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Preparing For Flammable Refrigerants Ahead Of Industry Changes

Preparing For Flammable Refrigerants Ahead Of Industry Changes

From ASHRAE Journal Newsletter, December 12, 2107

By Mary Kate McGowan, Associate Editor, News 

The refrigerant industry is tackling the fundamentals of flammability and guidelines for the safe use of refrigerants with lower global warming potential (GWP). Countries are in different stages of product research, development, production and code/standard development as they create and deploy alternative refrigerants.

With the refrigerants industry changing, several ASHRAE members are planning to update AHR Expo attendees on standards activities, challenges and industry progress during the transition to flammable refrigerants. The AHR Expo session, “Some Low GWP Next Generation Refrigerant will be Flammable:  What does it mean to be Flammable?,” is part of the refrigeration mini-track at the AHR Expo.

One of the presenters, Steve Kujak, Member ASHRAE, chair of Technical Committee 3.1, Refrigerants and Secondary Coolants, said system designers, technicians and others will probably have to deal with flammable refrigerants moving forward in some applications.

Currently, the use of nonflammable refrigerants has been standard in the industry for more than 70 years, but industry professionals will more than likely will have to use flammable refrigerants for many applications in the future that traditionally have used nonflammable to meet lower GWP refrigerant regulations.

In fact, it is likely HVAC&R products will be using combination of flammable and nonflammable refrigerants, and understanding what refrigerant type is in each will be a challenge for operators and service technicians, he said. Choosing a flammable refrigerant will dictate how systems are designed, installed, serviced and managed, said Kujak, who is also a member of ASHRAE SSPC 34, Designation and Safety Classification of Refrigerants, and a research liaison for ASHRAE’s Research Administration Committee.

“It’ll still look like HVAC equipment that we use today... You will have to use different safety procedures as you approach the equipment and when you service it,” he said. Kujak is director of next generation refrigerant research at Ingersoll Rand Trane.

Another presenter, Matt Guernsey, Associate Member ASHRAE, an associate director at Navigant Consulting, is scheduled to address the progress made to date on regulations, codes and standards in different countries that accommodate the safe use of flammable refrigerants.

“The U.S. is at one stage. Canada is at another. Europe is at another. What our work has done and what the presentation will share is the stage of development in each of those countries and the best practices that have been implemented or are being taught to technicians and other industry professionals in each of the various jurisdictions,” he said.

ANTICIPATED CHANGES

In the United States, flammable refrigerants are already in use in smaller equipment such as small refrigerators, small freezers and even some small window air conditioners, Kujak said. That equipment is typically not serviceable, and the refrigerant charge sizes are very small. So, technicians are not challenged with working with the new refrigerants just yet, he said.   

The next step is people will start seeing the introduction of equipment that uses flammable refrigerants with larger refrigerant charges and are serviceable such as larger refrigerators and freezers in grocery stores or small window type air conditioners, like Packaged Terminal Air Conditioners (PTACs), according to Kujak. The refrigerants that are being considered for even larger equipment are still being researched and developed in many cases, he said.

“The challenge right now in the industry is we’re doing all this research to try to understand how you design equipment, install it, service it, manufacture it, ship it, for the whole product life cycle for flammable refrigerants,” said Kujak.

Some of the prominent alternatives are hydrocarbons, including propane and isobutane, according to Guernsey.

Any flammable refrigerant, regardless of specific characteristics, signifies that added levels of precaution must be taken when servicing equipment. Adding these distinctions must be seamlessly translated into standards and codes, so technicians know how best to handle each refrigerant without unnecessary complexity, he said.

The key risk for working with flammable refrigerants, especially for a technician working on a system, is ensuring the refrigerant is contained within the system or within approved containers and, in the event of a leak, cannot come in contact with a flame or a hot surface, such as a brazing torch or a spark-producing tool, he said.

INDUSTRY, GLOBAL EFFORTS

The industry is starting to see and be exposed to these new refrigerants, but that is only the beginning.

In Japan, small, residential split systems are starting to use flammable refrigerants, Kujak said.  While that is not yet in practice in the United States, that is an example of the differinguses and development stages of refrigerants in different countries.

While each country has varying levels of preparation for flammable refrigerants, there are more commonalities in the specific guidelines than differences, Guernsey said, because the fundamentals of safe handling practices are based on the science of what will be safe for technicians and building occupants.

Some authorities are updating and have already updated standards to accommodate some flammable refrigerant concerns.

“For example, the IEC [International Electrotechnical Commission] has a whole series of standards that are in the process of being updated and have already been updated to accommodate some flammable refrigerant concerns. Of course, those standards then trickle down to other countries as individual countries adopt them verbatim or variants of those standards,” Guernsey said.

Equipment design standards is one area with some consistency in different countries because many countries have adopted the same standard, if not in their entirety, then with slight deviations to accommodate each country’s unique circumstances, he said.

The U.S., Mexico and Canada, for example, have together adopted a harmonized version of IEC standard 60335-2-40, while Australia, the European Union, China and others have adopted their own versions based on the IEC model, he said.

While there is no international standard on flammable refrigerants, the Montreal Protocol and the Kigali Amendment act as boundaries for 197 participating countries.

Last year, all 197 member countries of the Montreal Protocol agreed to phase down the production and consumption of HFCs due to their global warming impact. The countries, including the U.S. and Canada, signed the Kigali Amendment and agreed to cut down their hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) use by more than 80% over the next 30 years.

The push to transition to alternative refrigerants to reduce the direct greenhouse gas impacts is occurring at the same time efforts to reduce the indirect effect of CO2 gas emission through renewable energy become more common, said Kujak.

HVAC&R equipment contributes to global warming through both direct emission of refrigerants as well as indirect emissions from burning fossil fuels; therefore, as renewable energy continues to displace fossil fuels, the direct emission of HFC refrigerants becomes a “larger piece of the pie,” Guernsey said, adding that alternative refrigerants are one of the key approaches to help address that challenge.

“Flammability is not something that can be thought about as a side conversation or a tangential characteristic,” said Guernsey. “It is fundamental in the transition to the safe use of flammable refrigerants.”

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