It is now clear that the technology that underpins the vast majority of Refrigeration and Air Conditioning (HVACR) is at a tipping point.

It is less well understood that there is a major opportunity for increased HVACR energy efficiency. The demise of HFC refrigerants tends to receive the attention but it is the energy efficiency of the alternatives - and the associated cost savings - that matters to most stakeholders.

The vast majority of HVACR equipment in use in Australia is based on HFC refrigerants. Global negotiations for reduced use of these refrigerants started in earnest on April 20. You could be forgiven for thinking this is just another talk-fest, but it is not. It marks the beginning of the elimination of HFC refrigerants in the major HVACR sectors. The question you need to answer is: how will the phase down of HFC refrigerants impact your HVACR investment?

The answer must explain how your HVACR infrastructure can be made much more energy efficient and at the same time future proof your HVACR investment against the elimination of HFC refrigerants. It will highlight that refrigerant selection is a major component of the energy efficiency assessment.

There are energy efficient technologies in every major sector of HVACR. They are based on the use of the natural refrigerants: ammonia, carbon dioxide and hydrocarbons. There is a vast amount of evidence at, and that demonstrate high energy savings from natural refrigerant use worldwide. The range of energy savings available per installation is typically between 20 and 40 per cent, but can be up to 70 per cent in cases involving complete re-engineering for energy efficiency, and the ROI is typically very attractive.

What is the HFC Tipping Point?

The vast majority of the HVACR industry has now recognised that HFC refrigerants have to be phased down. The central logic is that HVACR use is growing rapidly worldwide. If we don’t eliminate the use of HFC in major HVACR sectors they will become responsible for a large proportion of global emissions.

As a result the EU, North America and the United Nations have started negotiations to replace HFC refrigerants over the next 15 years. All major participants have called for the phase down of HFC refrigerants and the use of the Montreal Protocol as the international agreement to make it happen.  Australia has committed to this policy.

More importantly, synthetic refrigerants suppliers and original equipment manufacturers that use synthetics take the same stance. As a result, it is inevitable and you need to be prepared.

That is only part of the story. HVACR is a major consumer of electricity. The replacement of HFC refrigerants requires new HVACR equipment or retrofits. The technology that will replace HFC based technology is far more energy efficient.

It is on this basis that we consider the phase down of HFC refrigerant-based technology is inevitable and by definition the phase up in the use of natural refrigerant-based technology is also inevitable.

Implications of the HFC Phase Down

Future proofing your investment in HVACR means you need to be aware that HVACR equipment that uses HFC refrigerants has a limited life because the refrigerants will become increasingly less available. At the very least, you don’t want to be investing in new HFC-based plant. Of course the same applies to HCFC based technology as HCFC refrigerants like R22 are now in very short supply due to the reduction of import quotas to less than six per cent of the 2000 level effective next year.

Just like these Ozone-depleting refrigerants (which themselves have high global warming potential, or GWP), HFC refrigerants will be phased down and eventually phased out because there are low-GWP alternatives that are much more energy efficient

Even more importantly, the opportunity is there to benefit from HVACR energy efficiency and the resulting running cost reductions.  There is no reason to wait for international agreements to be struck because the cost savings from converting to natural refrigerant-based technology are available now.

You should not think that natural refrigerant-based technology is new and therefore needs time to mature. The fact is that conversions to natural refrigerants are being done now in Australia and worldwide in all major HVACR sectors. A great example is the Consumer Goods Forum, consisting of over 400 of the worlds leading food retailers and food suppliers who turnover about $3.5 trillion per annum. They say we are switching exclusively to natural refrigerant-based technology effective this year.

Conversion to energy efficient natural refrigerants includes both retrofits and new equipment. In many cases, it is possible to retrofit your existing HVACR equipment to enable the use of natural refrigerants very cost effectively.

There are 100,000 cold stores and cool rooms in Australia. Most of them can be converted to the use of natural refrigerants – ammonia, CO2 or hydrocarbons. There are 12 million split system air conditioners, most of which can be retrofit to hydrocarbon refrigerants. There are over 80,000 liquid chillers that can be retrofit to use ammonia or hydrocarbon refrigerants. All of these opportunities will deliver major energy savings.

In fact there are over 50 million HVACR installations in Australia, most of which can be converted to or replaced by energy efficient natural refrigerant-based technologies. The energy cost savings to the country will be in the order of $10 billion per year.

When you examine your HVACR needs it only makes sense to examine all of the factors that determine HVACR energy efficiency. We call this Integrated Energy Efficiency Engineering because it calls for consideration of energy management, heat load management and mechanical engineering (vapour compression). By optimising all three, you will have the opportunity to reduce your energy costs by as much as 60 to 70 per cent.

The Australian Refrigeration Association (ARA) represents the suppliers of natural refrigerant-based HVACR technology and integrated energy efficiency engineering. Regardless of the nature of a HVACR system, the association can find a supplier that can deliver energy savings and future proof of your investment.

Finally, you should be aware that the synthetic refrigerants industry is promoting fourth generation synthetic refrigerants known as HFOs. This is yet another attempt by synthetic refrigerant suppliers to cause industry transition to refrigerants with dubious value.  In the view of the ARA, they are:

  1. not a source of increased energy efficiency
  2. expensive
  3. toxic
  4. flammable

The simplest way for you to make your assessment of HFO is to read their Safety Data Sheet closely and examine the literature available. Then, you should ask yourself, why rely on synthetic refrigerant suppliers yet again when they have failed three times already?

  • May be a bit early to nail the coffin on HFC just yet , The paragraphs on the end of that article are significant.
    For a small hermetic system (refrigerator, window type air conditioner) , you can use whatever refrigerant you want, as the whole system is put together in a factory , pressurised, sealed up, and never touched again.
    Commercial refrigeration is a different story, the systems will be assembled in-situ, and generally opened or modified several times in their lifetime, and may need non-hermetic fittings (flare fittings O-rings etc). Compressors will be assembled with gaskets and have rotating shaft seals, of greater complexity than the older style R12-R22 or even R134 HFC's.
    There are many issues with alternatives, like extreme operating pressures (especially CO2) , poor oil miscibility , hygroscopic oil, toxic (ammonia), flammable (hydrocarbons), and require special rubber and gasket material.
    All of this adds to the operating and maintenance costs and creates safety issues with maintenance/assembly personnel.

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