Navigating the Future: Understanding EPA’s HFC Proposed Refrigerant Management and Finalized Technology Transition Rules
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently introduced two major rules. The HFC Refrigerant Management Rule, still in the proposal stage, and the finalized Technology Transitions Rule were put forward under the American Innovation and Manufacturing (AIM) Act to reduce the production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) by 85 percent over the next 15 years.
Technology Transitions Rule
In October, EPA published its final rule on technology transitions for HFC equipment. It will take effect December 26, 2023. This rule outlines regulations limiting the GWP of refrigerant used in air conditioning and refrigeration equipment. Notably, the rule would effectively ban the installation of R-410a systems on January 1, 2025. While efforts are underway by ACCA and the broader HVACR industry to establish a sell-through period for residential and light commercial systems that use R-410a, contractors should prepare accordingly for EPA’s ban.
Compliance dates range from January 1, 2025, to January 1, 2028, depending on the application use. The rule covers compliance for HFC equipment’s “manufacture” and “installation.” Two notable compliance dates include January 1, 2025, for installation of stationary residential and light commercial air conditioning and heat pumps using refrigerants with 700 GWP or higher and January 1, 2026, for installation of stationary air conditioning and heat pumps using refrigerants with 700 GWP or higher.
Under the rule’s definition of “manufacture,” “installation” is a prerequisite for systems assembled and/or charged in the field. The rule states that any system assembled and/or charged in the field is “manufactured at the point when installation of all the components and other parts are completed.” Therefore, these systems have the same compliance dates for both manufacture and installation.
The rule also differentiates between “products” and “systems.” A “product” is considered an item manufactured from raw or recycled materials that perform a function or task and are functional upon completion of manufacturing. A “system” is an assemblage of separate components connected and charged in the field with a regulated substance or substitute to perform a function or task. Therefore, equipment that is operational upon manufacturing qualifies as a “product,” while equipment that requires an installer to finalize the refrigerant circuit is a “system.”
System Repair and Component Replacement
EPA is not regulating actions concerning components needed to service/repair existing systems using HFC refrigerants. This rule does not limit the use of any existing system or product. It was designed so owners of HVACR systems and products can continue to use and repair systems throughout their useful life. The rule does address the repair/replacement thresholds that trigger use restrictions for HFC equipment.
Refrigeration Equipment: The rule states that refrigeration equipment is subject to restriction under the rule when “75 percent of the refrigeration system’s evaporators (by number) and 100 percent of its compressor racks, condensers, and connected evaporator loads have been replaced, such replacement constitutes a new installation.”
Air Conditioning Systems: The use restriction is triggered depending on system size. For systems with a single condenser and single evaporator, use restrictions are triggered when “replacing the exterior condenser, condensing unit, or remote condensing unit.” For systems having more than one condenser and/or more than one evaporator, use restrictions are triggered “when 75 percent of the indoor evaporator units (by number) and 100 percent of the air source or water source condensing units are replaced over a three-year period.”
Recordkeeping and Reporting Requirements
EPA intends to establish recordkeeping and reporting requirements “for any entity that domestically manufactures or imports products or specified components that use or are intended to use regulated substances or blends containing a regulated substance in the sectors and subsectors covered in this rulemaking.” This applies regardless of GPW of the HFC or HFC blend used. EPA is not finalizing proposed recordkeeping requirements for installing field-charged systems in this rule. However, it may establish reporting and/or recordkeeping requirements in future rule(s) under the AIM Act. The proposed rule included an exemption for field technicians or installers of systems from any such requirements.
HFC Refrigerant Management Rule
General Provisions: In October, the EPA proposed a rule addressing the management of HFC refrigerants and substitutes. It includes leak repair mandates, automatic leak detection requirements, reclamation standards and requirements for using reclaimed HFCs, and cylinder use and tracking. This rule is not finalized, so the provisions are subject to change.
Proposed Leak Repair Requirements: These requirements apply to systems with a refrigerant charge of 15 lbs. or more using a refrigerant with 53 or greater GWP. Owners must repair leaks within 30 days (120 if an industrial shutdown is needed), calculated from when refrigerant is added if the appliance exceeds the leak rate. The leak rate must be calculated every time refrigerant is added, except after a retrofit, new installation, or qualifying seasonal variance. Extensions for repair deadlines would be available under certain circumstances, like unavailability of parts or safety issues. A leak would be considered repaired if no refrigerant is added for 12 months or no leaks are detected during required inspections or by Automatic Leak Detection (ALD) systems.
Proposed leak rate thresholds are as follows: 20% for commercial refrigeration equipment, 30% for Industrial Process Refrigeration (IPR) equipment, 10% for comfort cooling appliances and others not categorized as commercial or IPR.
After repairs, EPA has proposed initial and follow-up verification tests to ensure leaks are fixed. After detecting a leak rate violation, an initial test would be within 30 days (or 120 if an industrial shutdown is necessary). A follow-up test would be within 10 days after a successful initial test or appliance returning to normal conditions.
EPA has proposed leak inspections for appliances leaking above the set rate with a refrigerant charge of 15lbs or more.
Automatic Leak Detection Systems (ALDs): ALDs would be mandatory for detecting leaks in certain new and existing appliances. The proposal would require ALDs for Industrial Process Refrigeration (IPR) and commercial refrigeration appliances with 1,500 pounds or more of HFC or HFC substitutes with GWP over 53. No ALD would be required for comfort cooling appliances due to lower leak rates. For new appliances post-January 1, 2025, ALD installation would be required during or within 30 days of installation. Existing qualified appliances must install ALDs within one year from the final rule’s effective date.
If a direct ALD detects a leak at the 100ppm threshold, the leak rate must be calculated, or the leak must be preemptively repaired. For indirect ALDs, the alarm threshold is the lesser of 50-pound refrigerant loss or 10% of the charge.
“Reclaim” refers to reprocessing recovered refrigerants to meet purity standards (as per AHRI 700-2016 or a successor standard). Reclaimed refrigerants need to be verified for purity using defined methods.
The rule would require HFC refrigerants to be reclaimed before being sold/transferred unless they are being sold for reclamation or destruction. The EPA is proposing a prohibition on selling or transferring recovered refrigerants that haven’t been reclaimed to the standard unless meant for reclamation or destruction.
The rule would allow for virgin/high-purity refrigerants to be added to recovered until the product meets reclamation standards. EPA is proposing a limit on the amount of virgin HFC refrigerants in reclaimed refrigerant of no more than 15%. These requirements apply to batch levels.
EPA is also proposing requirements for labeling and recordkeeping to support compliance. The sale or reporting of refrigerant as reclaimed is prohibited if the HFC contains more than 15% virgin HFC by weight. Refrigerant would not be considered reclaimed if it hasn’t been used in equipment unless recovered from a container used in servicing or installing refrigerant-containing equipment.
Starting January 1, 2028, the EPA proposes that specific subsectors use reclaimed HFCs for the initial charge in equipment where HFCs or blends are employed. Affected equipment types include the following: residential and light commercial AC and heat pumps, cold storage warehouses, industrial process refrigeration, stand-alone retail food refrigeration, supermarket systems, refrigerated transport, and automatic commercial ice makers. The provision applies to factory-charged and field-charged new refrigerant-containing equipment, including factory-charged equipment that is sold, distributed, or installed in the U.S. must use reclaimed HFCs for the initial charge, and field-charged equipment, reclaimed HFCs should be used for initial charging during installation.
Starting January 1, 2028, the EPA proposes that reclaimed HFC refrigerant be used to service or repair specific equipment. Affected equipment types would include the following: stand-alone retail food refrigeration, supermarket systems, refrigerated transport, and automatic commercial ice makers.
The rule defines “new installations” as when there’s an increase in overall cooling capacity or a total replacement of the refrigeration loop. Adding components without changing cooling capacity or replacing the refrigeration loop doesn’t constitute a new installation unless reclaimed HFCs were previously required.
The rule includes provisions regarding cylinder management and tracking. It requires anyone involved in purchasing, receiving, or handling cylinders containing regulated substances to register with EPA’s tracking system. Once disposable cylinders are used, contractors must return them to registered reclaimers, ensuring heels within the cylinders are efficiently reclaimed. Cylinders would be tracked until they reached reach a certified reclaimer. Participants are responsible for updating the tracking system with information regarding cylinder transactions. Compliance would be implemented in phases between January 1, 2025, and January 1, 2027. A similar provision was struck down in Federal Court when ACCA joined a lawsuit against the EPA. EPA claims the decision was limited to a separate subsection of the AIM Act, so it has the authority to re-introduce the requirements.
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