Q&A:  New Generation of Alternative Refrigerants

What concerns are there about HFCs?

With growing concerns about the impact on the environment and climate change, pressure has been mounting for years to reduce the use of high-GWP refrigerants across many applications and industries.

One of the reasons HFCs are under pressure is because they have longer atmospheric lives. For example, R-134a survives 14 years compared to R-1233zd(E), one of the new alternative refrigerants, at only 29 days. All chemicals have a finite life, but some are more stable than others. In general, the shorter the atmospheric life, the lower the environmental impact because the chemical does not endure long in the atmosphere and have an impact.

Today, the next-generation refrigerants are more expensive than the current refrigerants in the marketplace.  If we look at the history of past refrigerant transitions, we can expect the current generation HFCs to begin to become more expensive in the coming years, and the new HFO refrigerants to come down in price as more factories are built and use spreads to more industries.  This pricing shift in refrigerants could push the transition to next generation solutions ahead of current mandated phase out dates.

What actions have been taken to phase down HFCs? (i.e., SNAP, Kigali Agreement) What is the timeline?

On October 15, 2016, the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol was signed, paving the way for the global phase-down of HFCs. All 197 member countries, including the United States and Canada, agreed last year to amend the Montreal Protocol (an international treaty originally designed to reduce the production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances) to phase down HFCs.

Ahead of the Kigali Amendment, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued two rules regarding the change of listing status of certain HFCs in the United States. The first rule established phase-out dates for HFCs in retail food refrigeration, aerosol propellants and motor vehicles. The EPA used its regulatory authority through the Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) by designating particular HFC refrigerants as “unacceptable” and disallowing their use in aerosol propellants starting in 2016, new retail food refrigeration starting in 2017, and motor vehicles with model year 2021. The second EPA rule established the phase-out date for certain HFCs in chillers. Specifically, R-134a, R-410A and R-407C are banned from use in new chillers (air-cooled and water-cooled, scroll, screw and centrifugal) beginning January 1, 2024.

In a separate rule, the EPA also made several other changes to management requirements for refrigerants in Section 608 of the Clean Air Act, entirely in effect by January 1, 2019, to include the following:

  • Extending the requirements previously in place for only ozone depleting substances, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) to include all replacement substances, including HFCs and the new hydrofluoroolefin (HFO) options. Hydrocarbons in small, self-contained systems are given an exception for venting.
  • Reduced trigger leak rates for a 12-month period (for example, from 15% to 10% for comfort cooling equipment), which require owners or operators to take corrective action. This may push or incentivize the industry to move to technologies that are more hermetic with fewer joints and seals, for better long-term refrigerant containment.
  • New requirements for mandatory leak inspections on equipment and increased record keeping requirements.

Are alternative refrigerants available?

New refrigerant technology is developing rapidly and alternative refrigerants are starting to emerge as potential next-generation solutions. These choices are nonflammable solutions. The two low pressure options feature ultra-low GWPs, one of which has operating pressures similar to R-123, that are ideal for chiller applications with larger refrigerant charge sizes. There is also a nonflammable alternative to R-134a, which has a significantly reduced GWP.

These alternative refrigerants are characterized by very short atmospheric lives (measured in months or even days, which results in refrigerants with “effectively zero” ODP and low GWPs.  This new class of refrigerants is collectively referred to as hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs) and includes new options such as R-1233zd(E), R-1234yf, R-1234ze(E), R-1336mzz(Z), R-513A, R-514A, R-452B and R-454B).

What are the main ones for commercial and institutional HVAC equipment?

The low–global warming potential refrigerants that are primarily being used for commercial and institutional HVAC equipment are: R-514A and R-1233zd(E) — both featuring an ultra-low GWP of less than 2, and R-513A, a next-generation, low-GWP refrigerant. R-513A provides an excellent performance to R-134a, with a 56 percent reduction in GWP.

Is equipment that uses the alternatives available now?

Yes, there are equipment options already available on the market that can use these alternative refrigerants. Trane® is already offering customers options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in their facilities through the use of next generation refrigerants in HVAC products. Trane plans to transition their current portfolio of HVAC products that use refrigerants to be compatible with next generation refrigerants well before phase-out dates to offer customers choices without compromising safety, reliability and efficiency.

We have expanded our chiller portfolio significantly in the last 18 months to address the increasing customer demand for climate-friendly systems. Our promise to customers has always been to deliver right product with the right refrigerant at the right time, ensuring that products meet all regulatory requirements.

The EcoWise™ portfolio was created by Ingersoll Rand® as part of our company’s Climate Commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from its products and operations by 2030. Trane products within the EcoWise portfolio meet the following requirements:

      • Are available with next-generation, lower-GWP refrigerants
      • Reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions
      • Maintain safety and energy efficiency through innovative design
      • Meet or exceed emissions regulations

The following products have earned the EcoWise endorsement:

Trane® CenTraVac™ centrifugal chillers for large buildings and industrial applications can operate with either R-123 or next-generation refrigerants R-514A or R-1233zd(E) — both featuring an ultra-low GWP of less than 2.  

Trane Series S™ CenTraVac chillers deliver the highest full and part-load efficiencies on the market today, offering customers a choice of either R-123 or the next generation refrigerant R-514A that has an ultra-low GWP of less than two.

Trane Series R® RTWD water-cooled chiller and Trane Sintesis™ air-cooled chillers can operate with a choice of R-134a or Opteon™ XP10 (R-513A), a next-generation, low-GWP refrigerant.

Is the industry expecting any disruptions?

As standards and codes continue to change, there are many factors to consider as the industry works to find the best balance between minimizing environmental impacts, maintaining safety, and managing product costs.

The HVACR industry will likely have to adjust product refrigerant charge sizes in most direct expansion applications to meet the standards. The establishment of the new 2L sub-classification for refrigerant flammability addresses new next-generation refrigerants that have lower flammability characteristics. The HVACR industry is actively investigating the safety of flammable refrigerants for indoor and outdoor use, and determining the risks of flammable refrigerants by understanding the probability of potential occurrences and severity of events in various application situations including servicing and handling. Some direct refrigerant expansion applications where refrigerant charge sizes are quite large, such as large splits, VRF systems, and large distributed commercial refrigeration systems, may not be available in their current form in the future because of flammability requirements.

The HVAC industry has worked very closely with the US EPA to ensure that the phase down timelines allow an appropriate amount of time for manufacturers to develop product with next generation solutions.  Ingersoll Rand® intends to have products available in all market segments with next generation solutions ahead of the required transition dates.

Are there tradeoffs with the new refrigerants?

Refrigerant selection is a balancing act. While the HVACR industry evaluates next-generation refrigerant alternatives, the challenge is to balance environmental benefits with safety, sustainability and design requirements. It’s likely that tradeoffs between GWP, flammability and efficiency will be needed to be made in selecting refrigerants.

When considering refrigerant alternatives for the future, policy makers, the public and manufacturers must select refrigerants with the best balance of the following:

  • Environmental performance (direct environmental impact such as reduced GWP)
  • Safety for consumers (flammability and toxicity)
  • Energy efficiency (indirect environmental impacts such as reduced CO2 emissions)
  • Intellectual property considerations
  • Transition costs (impact on industry and consumers)
  • Product sustainability (long operational life, reliability, maximizing recyclable content and repurposing components)

One of the most important environmental impacts to consider when transitioning to new refrigerants is energy efficiency.  We believe that there will be a great opportunity for the industry to improve energy efficiency with next-generation solutions.  R-410A replacements are currently being developed which could see significant efficiency improvements. For large tonnage centrifugal chillers, we are seeing the industry looking toward more efficient low pressure solutions (like R-514A and R-1233zd(E)) that are better in efficiency than medium pressure R-134a.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2015, Federal Register, Vol.80, No.138, p.42870-42959.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2016, Federal Register, Vol.81, No.231, p.86778-86895.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2016, Federal Register, Vol.81, No.223, p.82272-82395.