What is replacing R-410A in the residential and light commercial sector?
By Jonathon Harp
The refrigeration and air conditioning (RAC) industry has moved through significant refrigerant changes since the early 1990s because of environmental concerns over ozone depletion and global warming. To date, CFC refrigerants have been phased out, virgin HCFCs are no longer available in Canada, and certain HFCs are being phased down because of their high global warming potentials (GWP). Be aware though, the changes to refrigerants used in the RAC industry nowhere near over.
In 2015, the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol included a phase down schedule to reduce the availability of high GWP HFCs over the next 15 years. This was adopted to spur the international development of refrigerant alternatives that have lower GWP. The development of the next generation of alternative refrigerants has been underway for a number of years; both refrigerant and equipment manufacturers have been or will be commercializing these new refrigerants to the RAC marketplace in the near future.
In addition to the HFC phase down, Environment & Climate Change Canada (ECCC) put in place regulations in 2016 that established maximum GWP limits for refrigerant used in a wide range of refrigeration and air conditioning applications, including chillers, stand alone and centralized refrigeration systems, and condensing units. These new regulations have started to come into force for certain equipment types in 2020.
Specifically left off the list of equipment under the new regulations was light commercial and residential air conditioning equipment (LCRAC). Both the Canadian and U.S. governments agreed to delay specific regulations concerning the LCRAC sector to allow refrigerant and equipment manufacturers more time to develop alternatives for R-410A, which is the predominant refrigerant used in this sector.
THE REGULATORY SCENE
At present, there are no specific federal regulations in Canada or the U.S. to restrict the supply or use of R-410A in the LCRAC sector. At the provincial level in Canada, the government of Quebec released a proposal in July of 2019 to eliminate the use of HFCs in certain types of refrigeration and air conditioning equipment by 2021.
In the U.S., the only jurisdiction proposing regulations that would affect R-410A in the LCRAC sector is California. The state is proposing as of January 1, 2023, refrigerants in newly installed air conditioning systems must run on a refrigerant with a GWP of less than 750 (R-410A has a GWP of 2088).
In May 2020, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published Proposed Rule 23 under its Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) program, which lists low GWP alternative refrigerants that would be acceptable for use in the LCRAC sector. Each of the listed in the proposal is classified by ASHRAE as A2L, which are refrigerants with low toxicity and mild flammability.
Rule 23 also restricts use of these refrigerants to new A2L certified equipment, and A2Ls cannot be used to retrofit field installed units. Equipment using A2Ls must have a specific warning that states the unit uses a mildly flammable refrigerant. Note, this rule is only in the proposal stage at this point.
In Canada, a regulatory issue affecting the new low GWP refrigerants is the requirement to have them listed in the building code of each province where they are proposed for use. The code committees and authorities will have to consider issues such as the mildly flammable rating of A2L refrigerants, and whether the alternatives can be used for retrofit applications as part of the approval process. The time needed to have these refrigerants approved and listed in the building codes is a key factor in determining when these alternatives will be introduced to the Canadian market.
Decisions about low GWP replacements for R-410A and other HFCs in the LCRAC sector have not yet been made for some equipment types. However, some of the new low GWP refrigerants have started to be promoted to Canadian contractors (or will be starting in the near future). How do you manage this?
Here are a few suggestions:
Make sure your employees are aware that the next generation of refrigerants are on the horizon and explain why (have them read this article).
Although there is some uncertainty about low GWP refrigerants right now, this will be changing relatively quickly in the next couple of years. Find a way to keep this transition on your company’s radar.
Talk to your equipment suppliers, and find out where they are going with low GWP refrigerants and when. Ask how they will keep your company informed and trained on this subject in the future.
Make sure you make informed choices by fully understanding the pros and cons of the new refrigerants and equipment.
We all need to be prepared for the coming changes. Get engaged in the process. Assign someone in your company to take the lead on this matter. Remember, all new refrigerants have to go through extensive testing and evaluation before being commercially sold. When considering the various refrigerant options that are available, examine all aspects of each option (such as ease of use and maintenance) so you’ll make an informed choice when the time comes.
Simply be a good consumer and do your homework. Your investment of time at this stage will be recouped by having an efficient and effective company transition to the next generation of refrigerants.
PREPARING FOR WHAT’S TO COME
As a contractor, how do you prepare for the coming changes in refrigerants? MB recently spoke with some industry manufacturers about their plans to deal with the coming refrigerant changes in the LCRAC sector, and how these changes would impact Canadian contractors. All agree that contractors need to be aware of the changes and how they will potentially affect their businesses. Most importantly, before these alternatives start to appear in the market, contractors need to take the time to learn about the new products from their suppliers.
Three of the leading candidates to replace R-410A and other HFCs in the LCRAC sector are R-32, R-454B and R-466A. R-32 and R-454B are A2L rated. R-466A is A1 rated. Table 1 reviews some of the technical aspects of each refrigerant:
Keep in mind, these are three of the more prominent low GWP alternatives introduced to date. There could be more alternatives released in the future for use in the LCRAC sector. Training technicians on the safe handling of new refrigerants is paramount. Industry manufacturers contacted agreed that training on these new refrigerants (particularly A2Ls) is necessary to ensure safe handling throughout the supply chain, and safe management by technicians in the field.
Whether training is offered through refrigerant manufacturers, equipment manufacturers, wholesalers or industry associations such as HRAI and MCAC, proper guidelines to address new challenges, such as the mildly flammable rating of A2L, will need to established and included in codes and standards, as well as training programs.
WHAT SHOULD CONTRACTORS DO?
The next generation of refrigerants will not have a “single solution refrigerant” for the LCRAC sector and each alternative will have differing characteristics and safety ratings. There are several things contractors can do to mitigate this:
- Tap into reliable resources that provide information on the new generation of refrigerants as they appear to ensure informed decisions are made in the future.
- Decide what type of equipment to stock based on what fits best with your business model.
- Research safety concerns for each refrigerant option and ensure your technicians are properly trained to handle them.
- In the longer term, decide how broadly based your equipment service will continue to be, and how widely your technicians will be trained: will you cover all types of equipment in the field, or narrow your focus by specializing in certain refrigerants and equipment?