Industry urged to act as refrigerant phase-out looms

Paul Boughton

Many facilities still depend on the refrigerant R22 for essential process cooling. However, the substance is being phased out under EU legislation, creating a major potential problem for those affected.

One of the most common refrigerants used in process cooling is being phased out under European legislation. The clamp-down covers so-called HCFC compounds, which are harmful to the ozone layer when released to the environment.

One of the most important refrigerants affected is R22, used widely by industry across Europe. The regulation also affects HCFC containing refrigerant blends such as R401A, R402A, R403B, R408A and R409A.

Dr John Davey, of leading refrigerant specialist Harp International, says: "Despite the long-anticipated ban, there is a vast amount of equipment out there still running on R22. It is estimated that up to a third of the cooling systems in the UK depend on it. For many businesses, it is critical to their operations."

A recent survey of 350 companies, carried out by the UK's Carbon Trust, showed that 70 per cent have at least one refrigeration system using R22. It concludes: "In most cases, these refrigeration plants are of strategic importance, as they provide crucial process cooling."

The law covering the phase-out of R22 across Europe is the EU Ozone Depleting Substances Regulation 2037/2000. Under this, the use of R22 in new plant has already been banned. The next stage is a ban on the use of "virgin" or new R22 for topping up existing systems - which comes into effect from the end of 2009.

From the beginning of 2010, only recycled R22 may be used to top up plant. After the end of 2014, top-up with any R22 will become illegal.

As a result of the phase-out, the cost of R22 is expected to rise significantly over the next 18 months. As manufacturers wind-down production in line with required supply quotas, supplies will get short and prices are expected to escalate rapidly.

For example, in the restricted market in the USA the cost of R22 has risen by a factor of five and is still increasing.

It might not be such a problem if refrigerant remained within plant. However, refrigeration systems are notoriously leaky. A Government study carried out a few years ago showed that as much as 75 per cent of all refrigerant sold went to top-up leaky plant. Since then, leakage rates have been reduced, however experts estimate that annual loss from some plants is still between 25 to 50 per cent.

Companies whose refrigeration equipment depends on R22-based cooling plant have three main options.

The first is to replace R22 plant with a new system. This is the most expensive and radical option, as it entails replacing what might be a perfectly good plant - possibly with several more years working life left - with a new system.

The second option is retrofitting. This entails removing the R22 from plant, and replacing it with an alternative refrigerant not subject to legislative controls. There are a number of alternative refrigerant blends on the market, designed to mirror the characteristics of R22. However, they can be expensive, but then so will R22 become as supplies decrease. The viability of this option may depend on the size and life expectancy of the plant, and the replacement refrigerant chosen.

The benefit of retrofitting is that it enables existing plant to be kept running, ensuring business continuity. Replacement can therefore be delayed until perhaps many years in the future, and planned and budgeted for.

The third option is to take a managed approach. Under this, existing plant is retained and kept running on R22. After 2010, it is topped-up with recycled R22. The law allows this until the beginning of 2015.

The right option for any given situation depends on a number of factors. These include:

- The remaining life expectancy of existing R22 plant.

- Possible efficiency gains (or losses) as a result of replacing or retrofitting.

- The comparative cost of retrofitting.

The availability and cost of recycled R22 for top-up, under a managed approach.

Recognising the problem, Harp International has introduced a new service to help companies manage the phase-out of R22, and ensure the continuity of their businesses.

The Total R22 Solution provides expert advice, management support and technical back-up to ensure that those with R22-based cooling plant make the right, cost-effective decisions for the future.

Harp International Limited is based in Pontypridd, Rhondda Cynon Taff. Wales.

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