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The Pros and Cons for Wider Adoption of R-290

The viability of propane (R-290) as a refrigerant is a recurring topic of debate in the commercial refrigeration and air conditioning industries. In light of the EPA’s recent refrigerant delisting ruling, it’s a discussion that’s likely to return to the forefront.

While the United States has been especially hesitant to adopt R-290, it has gained wider acceptance in Europe, where environmental concerns and stricter regulations are driving the adoption of more eco-friendly alternatives. R-290’s true properties and characteristics are largely unknown to those outside the industry, leading to common misconceptions among the public.

At Emerson Climate Technologies’ test labs, we’ve found R-290 capable of high-performing, efficient operation. Compared to the refrigerants it will likely be called upon to replace — like the recently delisted R-404A and HFC-134a — R-290 yields more capacity with lower wattage consumption. We’ve developed a full line of CopelandTM hermetic compressors to be compatible with R-290.

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In terms of achieving regulatory compliance, R-290 is very appealing. First, its global warming potential (GWP = 3) is well below the global threshold of 150 GWP, which places it in an elite class of refrigerants from the standpoint of minimal environmental impact. And, its high-efficiency characteristics also qualify it as a candidate for meeting the Department of Energy’s (DOE) energy reduction rules that will take effect in 2017.

R-290 has tremendous potential in commercial refrigeration. It is eco-friendly, highly efficient and high-performing. It could effectively eliminate EPA compliance concerns for the foreseeable future. But, despite its potential, R-290 has yet to achieve mass appeal. Public perceptions and an absence of an industry-wide safety infrastructure continue to curb its wider adoption.

R-290 suffers from some drawbacks as well:

  • Class A3 refrigerant that is flammable
  • Globally mandated low charge limits of 150g restrict its application range
  • Difficulty getting approved in fire and building codes
  • Requires special handling requirements/certifications
  • Lack of trained and certified field technicians

While the EPA’s recent refrigerant delisting may have cleared the way for wider R-290 adoption, there’s no telling if a new class of acceptable alternatives could push R-290 out of the picture again. New mildly flammable A2Ls such as HFO-1234yf offer similar performance and environmental characteristics. HDR-110 shows similar promise but will likely need some equipment system level adjustments. These continue to be tested and are not EPA SNAP approved at this time.

It remains to be seen if the industry and the public will embrace R-290 as a viable natural alternative, or if the analysis taking place throughout the industry is leaning in its favor. No doubt, there are numerous business models and cases with specific benefit being developed; R-290’s ability to satisfy these criteria will determine its level of adoption.

This blog is a summary of the article The Case for R-290 from the latest edition of E360 Outlook. Click here to more on the pros and cons of R-290.

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