The Future of Refrigerants in the HVACR Industry


Posted on:

While the contracting industry is still in the midst the R-22 refrigerant phaseout, ACCA is already working to address the next phasedown, which could lead to the introduction of ASHRAE-designated A2L mildly flammable refrigerants. R-22 is being phased outbecause it is an ozone depleting substance and due to concerns about refrigerants with high global warming potential, the industry will soon be transitioning from hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants like R410A. ACCA is working with Congress to address the HFC refrigerant phasedown because there must be safety standards and uniform phasedown timelines in place to ensure the safe adoption of A2L refrigerants.

As of January 1, 2020, there will be a complete ban on the production and import of R-22 refrigerants, which are major contributors to greenhouse gases. In response, Next generation refrigerants are being developed that would reduce ozone depletion potential (ODP), global warming potential (GWP) and emission of greenhouse gases (GHG) from HVACR equipment. ACCA believes that Congress should step in to regulate the transition from the use of R22, and advocates for standards for A2L refrigerants be introduced in the 2024 code cycle, rather than the 2021 code cycle, according to according to Todd Washam, Vice President of Public Policy & Industry Relations for ACCA.

“There are issues we believe can only be addressed through congressional action, not through a state by state approach with potentially 50 different phase down schedules and regulatory schemes. ACCA is the only organization or association who is working on these issues for contractors on a daily basis. ACCA is making sure our contractors have a seat at the table. And then they’re the first to know about issues so that they can prepare their customers and be seen as a source of trusted and verified information,” said Todd Washam, vice president of public policy & industry relations for ACCA.

Environmental Considerations

As it turns out, the properties that make R-22 an effective refrigerant also factor into its role in contributing to damage to the ozone layer. R410A, on the other hand, has low ozone depleting qualities but is a potent greenhouse gas. By contrast, A2L refrigerants are less prone produce greenhouse gases, according to Sarah Kim, Ph.D., Research Scientist, Fluorochemicals R&D for Arkema, Inc., located in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.

“The current refrigerants that are being used are non-flammable and very stable, but they’re a little too stable. They remain in atmosphere for a very long time, which becomes greenhouse gases. So what we are developing right now (are) more sustainable refrigerants that are not so stable that they stay in the atmosphere forever.” she explained.

Introduction of the A2L Category

Safety classification of refrigerants is designated by a letter and a number. A refers to less toxicity; B refers to greater toxicity. There were formerly three flammability classifications: class 1 non-flammable, class 2 flammable and class 3 highly flammable. ASHRAE Standard 34 introduced a new category, 2L, to indicate refrigerants with a lower flammability rating than standard class 2 refrigerants. A2L refrigerants, also known as mildly flammable refrigerants, have a low toxicity rating and along with being mildly flammable, according to Dr. Kim.

“Through this transition the industry recognized (that) we need to have more finely defined categories. We want to define a category within the flammable classification that (would) require a much higher concentration to ignite it.”

“To beclassified as a 2L refrigerant; the burning velocity has to be below 10 centimeters per second. Normally if you have a lower burning velocity, you have a higher minimum ignition energy (MIE). That means it’s more difficult to ignite. (Unlike class 3 refrigerants,) 2L refrigerants would not ignite with an electric spark,” she explained.

Transitioning to Flammable Refrigerants

While the use of mildly flammable refrigerants is not widespread in the United States, there is substantial industry knowledge available that should ease the transition, according to Scot Swan, Global Market Manager for Air Conditioning and Refrigeration at Arkema.

“Globally, flammable refrigerants are used quite extensively, particularly in Asia, and now in Europe. It’s really the US that has not embraced them yet. So there is a lot of market knowledge overall. It’s just in the US where we have not had the opportunity yet to train the end users and the contractors and the technicians to handle these products,“ he said.

Transitioning to Flammable Refrigerants

While the use of mildly flammable refrigerants is not widespread in the United States, there is substantial industry knowledge available that should ease the transition, according to Scot Swan, Global Market Manager for Air Conditioning and Refrigeration at Arkema.

“Globally, flammable refrigerants are used quite extensively, particularly in Asia, and now in Europe. It’s really the US that has not embraced them yet. So there is a lot of market knowledge overall. It’s just in the US where we have not had the opportunity yet to train the end users and the contractors and the technicians to handle these products,“ he said.

A2L refrigerants should only be used with new equipment, rather than retrofitted into existing equipment. This should also lengthen the timeline for when contractors and consumers will encounter them on a widespread basis, according to Dr. Kim.

“The (new) equipment introduced in the market has lower leak rates. So the chance of having to service your equipment will be even a longer span. And new equipment with mildly flammable equipment will not be introduced in the market for a couple of years from now. So I think the service for that equipment will be even further down the road,“ she said.

Safety Considerations

Several safety considerations are being introduced along with mildly flammable refrigerants, including placing red bands around cylinders to indicate flammability,and changing valves and fittings to differentiate them from nonflammable refrigerants, according to Swan.

Nonetheless, the introduction of A2L refrigerants necessitates a more comprehensive approach, according to Lanny Huffman, President of Hickory Sheet Metal Company, Inc. in Hickory, NC.

“We need to go back and redo the certification. It has been a long time now since people have been certified in handling refrigerants. And refrigerants have changed. I know you’ve got contractors out there, service techs that are not qualified to handle refrigerants,” he said.

Jay Monger, President and Owner of Excel Steelworks in Harrisonburg, VA, agrees that untrained and unlicensed contractors pose a significant hazard.

“I think as a quality contractorwith the time period for implementation, we can do the training for how our guys work with the materials. Flammable safety inside the home is already a safety concern that we are training our guys on a regular basis.

“The concern for us is more about theguy that’s unlicensed and untrained and what he might be doing to the systems without our knowledge, and the safety hazards that poses to our employees and to the homeowners or business owners and occupants. Right now, unfortunately, a homeowner can go onto the internet and buy a refrigerant. That would be very scary for us if those refrigerators became mildly flammable,” he said.

Transporting mildly flammable refrigerants presents another safety concern, according to Washam.

“We’re not sure if OSHA is going to have certain regulations that people have to follow. We don’t know what the requirements will be for fire extinguishers. Will you have to have those next to the system if you’re operating on it, or how many different extinguishers you’ll have to carry in your truck?

We understand that these products maybe have may have to be transported vertically. That can mean increased costs on contractors if they have to retrofit their trucks. Will contractors and technicians have to have hazmat certificates on their vehicles if they carry these products? We don’t think they will, because it will probably be based on volume. And most residential contractors aren’t going to carry enough product on their trucks. But we don’t know that answer for sure.

Even stoppingat railroad crossing. Are drivers going to have to do that if they carry these products, which means that they’re carrying hazardous materials will they have to pay their staff more? We don’t know how that how those issues will get addressed if Congress doesn’t take action,” he said.

Preparing for the Transition

Huffman plans to take advantage of specialized training offered by manufacturers as well training materials presently being developed by ACCA. He also stresses the need to educate customers about the new refrigerants.

“Once we start installing the news products and equipment, we thought about sending out a newsletter to all of our customers be it commercial, industrial, residential, like a little education pamphlet,” he said.

Meanwhile, the final stages of ACCA’s training and safety materials regarding mildly flammable refrigerants are waiting for ASHRAE and UL code standards to be put in place. That’s expected to be done by the end of the year, according to Washam.“

ACCA will have good training forour members and their technicians that highlights the protocols and the safety features that the technicians will have to abide by to ensure their safety. We’re about 80% done with our online training program for the product. We’re waiting for standards –those are ASHRAE and UL –Underwriters Laboratory. And then we will be able to roll out our training program,” he said.

Audrey Henderson
Latest posts by Audrey Henderson (see all)

Posted In: ACCA Now, Opinion, Print Edition

Looking for an ACCA QA Accredited Contractor?

Are you a homeowner or building manager?

BECOME AN ACCA MEMBER

join now

PLUS It's Risk Free!

JOIN OUR MAILING LIST and Get the Latest HVACR Industry Updates.