Refrigerant Update: Status Quo for Multifamily Air-Conditioning
The most widely used refrigerant cooling today’s apartments, which appeared to be on the chopping block, is getting a stay of execution, at least for now.
In early August the United States Court of Appeals ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency cannot force manufacturers to replace refrigerants like R-410A that emit hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).
The news means multifamily technicians won’t have to immediately seek an alternative refrigerant for a popular one that has been the go-to in the R-22 phase-out. However, the National Resources Defense Council – a clean air advocacy group – recently petitioned the court to rehear and reverse the decision.
Court overturns EPA rule on HFCs, refrigerants
Amid growing concern over gases that contribute to global warming, judges reached a 2-1 decision to knock down a previous EPA rule that put refrigerants with HFCs in jeopardy. The EPA has maintained that HFCs contribute to climate change, and in 2015 it issued a rule based on Section 612 of the Clean Air Act restricting manufacturers from making certain products that contained HFCs.
In Mexichem Fluor, Inc. v. EPA, the court noted that Section 612 requires manufacturers to replace ozone-depleting substances with safe substitutes and that HFCs are not ozone-depleting substances, therefore overturning the EPA’s rule.
“Section 612 does not require (or give EPA authority to require) manufacturers to replace non-ozone-depleting substances such as HFCs. We therefore vacate the 2015 Rule to the extent it requires manufacturers to replace HFCs, and we remand to EPA for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”
The court decision grants at least a temporary stay for refrigerants with HFCs, which have come under scrutiny in recent years as a contributor to global warming. Efforts are ongoing to decrease the use of HFCs.
Last year, world leaders took a big step by penning the Kilgali Agreement, an amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which targets HFC refrigerants used in air conditioners and refrigerators. The agreement includes a three-tiered plan for countries to peak and then reduce their use of HFCs and move to refrigerants with low climate change potential, beginning as early as 2019.
Phasing out HFCs through the agreement is designed to avoid up to 0.5 degree Celsius of global temperature rise by 2100, while continuing to protect the ozone layer.
Also, in 2016 the EPA put the air-conditioning industry on alert by lumping HFCs into the same category and with similar restrictions as hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) refrigerants like R-22 in its Refrigerant Management program.
Multifamily has options for managing refrigerants
In the apartment industry, which was braced for seeking an alternative to R-410A, it’s business as usual, says Paul Rhodes, national maintenance instructor for the National Apartment Association Education Institute. The refrigerant has been the choice for residential and commercial air-conditioning since the five-tiered phase-out of R-22 began in 2004.
“As far as right now, everything stays the same,” he said. “We’re still going away from R-22, we’re moving to R-410A replacing with a brand new system or using a retrofit refrigerant if the existing system is still operational.”
Rhodes says multifamily operators really only have two options when keeping apartments cool – replace existing equipment that runs on R-22 with a new R-410A operation or keep existing equipment running as long as possible by using a retrofit refrigerant. In addition to retrofitting an HFC refrigerant into a system that was designed to run HCFC (R-22), reusing R-22 on the community is also permitted.
“If you’re servicing existing equipment, pull R-22 out of one system, put in a retrofit refrigerant in that one system, use the recovered R-22 in the other systems and keep managing your refrigerant until such a time that you have no more. Then use retrofit until such a time all of your systems are replaced to R-410A.”
R-410A may get phased out but not any time soon
Rhodes believes that R-410A is still on the endangered list and eventually will be phased out even though the EPA has not made any formal recommendations to do so. He said the replacement won’t happen quickly because there are no options on the market and any of the potential replacement refrigerants are too flammable to use.
“The reason why it will be replaced is because the trend, as supported by the Kilgali Agreement, basically points away from high global warming refrigerants,” he said. “(The agreement) shows that industries and companies will have to go to low global warming options, which means our R-410A has to be replaced. There’s isn’t a definite time line for the replacement, which is what everybody wants.”
Rhodes believes things will remain status quo because the EPA has six months to a year to review the ruling before making changes. He doesn’t anticipate any changes in the next four or five years.
In the meantime, the EPA appears poised to enact new policies, effective Jan. 1, 2018, aimed at refrigerants with HFCs that went into place in 2016. One change is that the sale of ozone-depleting substances is restricted to certified technicians.
Technicians must pass an exam offered by an approved technician certification program in order to maintain, service, repair or dispose of appliances containing ozone-depleting or substitute refrigerants.
The next-to-last step in the phase-out of R-22 is due in 2020 when all production or import of HCFC-142b and HCFC-22 ceases. In 2030, no more production or import of HCFCs will be allowed.