New Refrigerant Rules Will Have Long Term Impact

September 28, 2016 By Carl Weinschenk

Chiller Energy ManageChillers, refrigerators and other big pieces of equipment last a very long time. They also take years to design and manufacture. Therefore it’s not surprising that the significant change that industry segment will undergo will spin out gradually over a long period of time.

An important step was taken this week. On Monday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it had finalized rules that will have significant impact on this class of equipment. The Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) Program will attempt to slow the rate of growth in hydrofluorocarbon use new and retrofit refrigerators, chillers, cold storage warehouses and retail food refrigeration.

Nothing will change much right away. But, over the long haul, they will deeply influence the evolution of many of the biggest pieces of equipment with which energy managers deal. It also will impact how they are handled. Hydrofluorocarbons are organic compounds used in refrigeration and other technologies. They add to global warming, can be toxic and can have other negative impacts.

The biggest immediate impact will be on manufacturers and regulators.  Francis Dietz, the Vice President of Public Affairs for The Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI) pointed out in response to questions emailed by Energy Manager Today that it takes a very long time to design the type of equipment the rules will impact.

This is a particularly tricky case because the replacement refrigerants are classified as flammable or mildly flammable. “Thus, they cannot be used in the vast majority of applications in the U.S. because of building code restrictions,” Dietz wrote. “The research that is about to get underway — sponsored by AHRI, DOE, ASHRAE, and California — will provide the information that code developers need to decide what changes they should make to the building codes. And once that happens, only then could these refrigerants be used – so that further compresses the equipment development process.”

The AHRI and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) saw the trouble looming ahead. They were rebuffed by EPA on a request made earlier in the year to have the deadline related to refrigerant changes delayed a year, until 2025.

Dietz wrote that there will be no short-term impact for buildings related to the moves going on today. Once the changes start, however, they will be significant. “Medium-term, those who are looking to replace their equipment will have choices they do not have today, perhaps, but not necessarily, at different price points than they have today,” Dietz wrote.

The changes won’t just be in what is bought. “In both the medium- and long-terms, installation challenges will be present, as the refrigerants that will be used in this equipment will have different characteristics than those in use today, and technicians will need to have the proper training in their use.”

Costs will change as well, though precisely how is impossible to precisely say. The EPA did tell Energy Manager Today that some work has been done on the financial impact. “A cost analysis for the proposed rule is available in the docket (EPA-HQ-OAR-2015-0663),” wrote an agency spokesperson in response to emailed questions. “A cost analysis for the final rule will be available in the docket when the rule is published.”

A decade is a long time. However, there is a lot of work to do. The wheels of setting standards move very slowly, as do designing equipment. It is important for building managers and Organizations representing buildings owners and, by extension, the energy managers who run them need to participate in all the moving wheels: The changes in classification of refrigerants, the EPA rules on big pieces of equipment and the way these rules, once set, will be implemented by manufacturers. It is important to keep in mind that buying a commercial refrigeration unit isn’t forever – but it is close.

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