Executive Roundtable: Low GWP Refrigerants
Originally published: 01.01.21 by Pete Grasso
The industry is moving to refrigerants with lower global warming potential (GWP). But with this change also comes challenges.
Once again, the industry is shifting to a new refrigerant. Unlike past transitions, however, there is no one standard replacement for the current R-410A refrigerant. When the industry began phasing out R-22 several years ago, R-410A was the widely adopted replacement.
Although R-410A has an ozone depletion percentage of zero, it does have significant global warming potential (GWP). The race is on now for the industry to transition to efrigerants with a low GWP — a race, that is, in which the finish line seems to always be changing. Add in the fact there is no Federal guidance relative to this transition, states are left to develop their own guidelines — with California leading the way.
Refrigerant transitions can be complicated enough, but with no solid timing, no Federal guidelines and not one, but two leading replacements (R-32 and R-454B), this transition seems a little more complex.
To help contractors sort this out, I recently spoke with a handful of executives at many of the top manufacturers and industry associations to find out what contractors need to know about the transition to low GWP refrigerants.
How is this transition different than when the industry phased out R-22?
Our panel includes:
Director, Government Affairs
Director of Technical Services
Vice President and General Manager
Global Business Director
Senior Director of Product Strategy and Regulatory
Director, Industry and Government Relations
Senior Vice President
Vice President, Regulatory Affairs
Nolte: They’re very similar. The one difference will be there will be sensors in the equipment that need to detect the A2L refrigerants, so if there’s a leak, being able to have that leak detection. Outside of that, it’s very simple. We’ve been through this before, and that would be the one nuance that I think people need to be aware of and prepare for … otherwise, the industry is well-equipped to handle the transition.
Galyen: When the industry transitioned from R-22 to [mainly] to R-410A we had to address higher pressures and different oils that also tended to be more hygroscopic, in other words they absorbed water. Now, as we transition away from R-410A, we’re mainly focused on these A2Ls, a mildly flammable refrigerant, which means we have to adapt to make sure they are safe. Because of the mildly flammable status we have to manage fire and building code changes before they can be widely adopted.
Walter-Terrinoni: We saw a change in operating pressure in the transition from R-22 to R-410A, a zero ozone depletion potential refrigerant. The transition to low global warming potential (GWP) refrigerants will require the use of lower flammability or the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) classified A2L refrigerants.
Molina: There is actual and widespread experience in moving from one or more set of refrigerants to another with a keen understanding of what makes a transition successful, from the planning to execution including a clear communication of the key product characteristics throughout the value chain. Also, this transition will require training and additional safety features for proper implementation in the case of A2L refrigerants as well as coordination with local code officials.
Davis: (Before), we could use a lot of the same equipment. This time, we’ll need to get a few new gauges and a few tools, and we have to take a little extra care during the installation and service. There are going to be some restrictions as far as room size or the space in which this equipment is installed. But I think those are probably the biggest factors.
Ayers: One of the things that we’ve been doing as an industry is looking at all those challenges and trying to find solutions to make sure that this transition is as smooth as possible, knowing that there are some changes that will have to happen by comparison.
Walker: A refrigerant change in the industry is not unusual. But in the past, the HVACR manufacturers, the OEMs, generally have adopted the same refrigerant such as moving from R-22 to R-410A. But that may not be true with the pending transition to low GWP refrigerants, as two major manufacturers have announced two different refrigerants (R-32 and R-454B).
What is the timing for this transition to low GWP refrigerants?
Walker: Today, there’s not a firm universal date for all HVAC solutions, but we’re monitoring the progress of key state in federal proposals, with the understanding that the US will likely need to move to a next generation refrigerant. Both the chambers of Congress have introduced the Bipartisan American Innovation and Manufacturing Act or the AMAX, which seeks to give the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the authority to regulate the transition, looking to mirror the Kigali Amendment Phase down. So that’s the key one to watch, and see where that goes over the next several months.
Galyen: The industry has been advocating to give EPA the authority to do the phase down of GWP refrigerants. That hasn’t happened. In that void California has moved ahead.
Molina: The only state addressing this issue is California. On December 10, 2020, the California Air Resource Board (CARB) adopted a change to require all new stationary AC in the state to use refrigerants with GWP of 750 or less as of January 1, 2025. This is a two-year extension from the original proposal, recognizing that building codes will not be ready to allow A2L refrigerants by 2023. No other state has proposed R-410A restrictions in A/C, and, at this time, there is no federal legislation that would specifically prohibit continued R-410A usage.
Ayers: California is looking at a mandate as far as equipment goes and that will be the first state then to transition to A2L refrigerants. With that, we’ll see that initial transition happen there. And then I think very quickly following that, you’ll see it in other states just because as equipment manufacturers produce more equipment, they’re going to produce more than is necessary just in California and that will become available in other states and distributors will start purchasing that equipment for sale along with the service gas to go with them.
Walter-Terrinoni: The transition to low global GWP refrigerants is gradually happening now. EPA’s SNAP Rule 20 (including commercial refrigeration) and SNAP Rule 21 (including chillers) that were sent back to EPA to be re-written by the Court have now been adopted by six states and 10 more are working toward adopting the same regulations requiring a transition for refrigeration systems in 2021, and chillers in 2024.
What can you tell us about the leading replacement refrigerants — R-32 and R-454B?
Tucker: During the last transition, R-410A was the clear replacement for R-22 residential and commercial applications. But for this transition, we haven’t yet concluded which refrigerant will be the primary replacement. If there will be one replacement or possibly two or more replacements being used for this market. As far as performance characteristics, R-32 is probably ahead of R-454B. R32 is also, as a single component refrigerant, it’s easier to reclaim and recycle than a refrigerant blend and Mitsubishi Electric is using R32 in products and markets worldwide that have already transitioned. But for the U.S. market, we need additional testing and evaluation such that we can evaluate the performance characteristics for US specific types of products for this transition.
LaPietra: Honeywell has a broad portfolio of refrigerants, which includes both A1 and A2L refrigerants such as R-32 and R-454B, that minimize environmental impact and are designed to meet the performance and safety needs of an application. As a supplier of A2L refrigerants into a broad range of applications, we strongly support all efforts to ensure that flammable refrigerants are used safely and are following due process with standards and building codes.
Walter-Terrinoni: In the U.S., Daikin announced that they would be using R-32 and Carrier announced that they would be using R-454B to replace R-410A in AC systems. R-410A is a blend of R-32 and R-125 (a fire suppressant with very high global warming potential or GWP). R-454B is a blend of R-32 and HFO-1234yf (auto refrigerant). Commercial refrigeration systems are using R-448A, R-449A, and R-452A. Chillers will transition to R-513A, R-1233zd(E), R-514B, and R-1234ze(E))
Walker: After our extensive research and consideration, the Daikin, Goodman and Amana Brands have endorsed R-32 as the next generation refrigerant. In evaluating R-32, we took a really holistic approach that includes safety, energy efficiency, cost effectiveness for our products. And an important part of considering R-32, it’s actually not new to the industry. It’s become pretty much the de facto standard, globally, to replace R-410A.
Molina: R-32 has an excellent balance of cost, performance, and low environmental impact. As performance is a key driver for many equipment manufacturers, OEMs can potentially see efficiency gains of up to 10 percent, and capacity increases by up to 10 percent versus R-410A. R-32 also reduces the environmental impact with a GWP of 675, 68 percent lower than R-410A. Because of these attributes and global use, it has the potential to be the number one choice for R-410A replacement in the U.S. and Canada, as it has become in Asia, Europe and Australia.
Nolte: With a GWP of 466, which is about one fifth of R-410A, Carrier has selected R-454B based on the balance of environmental impact, safety, performance and longevity. Having that low GWP extends out that life cycle of the product phase downs.
Are there safety concerns with either of these refrigerants?
Walter-Terrinoni: As shown through more than $7 million of research in the US alone, A2L refrigerants are not typical flammable gases like hydrocarbons such as propane, acetylene, and hydrogen. A2Ls are difficult to ignite. They require an open flame or a very high energy source. Common household items like a toaster or heater insert or even sparks from grinding inset won’t ignite an A2L as shown AHRTI project 8017. Non-sparking tools won’t be needed for A2L refrigerants. It will be important for technicians to participate in training over the next few years as a reminder of the properties of current refrigerants as well as understanding how to work with new refrigerants safely.
Nolte: People probably get alerted to by the fact that it’s mildly flammable. There’s going be a lot of focus on, obviously, training and safe handling and so forth. It may seem, when someone first hears that, a little daunting. But there’s going to be a lot of procedures and safeties and identification in place.
Galyen: As with any refrigerant, training and safety guidelines will be important for contractors with the introduction of A2Ls.
Davis: There’ll be new requirements that HVACR professionals will need to be aware of, that they need to follow. It’s not just business as usual. To my knowledge, at this time, the requirements would look a lot like they do for transporting A-2 refrigerants or A-2 classified compounds. They’re a little more strict, are to be transported vertically instead of horizontally, and there’s some quantity limits that start to become imposed. That’s still being ironed out.
Molina: HVACR technicians will need training on A2L type refrigerants like R-32 as they become more common in the near future. The good news is many organizations, such as ACCA, AHRI and OEMs, are putting together training manuals now to ease this transition.
Walker: Regardless of whether the question is about a low GWP refrigerant, like R-32, or an existing refrigerant, like R-410A, technicians should always be properly trained for both the equipment and the refrigerant. Having said that, R-32 has been safely deployed in actually over 117 million units around the world already.
What’s the biggest concern related to these A2L refrigerants?
Molina: The unfamiliarity of A2L refrigerants is the biggest challenge for contractors. The main concern with A1 refrigerants is pressure. Contractors typically understand pressure and the procedure for either working on a system or storing of refrigerant cylinders. A2L refrigerants have similar pressures as A1, but additional training will be needed in order to familiarize technicians with the flammability aspects. Fortunately, this transition can be easier for technicians familiar with brazing equipment, where they are already working with flammable pressurized gases and also by relying on the experience of other countries/regions where A2L refrigerants have been widely and safely adopted.
Ayers: Flammable refrigerants that are considered a flammable gas under the fire code will be new. We are currently going through the process of trying to update the international fire code to allow larger storage of these lower flammability gases. The current fire code does not differentiate between high flammability and low flammability gases.
Davis: We developed some training based on the standards that Washington state adopted, which was ASHRAE standard 15, the 2019 version, so that we could explain what those requirements were. And we explained the current Department of Transportation requirements as we know them now for that market, so they could be prepared when this new regulation, this new provision goes into effect.
Galyen: Getting the codes and standards updated and training for contractors. There is high focus and attention on the individual component qualification to ensure they perform well in the application and will be reliable over time. Globally Danfoss has extensive experience and refrigerant experts so we can help our customers prepare for the transition through education — not only for our customers but for regulators and code officials.
Tucker: The biggest concerns for the contractors is making sure they can properly educate their customers and answer the questions and any possible objections. And the flammability issue is one example. A responsible contractor isn’t going to waive away customer’s concerns, but they’ll put what the customer may have heard about these refrigerants in context. They’ll want clear information and guidance from manufacturers so they can credibly engage their customers.
Walker: Some contractors may have some concerns about handling and working with this type of refrigerant. But it’s worth noting that technicians have similar fears when changing from R-22 to R-410A. Because of the increase in operating pressure, there was some trepidation out there. But despite worries, the industry managed. I think that transitioned very well.
What kind of training is available?
Walter-Terrinoni: Some OEMs have started training technicians. Other organizations have also developed training. The ESCO Group, for example, will have a program available after the first of the year by e-learning and print; there will be a closed-book exam required for certification.
Davis: ACCA has a training program. It is a good introduction to A2L refrigerants. The requirements in our training focus on charges of less than 6.6 pounds. And that’s important because above that, it invokes these rules for room size and other things. We try to keep it very simple so that the contractors could become informed of the differences, maybe brush up on some of the safety aspects that they’re going to need to take a little more care with this refrigerant.
Galyen: Contractors are going to have to rely a lot on the large system OEMs, several offer trainings around the new refrigerants in application for installation as well as for service. And then there’s independent entities that have some level of training, such as North American Technician Excellence (NATE).
LaPietra: Honeywell offers a good online selection of publications and video to assist contractors. In addition, our sales and technical marketing teams hold face to face training for contractors and wholesale customers on request. Honeywell proudly sponsors RSES and HVAC training Excellence efforts as well as hosting Regional training days throughout the year.
Ayers: Training will most likely require some form of certification similar to the current 608 program that we use from EPA. With that certification is going to just be new requirements that contractors are certified to use the new refrigerants. And then as those certifications happen, you’ll see distributors then start to stock the equipment. It doesn’t do you any good to have equipment in your warehouse if you don’t have a customer that can buy it. For that reason, distributors will work with trainers to make sure training is available to their customers. You can’t sell the equipment until you have people trained and people won’t train until there’s equipment to buy.
Tucker: We have a really significant number of training facilities across the U.S. They’re all specific to our equipment, and when we transition and use these newer refrigerants, we will have in place training for distributors and contractors.
What kind of management strategy should contractors employ?
Molina: First and foremost, A2L training will need to be completed by all the technicians employed by the respective contracting company. In addition, a key strategy will be the proper planning for storage of A2L refrigerant, with the appropriate safety features, which should be defined by local code officials. Contractors might look at the quantity they typically purchase and identify any requirements.
Davis: For the professional contractor who is informed, and is aware, and is prepared … they’ve got procedures to charge for labor, procedures to charge for the equipment, and all of the administrative overhead things that go into it … I don’t see this as a big deal with it.
Galyen: Because there are many different alternatives (in addition to R-32 and R-454B), I’m a little anxious about the impact to contractors, to be honest, because they’re going to have to service legacy refrigerants. They’re going to have to service the refrigerants for today and what those are going to be in the future. I see them having a separate trailer with nothing but different colored cylinders of refrigerant in the back of it because that’s what they’re going to need for their everyday work.
Nolte: We’ve been communicating to our contractors, when we have dealer meetings and events, to get ahead of it, what is coming, what is the change in the regulation and what does the Montreal Protocol and the Kigali Agreement all mean for the industry. We’ve also foreshadowed the fact that there will be an A2L, and an A2L is mildly flammable and so forth. We’re trying to get them as much education as possible … we don’t have all the answers yet on exactly how it’s going to affect their business, but those are all being worked on.
Walker: Availability, cost effectiveness and lifetime efficiency are three key considerations. It’s important to provide consumers access to available and affordable solutions for their homes and businesses. And R-32 is widely available, manufactured by numerous refrigerant producers and distributed globally.
Walter-Terrinoni: It’s important for all stakeholders to start becoming familiar with the next generation of refrigerants in the near-term and be prepared for training for technicians over the next few years. There will be an increased need to recover and reuse reclaimed refrigerants during this transition.
LaPietra: Contractors should be aware of what can and can’t be used for retrofit, especially with flammable refrigerants. With R-466A, which is intended for new equipment only at this stage, we are working to allow for retrofits, which would be a game changer since A2Ls cannot be retrofitted into current systems. Because of its non-flammability and close performance to R-410A, we could introduce a retrofit where we replace the condensing unit only. Like other new refrigerants, retrofitting needs further evaluation as it also depends on the installed base, which can vary significantly.
What should contractors pay attention to with this issue?
Ayers: The biggest thing for them is knowing the timing. I think that’s a big open question for most people in the industry. Outside of California, there is no requirement for a transition on equipment. And so it’s going to be a big question of, when is this transition going to happen?
Molina: In the U.S., the transition will take place over a multi-year timeframe. Codes will need to be adopted, and local jurisdictions will need to publish exactly what they require. This should allow for enough training and timely information flow from the OEMs, to the distributor, and, finally, to the contractor over time.
Galyen: My recommendation is that (contractors) stay close to this issue because a lot of the decisions are starting to be made and maybe not through individual contractor involvement. They should be engaged in associations and stay involved in decisions with the distributors and with OEMs.
LaPietra: At this point, most of the attention is at the OEM level. This is mainly due to safety issues with A2Ls.
Nolte: Potentially, it’s pretty far on the distance, even if we think of California now being really four years out at this point. I think they’re engaged and know that there’s something coming, but I don’t know if they understand and have all the awareness around all the implications and the changes. Having this discussion now, and when contractors read this information, that’s going to give them more information and start thinking about what type of questions they might have and how they are going to handle it within their businesses.
Tucker: We see some that are still mourning the transition away from R-22 to R-410A, so this may be coming as a big surprise to them when we transition to the newer refrigerants, particularly if they have any flammability characteristics. It is not too early for them to be concerned, there’s been plenty of discussion about this so if they’ve been paying attention, they will understand what’s happening. It may seem like 2024, 25, 26, that’s a long time away, but in terms of preparation, it would be good for distributors and contractors alike to understand these refrigerants.
Walker: We actually recently surveyed contractors and we found that many contractors were either not aware of a pending transition or not really well-educated on the specifics and how it may affect them in their business. I certainly believe more attention and education are needed. Right now, there are some really good opportunities through industry associations.
What are the biggest benefits to A2L refrigerants?
Tucker: The refrigerant change represents an opportunity. And there are several benefits of R-32 that other countries already enjoy and we soon will be able to as well. Product efficiency, lower charge levels, not to mention the lower GWP … these are things the U.S. should be moving towards. And we’re glad to see it moving that way.
Davis: If we move toward more and more efficient, natural refrigerants that do have a higher flammability rating, then this is a good first step in that direction. We’re dealing with a refrigerant that has a lower flammability rating, but it’s a safe product when it’s installed right
Is there an increase in equipment efficiency with low GWP refrigerants?
Galyen: Most of the efficiency of a system is built into the system design. It depends on what compressor, heat exchangers, airflow, type of expansion device …all of those things add up to determine the efficiency of the system. Refrigerant, in this case, is not going to take us a step backwards, it should be taking us a step forward.
Tucker: Designing new equipment, regardless of refrigerant, and also considering the characteristics of a new refrigerant, we’re going to gain efficiencies regardless. It’s been shown in our equipment that R-32 is slightly more efficient than R-410A, and it also reduces the amount of charge size you need and increases the volumetric capacity at the root of the system.
Walker: Think about it this way, depending on how electricity is generated in a given region, higher efficiency equipment can help reduce the CO2 emissions of the system by using less electricity. Therefore, efficiency is going to be critical for choosing the right refrigerant for a given application.