

“ASHRAE standard 34 classifies ammonia as a group B2L refrigerant, meaning the testing standard considers it to be toxic and have flammability concerns,” Barrett said. “The current codes and standards do not allow ammonia to be used in many of the applications where traditional HFCs have been used, whereas CO2 is rated as an A1 refrigerant, and therefore it has enjoyed a wider acceptance.”

Although there have been a few ammonia system designs, it is not a generally accepted refrigerant in commercial applications, Barrett said. “The main reasons are the ROI and the ability to find technicians who can confidently and safely service an ammonia system,” he said. “When ammonia systems have been deployed, it has generally been done through cascade refrigeration systems which increases the first cost and, in this application, reduces energy efficiency due to the double heat exchange.”

Another challenge with natural refrigerants is that they are not a drop-in solution,” Coffin said. “You can’t just put them in an existing system. Therein lies the challenge.”

Christina Starr, senior policy analyst with the Environmental Investigation Industry, a non-profit environmental organization, said synthetic low-GWP refrigerants aren’t drop-in either. “At a minimum, there is some type of a redesign of a system. In general, whether you’re talking about a natural or a synthetic, when you start transitioning to truly low-GWPs there’s some degree or flammability, toxicity, or high-pressure to manage, so you’re talking about replacing major components of a system. In either case, we need a long-term view,” she said.


Low-charge ammonia systems are rapidly increasing in the marketplace, Liebendorfer said. “This is true for the newer versions of traditional central plant ammonia systems that are reducing their historical large charge designs, but even more so for the new packaged units, such as Evapcold, that are growing in popularity,” he explained. “This technology is rapidly growing in the food and beverage market, where ammonia is already dominant, but also has tremendous potential to grow into new markets as well due to the benefits of ammonia as a refrigerant.”

Obviously keeping the ammonia away from the public and the employees who work in grocery stores is the only viable option, Barrett said. “Therefore, the ammonia must be contained outside of the building and in relatively small charge amounts. This highlights the challenge of finding commercially available and cost-effective ammonia components,” he said, adding that the industry also needs service technicians who are competent in the use of ammonia.

Tom Wolgamot, principal at D.C. Engineering, said the commercial industry will continue to be leery of low-charge ammonia systems until the maintenance considerations can be fully proven, and the ROIs justify the possible higher complexity and additional design considerations.

Up until about five years ago the prevalent use of natural refrigerants typically meant they incorporated a lot of custom engineering to be applied on a project-specific basis, but over time, people and companies have incorporated the ability to replicate these proven designs into packaged systems and improve them, Liebendorfer said. “The continued increasing quantities of preengineered manufactured systems will reduce the cost of low charge ammonia packaged systems and chillers, while also making ammonia safer to use thru increasing research and development of pre-engineered and tested technologies,” he said.


Natural refrigerant chillers can beat-out HFC chillers based on lower energy consumption, longer life span, and being better for the environment, Liebendorfer said.

“I think CO2 is taking a foothold on commercial space,” Coffin said. “CO2 is always going to play a critical role either on its own or with other natural solutions, for example, ammonia over CO2 .”

Coffin said industrial use of CO2 is also increasing. “There are a lot of regulations around ammonia, especially when you get to high-charge systems. That is raising the question of can we reduce the charge of ammonia or go to CO2 as the sole refrigerant,” he said.

Most ice rink systems use a chiller and pipe glycol or another secondary fluid under the ice sheet, which has allowed ammonia to be safely and widely used in an indirect system. “If you were using an HFC in a large supermarket refrigeration system, it pipes the refrigerant to the display cases,” Starr said.

The greatest obstacles for CO2 or ammonia chillers infiltrating the HFC chiller market right now are higher cost and their path to market. “The path to market for CO2 and ammonia packages or chillers is through contractors, consultants, and suppliers that understand these new technologies, while HFC packages or chillers are more widely understood by the larger HVAC market and supply chain, all of which does not yet understand the new natural refrigerant technologies,” Liebendorfer said. “For example, trained service providers in the use of ammonia and CO2 is limited in the larger HCAV&R market.”

The HFC industry has driven down cost by mass-producing systems. “Commercial HFC chillers by and large are pre-engineered mass-produced products and this evolution occurred over several decades and brought down their cost once they became off-the-shelf products,” Liebendorfer said.

To expand further into the traditional HFC market, the same dynamic has to happen with the natural refrigerant systems, such as ammonia and CO2 to lower their average cost point. “To really expand in all commercial air conditioning and refrigeration markets, they have to become more cost-competitive with commercial HFC systems,” Liebendorfer said. “This is off to a good start but will take time to catch up.”

EVAPCO and others are spending a lot of time pre-engineering standard and proven designs, manufacturing them in increasing quantities, and bringing down the cost of production. “The continued increasing quantities of pre-engineered manufactured units will reduce the cost of packaged ammonia systems, while also making ammonia safer to use through increasing research and development of pre-engineered technologies,” Liebendorfer said.

Chillers, which by design provide a secondary fluid stream to the occupied space such as chilled water or glycol, is the only method to apply ammonia to everyday, commercial occupied spaces, Liebendorfer said. “This is a great application, but its best fit is for larger cooling loads associated with larger buildings where economies of scale benefit ammonia due to its better energy efficiency and longer life span,” he said.

Coffin said it is important to standardize around a plethora of solutions. “We need to look at those systems or solutions that can be standardized and start to scale and scale quickly,” he said. “I would encourage people to look at the solutions and when considering adoption not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Barrett explained that costs are becoming competitive for transcritical systems. A recent study published by the North American Sustainable Refrigerant Council showed that CO2 transcritical systems are the same or have a lower first cost than a traditional HFC system. However, he said other issues with deploying CO2 are complexity and the relatively higher operating pressures. “There is still a need for additional technician training and opportunities to improve the energy efficiency through smaller systems with the additional suction groups, deployment and use of Ejectors and parallel compression designs,” he said.

For natural refrigerants, policy plays a huge role in adoption. “If we want to tackle the effects that refrigerants have on climate change and promote new technologies it is going to come down to the government regulating high GWP refrigerants.”

– David Fauser, director of sales for CIMCO Refrigeration.

Liebendorfer said pre-engineered packaged CO2 volatile brine systems, another growing natural refrigerant technology, are fairly new to the U.S.

but have had great success in Japan and are growing in Europe as well. “CO2 volatile brine could be a good solution for direct refrigeration in such applications as supermarkets, small cold storage facilities, and ice rinks. However, for large occupied spaces in the commercial market, where HFC chillers are dominant, the cost barrier and path to market barrier will be the obstacles,” Liebendorfer said. “In addition, challenges in scaling this technology for large applications or large facilities will need to be addressed.”

Coffin said he is seeing limited scenarios where end users are using brine solutions, not necessarily CO2 brine, for thermal storage to shift demand. There are also several commercial CO2 brine systems deployed. “The trouble with a secondary solution is you’re pumping a lot of fluid around, which tends to be less efficient,” he said, adding that brine tanks can take up space, so real estate becomes an issue.

While there is a growing market for natural refrigerant chillers, OEMs are trying to read the market indicators on the direction they go. “Even if the market indicators are out there, sometimes there are dots that need to be connected,” Coffin said.


For natural refrigerants, policy plays a huge role in adoption. “If we want to tackle the effects that refrigerants have on climate change and promote new technologies it is going to come down to the government regulating high GWP refrigerants,” said David Fauser, director of sales for CIMCO Refrigeration.

Starr said that one of the problematic things that have happened in the past in the U.S., from a regulatory standpoint, has been a very incremental worsts first approach. The government through the EPA’s SNAP program has taken a very incremental approach going chemical to chemical sector by sector, banning the worst first,” she said.

The Kigali Amendment, however, is a phase-down, but there is a strong possibility it could ultimately phase out HFCs. “That is something industries should be aware of in terms of longterm decision making. They should be targeting net-zero emissions by mid-century,” Starr said. “We very much expect that what we could call transitional solutions being introduced in the form of HFC blends would need to be replaced in the near to medium term.”

Liebendorfer said it is a foregone conclusion, albeit a slow process, that the federal government will implement regulations as well, particularly under the new administration. “The regulations will certainly accelerate the adoption process outside of our current slices of the pie,” he said.

As regulations phasing out HFCs nationally faded, states are moving forward with their own regulations as part of the U.S. Climate Alliance. There are currently 25 states that have joined the alliance.

“Many of the states have already backstopped the federal regulations,” Starr said, adding that California is in the process of finalizing some proposed regulations to require low-GWP refrigerants in large stationary refrigeration and commercial and residential refrigeration systems.

California picked up the mantle and ran with it, Liebendorfer said. “California is in the process of enacting the phase-downs based on dates,” he said. “I now have people in California saying, ‘I will consider ammonia or let’s look at CO2 .’”

The California Air Resources Board has said that by 2030 supermarkets need to reduce the GHG impact of all of the refrigerants in existing locations by 2030. “It gives them the target to meet. They could meet it through fully For natural refrigerants, policy plays a huge role in adoption. “If we want to tackle the effects that refrigerants have on climate change and promote new technologies it is going to come down to the government regulating high GWP refrigerants.” – David Fauser, director of sales for CIMCO Refrigeration. 12 | CONDENSER | November 2020 | A Publication of the International Institute of Ammonia Refrigeration replacing their existing systems with natural refrigerants, which would be a significant reduction impact,” Starr said, adding that natural refrigerants become the most common technology for a supermarket in California going forward.

CARB regulations, which are expected to be finalized in December, will also address ice rinks. California has proposed a 150 GWP threshold for new ice rinks. For replacement ice rinks, existing facilities could have 750 GWP (learn more about ice rinks on page XX).

Fauser said California is key because people look to the state as the leader. “California’s leadership position recognizes that natural refrigerants offer a superior option to synthetics on so many fronts. I believe other territories in Canada and the USA will follow California’s lead and more than just our environment will benefit,” he said.

“We expect other states, such as New York, which have very ambitious climate goals to achieve net-zero emissions. They’re looking for every possible low hanging fruit. HFCs are one,” Starr said.


As HFCs phase-down, end users can either turn to naturals or take a transitional step with lower-GWP (under 150) synthetics. While synthetics tend to be viewed as a safer commercial option, they aren’t the best long-term choice, Coffin said. “Just because they’re not toxic doesn’t mean they aren’t a pollutant. We need to get this under control in the next 10 years to avert an all-out climate crisis,” he said.

Those within the industry said enduser education is important to advancing natural refrigerants as HFC replacements. “There is this question for a lot of the industry of what will be allowed in the long term,” Starr said. “When can we stop transitioning? That is exactly where natural refrigerants come into play.”

term will hopefully look to naturals as a solution because they are regulatory proof,” Coffin said.

“In most cases, you’re not going to be able to build your way out of the regulation. You’re going to have to look at existing systems, which means there will be important thought on what to do with existing infrastructure, Coffin said. “Let’s not think of this as the next R-22 phase-out. Let’s be thinking long term and strategize around scenarios,” he said.

There are scenarios where end-users and owner-operators have an opportunity to retrofit to a lower GWP, but that isn’t the end game, Coffin said. “If the end goal is zero GHGp and, in reality, carbon neutrality is becoming the norm, it needs to become the end goal. People should be thinking longer term, but that isn’t always how the financial plan works,” Coffin said. “If the shortterm option is to retrofit and that is the cheapest option and end-users aren’t thinking further out, they may do that, but I would encourage everyone to at least take a hybrid approach.”

In the supermarket sector, for example, the equipment has a 15-20 year lifespan. “If you are a food retailer right now, something you’re installing in 2020 will be around until 2040 or later,” Starr said, adding that the equipment could be obsolete by the end of its lifespan. “If you are doing a significant replacement with a new system, you should be looking at natural refrigerants. It would be a poor business decision not to look at natural refrigerants.”

Coffin said he suggests end users go for the lowest GWP option when systems become end of life. “That strategy around building different scenarios is critically important in my opinion and not something enough folks are thinking about at the moment,” he said.

Natural refrigerants are phase-out proof, unlike HFOs, which have drawbacks from an environmental perspective and have other implications for the ecosystems and the food pyramid, Starr said.

Fauser said that even the major suppliers have coined these new refrigerants as a transitional option. Ultimately, HFOs will cost owners more because they will have to be replaced, he said.

“If you look at the supermarket industry, in 2020 that market already went through three changes in synthetic refrigerant. Now they have to go to something else,” said Benoit Rodier, director of business development for CIMCO Refrigeration.

What’s more, some ice rink operators had to replace perfectly good systems as part of the R-22 phaseout. “Now they have the following choice in front of them. They’re going to go with transitional synthetic refrigerant or something fully natural so they’re not having to change again,” Rodier said.

There are several companies marketing HFOs. “Marketing by these companies portrays HFO blends as environmentally friendly while reinsuring owners they are making a sustainable choice,” Fauser said, adding that while these transitionary refrigerants have lower GWPs than HFC refrigerants, they are still hundreds of times more damaging to the environment than naturals as are not viable options, even in the medium term. “I always suggest to our clients to use CARB as the benchmark to decide if it is a lowor high-GWP refrigerant. That is the sort of de-mything we need to get out there.”

Rodier said CIMCO Refrigeration always asks customers about their criteria, and customers are typically concerned with the long-term cost of ownership and the environment. Yet they may be considering something synthetic, which doesn’t line up with their criteria.

There are politics in everything, Coffin said. “You can’t patent natural refrigerants. Anytime there is money to be lost, and in this case, there is money to be lost, there is going to be pushback from the companies developing the lower GWP synthetics out there,” he said. “Understandably, no one wants to lose market share.”

Natural refrigerants have less of a voice because unlike their synthetic counterparts there is less money to be made on them, Coffin said. “The OEMs sell equipment. They aren’t selling refrigerants,” he explained. “There are folks out there that are representing ammonia and other naturals, including IIAR and NASRC, and representing the industry, but there is not a fleet of salespeople and lobbyists around natural refrigerants.”

Grassroots climate concern and consumer concern is growing, Starr said. For example, consumers can go to to find grocers reducing HFCs. “You’re seeing people want to take action from their home,” she explained. “We’re doing a lot of work to raise the profile of refrigerants among the green consumer. We’re starting to see some opportunities and traction for that.”