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Commercial Refrigeration Industry Prepares for Next Generation of Refrigerants

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The commercial refrigeration industry is at a crossroads. In one direction, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing to ban many commonly used refrigerants in favor of low-GWP alternatives. In the other direction, the Department of Energy (DOE) is mandating significant reductions in energy consumption for reach-ins, walk-ins and ice makers by 2017. If that wasn’t challenging enough, the two regulations at times conflict — with the DOE’s new standards based on the EPA’s delisted refrigerants.

In particular, the EPA has identified the ubiquitous R404A as a candidate for delisting in 2016, via its Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) announced in 2014. Designed to lower the global warming potential in commercial refrigeration systems, this proposal also included an additional measure to introduce a new generation of approved refrigerant replacements.

While the EPA’s final rule on refrigerant delisting will not be announced until the middle of this year, many refrigeration industry professionals who submitted comments via the Notice of Public Rulemaking (NOPR) are anxiously awaiting the agency’s decision.

Emerson participated in the NOPR process, submitting an official comment that outlined our recommendations. Our hope for a best case scenario is two-fold:

  • The EPA extends the phase-out schedule of R404A (and other prominent refrigerants) five or six years to give the supply chain adequate time to prepare.
  • The EPA and the DOE could coordinate both regulatory initiatives into a single, more reasonable date.

Of course, the worst case scenario would present a considerable challenge. If the current proposal on refrigerants becomes the final rule, OEMs will have all of six months to get new equipment and retrofit components ready for the 2016 EPA deadline. Let us hope this is not the case.

In the meantime, what can we do to prepare? Let’s look at the implications to commercial refrigeration per application:

  • Supermarkets — today more than 50 percent of U.S. supermarkets have already transitioned from R404A to R407A or R407F, which are still approved in supermarkets in the delisting proposal. CO2 will also continue to be increasingly adopted in transcritical and cascading sub-critical systems.
  • Condensing units — unless you are currently using R134a, you will likely have to move to R407A or R407F. At this time, there are only a few condensing units available that have been designed for R407A and R407F.
  • Stand-alone, self-contained commercial refrigeration units — nearly all of the self-contained applications are going to be affected under the current proposal. The alternatives appear to be propane, CO2, or some of the new SNAP-approved refrigerant replacement options.

Keep in mind that these new refrigerants will have unique pressure, toxicity and flammability characteristics. As a result, technicians will have to be trained on operating implications and safe handling requirements.

This blog is a summary of Dr. Rajan Rajendran’s column in the latest edition of Emerson Climate Technologies’ E360 Outlook. Read the column in its entirely and download the digital edition.

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