As R-290-based refrigeration becomes more commonplace in the E.U., is the U.S. far behind?
The use of propane (R-290) as a refrigerant in commercial refrigeration is the subject of much debate in the U.S. Its A3, flammable classification conjures up negative connotations in the minds of operators, technicians and public officials alike — beliefs that when examined closer are largely unfounded. But in Europe, the use of R-290 based equipment is well into its second decade and continues to play a big role. Some leading retailers are even making it a cornerstone of their refrigeration portfolio. How this may influence R-290 perceptions and its subsequent adoption in the U.S. remains to be seen. We can, however, evaluate R-290’s early adoption in Europe and speculate on its path toward commercialization in the U.S.
When it comes to adherence to environmentally sound practices, the European Union (E.U.) and its member countries have consistently been ahead of the curve. The E.U.’s F-gas regulations were among the world’s first actions to phase down hydrofluorocarbon refrigerants in favor of low global warming potential (GWP) natural alternatives. At the same time, consumer, OEM and retailer preferences for sustainable goods and eco-friendly systems contributed to driving compliance with these regulations. It’s no surprise then that Europe has led the way in the adoption of natural refrigerants in commercial refrigeration — including R-290.
From an environmental perspective, R-290 is among an elite class of viable green alternatives to many of the industry’s most common high-GWP refrigerants. It’s a naturally occurring hydrocarbon (HC) with a GWP of 3 and 0 ozone depletion potential (ODP). R-290 is a highly refined grade of the fossil fuel propane, and although flammable, it is non-toxic in nature.
R-290’s green potential doesn’t stop there. Its excellent thermodynamic properties — such as pressure, low back pressure, volumetric capacity, capacity and coefficient of performance — are very similar to R-22, even outperforming it in certain parameters. In Emerson Climate Technologies’ test labs and published studies alike, R-290 consistently outperforms R-404A in energy efficiencies.
In the U.S., the R-290 picture is quite different. The U.S. is generally much more hesitant to view the IEC standard for the 150g charge limit as a rubber stamp to move forward with R-290 commercial refrigeration installations. In the absence of national R-290 safety standards, even applications with small charge limits are subject to the authority of state and local governance, as well as fire marshal jurisdiction — and these differ drastically from region to region.
As a result, commercial adoption has been limited primarily to the most established grocers, foodservice outlets and small format retailers who are 1) willing to absorb the cost required to achieve requisite safety assessments and certifications, and 2) seeking to meet corporate sustainability objectives.
In recent years, the U.S. regulatory climate has brought R-290 back into industry and public awareness. First, in 2011 the EPA listed R-290 as acceptable, subject to use conditions, for use in certain commercial refrigeration regulations, keeping the IEC recommendation for a 150g charge limit. More recently, the EPA also instituted the phase-down of R-404A and other common refrigerants over the next several years. On a parallel timetable, the DOE has mandated significant energy reductions in commercial refrigeration equipment, thereby favoring the use of systems and refrigerants that produce high energy efficiencies.
The combination of these two regulations is motivating OEMs and the entire refrigeration supply chain to try and meet both objectives in a single design cycle. While R-290 is one of the few approved refrigerants capable of satisfying both regulatory actions, the lack of a national safety standard is still a barrier toward wider U.S. adoption.
Efforts to establish national standards are in motion, not only for R-290, but potentially for a new class of A2L, (mildly flammable) hydrofluoroolefin refrigerant blends — some of which have yet to be EPA approved. UL, ASHRAE, ISO and IEC are all working to develop and evolve their standards to align with market trends, some of which may be finalized in the coming year.
Even with the existing barriers to R-290 adoption, the EPA approval of R-290 in 2011 prompted some of the larger foodservice and small format retailers to work through their OEMs to introduce light commercial equipment to the market. And with the promise of a true national standard, more OEMs are in the process of developing complete lines of R-290 based equipment.
As the E.U.’s international standards continue to evolve, the industry is appealing for the option to increase the 150g refrigerant charge limit to much higher allowable charges. Should this become enacted, there’s no question it will influence the emerging standards in the U.S., where the possibility of increasing the charge limit to 300g is already being discussed. This would add flexibility to system design and help transition R-290 to larger commercial applications.
One very important question remains to be answered: will the U.S. refrigeration industry allow the many benefits of R-290 to outweigh its perceived risks?
This blog is a summary of the article Europe’s Propane Refrigeration Proliferation from our recent edition of E360 Outlook. Click here to read the article in its entirety.
Director of Marketing
Emerson Climate Technologies