Not just risking efficiency

Mike Nankivell M. Inst. R, a Director of the Daikin Distributor Space Airconditioning plc and Chairman of the Air Conditioning & Refrigeration Industry Board (ACRIB) F Gas Implementation Group, highlights concerns associated with the imminent banning of one of the world's most commonly used refrigerant gases - R22.

"I get slightly irritated about the use of the term 'drop-in' when referring to the application of so-called retro fill alternatives for HCFC R22 refrigerant in refrigeration and air conditioning equipment. It's really not my fault - somebody with far greater hands-on knowledge managed to convince me that "there is no such thing as a 'drop-in'" as this term grossly over-simplifies the various preparations, modifications and potential problems involved in this, much promoted, alternative to replacing old equipment designed to operate with R22.

A fact that appears to have escaped the attention of a great many companies that continue to operate or maintain refrigeration, air conditioning or heat pump equipment designed to contain the legally restricted R22, is that the impact of the European Directive 2037/2000 on Ozone Depleting Substances, is set to hit hard at the end of 2009, just weeks away, when it becomes illegal to use virgin R22 for service and maintenance purposes. Why will it hit hard? Read on!

UK refrigerant suppliers confirm that demand for virgin R22 has remained almost static for several years, at around 1900 tonnes per year. In 2009, year to date, there has been no significant change in demand for virgin R22. There can be no clearer indication that the market is almost completely unprepared for its imminent ban! If the market is expecting to simply 'switch over' to recycled or reclaimed R22, which remains legally useable until the end of 2014, it has another think coming - because, there will simply not be enough recycled or reclaimed R22 to go round - at best a 50% to 60% shortfall is expected but availability at just 10% of current usage levels have also been suggested - and most of that will be snapped by the big offshore users, however expensive it becomes!

The best solution, for the environment, reduced operating and maintenance costs and other, perhaps less immediately obvious, benefits, is to replace the old R22 equipment with new.

One can well understand, in these difficult times, that the prospect of such an investment may be a bitter pill to swallow, particularly if the old refrigeration or air conditioning system is still functional.

It might well be easier to plant the idea that equipment designed to operate with R22 could be kept going longer by 'simply' using another refrigerant. In fact this is true - but for how long (weeks, months, years) and at what cost in terms of both the conversion works and operating efficiency is very uncertain - is it wise to take such a potentially money wasting risk?

For what it's worth, I have other concerns, in these days of increasing environmentally awareness, about the use of alternative refrigerants as an interim or long-term solution to the limited availability and high cost of R22.

Put very simply - retro filling of equipment designed to operate with HCFC R22 with so-called 'drop-in' or "compatible alternative refrigerants" actually represents very serious potential environmental consequences and could compromise the objectives of the more recent F-Gas Regulation.

Not in any particular order of priority, I list below some of my specific concerns.

  1. Equipment manufacturers do not/will not recommend the use of any refrigerant other than that which it was designed and optimised to use. No warranty will apply to any major replacement components where alternative refrigerants have been applied and spare parts for R22 kit are becoming increasingly difficult to obtain anyway!
  2. Retro fill solutions are highly likely to reduce the operating efficiency of the equipment with resulting increased electricity consumption, higher running costs and indirect Global Warming Impact.
  3. Retro fill solutions will do nothing to reduce the leakage potential of equipment designed to operate with HCFC R22.
  4. Any encouragement of the conversion option is encouraging the continued use of older equipment that statistically is more likely to leak than new equipment. The F Gas Regulation seeks to improve containment, so the last thing we need is to endorse actions that will increase leakage potential.
  5. All these so-called alternative refrigerants are blends of HFC gases, each element of which works at a different pressure - even the smallest leak will change the constituent ratios of the blend. This means the characteristics of remaining gas changes and this will further detract from the performance and reliability of the equipment. You can't 'top it up' either, because the blend becomes something else again. The only option is to evacuate, dispose of the old gas and start again - very expensive and the equipment may already have suffered the consequences!
  6. Any encouragement of the conversion option is encouraging an avoidable increase in the use of HFC refrigerants and therefore increased GWP due to the fact that R22 "alternatives" will be required in at least the same volume as the original HCFC charge - whereas the majority of new HFC equipment contains far lower volumes of refrigerant.
  7. Any encouragement of the conversion option is encouraging the continued use of relatively inefficient equipment, which is not good for the pocket or the environment.
  8. The use of retro fill alternatives, particularly where flushing agents are necessitated, have been found to further increase the leak potential of the converted equipment due to the need to create new openings to ensure the complete evacuation of the contaminating agent.

So to summarise - don't entertain the term "drop-in" there really is no such thing. Don't rely on maintaining R22 based refrigeration or air conditioning equipment with recycled or reclaimed R22, you might find yourself in a very long queue. Avoid the temptation to convert old equipment to run with an alternative refrigerant, in certain cases this cannot work at all and if it can be done it could cost you and the environment much more than you realise."

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