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Refrigeration technologies like synthetic replacements for HFCs, low charge ammonia and CO2 -based systems are growing like never before ahead of a planned phaseout of R-22 in the United States.

And although most players in the industrial refrigeration industry have been taking a hard look at replacements for refrigerants targeted by the Environmental Protection Agency for many years, they may no longer have much time to decide which new technology is their best bet for the future.

Several new signs from the regulatory environment are pointing to a timeframe that calls into question the viability of a “wait and see” approach, removing the prospect of a more gradual transition or a temporary switch to HFC refrigerants not yet targeted for phaseout.

In California, new regulations – which the Obama administration has said will serve as a model for the U.S. phaseout – have made the continued use of R-22 and future use of HFCbased refrigerants all but impossible.

Meanwhile, U.S. involvement in international agreements like the Montreal Protocol, indicate that regulators are planning to closely replicate the accelerated timetable seen in the European Union.

Whether it’s a move toward synthetics or an investment in natural refrigerants, one thing is clear: companies should plan now for an HFC phaseout that could happen much faster than expected, or risk the expense and downtime of an unplanned transition later.

If California is the model for the rest of the country when it comes to the HFC phaseout, the rest of the industry should take notice, said John Scherer, manager of engineering for Los Angeles, Calif.-based LA Cold Storage. “Right now, if you’re using over 50 pounds of HFC or HCFC refrigerants in the state, you’re subject to some very strict regulations.”

“It’s a juggernaut in this state. There is no specific phaseout [for refrigerants other than R-22], but there might as well be, because compliance is something very hard to attain and the consequences of not complying are very high,” he said. “We’re working with people everyday who say ‘I can’t do this anymore’ and they’re converting to small charge ammonia systems.”

The nationwide R-22 phaseout is still the only program with a set timeframe, with the EPA’s published schedule calling for an end to R-22 production by 2020. The lack of a published timeframe for HFC refrigerants, however, should not be seen as a sign that their phaseout schedules will be long, or will happen in the same way, said Derek Hamilton, U.S. Business Development Manager Azane Inc, the US subsidiary of Star Refrigeration.

“A large portion of the refrigeration industry is waking up to the fact that this is really happening.’ They didn’t take the R-22 phaseout seriously enough, and now they’re making decisions on a timetable they are not comfortable with. The message here is to take the HFC phaseout seriously. It’s going to happen, and there are signs that the U.S. is moving more quickly than people really expected,” said Hamilton.

And regardless of how quickly or stringently the U.S. moves to phaseout HFCs, making a non HFC-based technology decision to replace them is the only real option for industrial refrigeration in the United States,” said Jerry Von Dohlen, president of Newark & Port Newark Refrigerated Warehouses, adding that as a practical matter it makes no sense to replace an R-22 system with an HFC system that itself may need to be replaced a few years down the road.

“No one in their right mind should make the decision to jump out of the R-22 frying pan into the HFC fi re, because they’d be spending a lot of money to get there and would have nothing to show for it long term,” said Von Dohlen.

“We must go to ammonia or CO2 . With HFC [replacements for R-22] you’re just buying a small amount of time for a lot of cost and not much efficiency. We’ve come full circle and the only viable system is ammonia and ammonia CO2 ,” he said.

While manufacturers and end users who have long relied on ammonia and CO2 -based systems see them as the obvious best choice, synthetic refrigerant replacements with zero global warming potential may also gain a foothold in the race to find the best technology to adapt to a phaseout, if chemical companies are successful in developing them fast enough.

John Galiher, CEO of Preferred Freezer Services, said that his company is leaving the door open to the possibility of such refrigerants, by planning for an HFC phaseout responsibly but not making the conversion of some of the company’s older facilities just yet.

“We’re experimenting with some of the better HFC replacements,” he said. And like many companies faced with the phaseout decision, Galiher doesn’t see ammonia or CO2 as the only option.

“We’re embracing all the latest technologies. Every facility we’ve built was designed to run on ammonia knowing that [an HFC phaseout] could happen one day. We don’t have to convert yet, so why rush? The technology is changing so fast we’re not ready to commit yet,” he said.

As an industry, “we’re rethinking modern and future ammonia designs,” said Galiher. “There’s a race among system designers and equipment manufactures completely centered on smaller more efficient and safer systems. You can see that happening in all the designs. Whoever comes up with the best balance of cost-effective environmental friendliness and efficiency is going to win that race.”

Nevertheless, a bet on synthetic refrigerant-based systems may bring its own challenges, said Azane’s Hamilton, who pointed to EU regulations that all but specify the use of natural refrigerants.

“Speaking from the experience we’re seeing in Europe – going from R-22 to [synthetic] HFCs and then to natural refrigerants such as ammonia – there is a clear pattern in the direction of the legislation. Every time the legislation is catching up [to replacements with lower global warming potential], and every time, the threshold for an acceptable global warming potential is lowered. Those thresholds are decreasing and decreasing. It’s only a matter of time until you need to move to natural refrigerants,” he said.

“Even if there is [a synthetic zerogwp HFC replacement] that comes on the market, we firmly believe that it’s only a matter of time that the industry and the government will push towards natural refrigerants. Everything else is just a stepping stone,” said Hamilton.

While a number of new blend refrigerants are coming on the market that may address the global warming potential issue, they also come with concerns surrounding issues with performance, application, toxicity and blend separation, said Dave Rule, IIAR president (turn to page 30 in this issue of the Condenser for a practical overview of the implications of replacing an HFC system.)

“As the EPA begins to step up its program to eliminate the use of high global warming potential refrigerants, virtually everyone dealing with refrigeration will be faced with some difficult decisions over the next five to ten years,” he said.

And natural refrigerants will play a key role in many of these decision processes. “With the introduction of new equipment technology, new design concepts and low charge ammonia systems coupled with secondary refrigerants, our industry will have new opportunities to apply these systems in applications that have never been considered in the past.”

The race to develop zero-global warming potential synthetic refrigerants and make ammonia and CO2 systems more efficient and safer than ever before may not be over, but it is already opening the door to new applications for natural refrigerants and bolstering the U.S. market for small charge systems. “The low and very low charge systems are going to revolutionize the application of ammonia,” said LA’s Scherer.

“They’re below the EPA thresholds,” for regulations that have the biggest impact on the industry and new designs will offer major advances in efficiency both within the industry and in non-traditional applications, he said. “We’re really gaining steam on this. It’s something that’s going to happen in a big way.”

Azane’s Hamilton agreed, saying the huge potential market for low charge systems is the reason that his company has started to manufacture Star’s low charge ammonia technology in the U.S.

As the U.S. industrial refrigeration industry plans for its future, it would be well served to look to world-wide trends, specifically in places like Australia and Europe where regulations are prompting a shift towards ammonia and other natural refrigerants, said Newark’s Von Dohlen. “Our country is not the only one progressively pushing towards natural refrigerants. Literally the whole world is making the change; this is where the world is going.”