R-22: Five Things to Know

With production of HCFC refrigerants ending in less than three years, food and beverage manufacturers who currently rely on R-22 are faced with some difficult choices. Although facilities can continue to use recycled, reclaimed or stockpiled R-22 past Jan. 1, 2020, there will come a time when the shift to lower global-warming-potential synthetic refrigerants or natural refrigerants, such as ammonia, is unavoidable.

“Nobody really knows how fast the supply of R-22 will run out once production is stopped,” said Jim Adler, P.E. department manager of Refrigeration Engineering at Hixson Architecture & Engineering. “It could be five or 10 years, but you will run out of inventory eventually. This is a risk that facility owners must consider.”

Adler listed five things operators should know when making the transition from R-22 to a natural refrigerant. Adler recently presented a Food Plant of the Future webinar titled, “Beyond R-22: Refrigeration Solutions for Tomorrow.”

  1. Understand the numerous codes and regulations associated with natural refrigerants.
    Although ammonia is an outstanding solution for meat and poultry plants, dairies and packaged food manufacturers, partly because the system can be flexible and run at a different temperatures, operators should be prepared for greater regulatory oversight, including increased paperwork and documentation. They will be required to adhere to local building, mechanical and fire codes, and IIAR’s suite of standards (IIAR-2, 4, 5, 6, & 7). Federal guidelines will also require Process Safety Management and Risk Management programs for plants operating with 10,000 pounds or more of ammonia, and an Ammonia Refrigeration Managment program when operating below that figure.
  2. Audit existing equipment.
    Operators must understand what changes will be needed to the system and the equipment. Start with an equipment/system audit to document what type of systems and what materials of construction are presently used. Most HCFC systems are copper-based and are incompatible with ammonia, which requires carbon steel, stainless steel or aluminum. “You can’t just merge the two systems together,” Adler said.

    Some field-erected R-22 systems may be able to be converted to ammonia but seals, gaskets, control valves, and relief valves may need to be changed. In addition, it will be necessary to check the pressure ratings of the components to verify that they are suitable for an ammonia system.

    “The audit should be done by a professional, not your maintenance person,” Adler said. “That person needs to understand the implication of switching to a natural refrigerant so they know where to look to collect the data.”

  3. Consider the cost.
    Ammonia will be more expensive, at least at the outset. “You’re looking at welded steel pipe, which is more expensive, as well as more robust system components than some of the commercial-grade systems you can get with R-22,” Adler said. “Going natural isn’t the lowest first-cost option.”
  4. Pay attention to training.
    Employees must be fully trained on how to operate the system, on maintenance and on how to respond to a leak before the system is operational. Unlike R-22, ammonia is self-alarming and there is usually a zero-tolerance attitude regarding an ammonia leak. Operators must have an emergency response plan in place and a working relationship with local first responders.

    Adler said several things can be done to reduce the risks and the regulatory burden required for ammonia systems. “You can design a lowcharge system that utilizes a secondary refrigerant like glycol or use a low-charge package system currently offered by several manufacturers. Work with your design professional to make the best choice.”

  5. Think long term.
    Ammonia typically operates at a lower kilowatt per ton, so it’s an energy saver. And it probably won’t be delisted by the EPA. “Ammonia is zero ODP and zero GWP and has been around and successfully used for over 100 years: It’s not going to be phased out,” Adler said.

    He emphasized that operators won’t be making the switch alone. There are many highly trained professionals in the ammonia refrigeration industry who are available to help make the transition from R-22. “The IIAR is there for support, along with a competent group of professional engineers, contractors, and safety pros who can help you get there,” Adler added.

    “In the end, it’s a matter of determining what meets your goals and what is best for your company,” Adler said. “Find out your leakage rates, how much R-22 you’re currently buying and how much you’re using. If you’re buying 25 to 30 percent each year, you have a problem. If you’re buying five to ten percent, you have a pretty tight system and maybe you can reclaim and reuse R-22 or have some stockpiled. Ultimately, though, that R-22 is going to be used up. We just don’t know how long it will take.”