R-22 refrigerant phase out

The HVACR industry waits for clarity from the EPA, while states move ahead to phasedown HFCs.

Refrigerant uncertainty continues to linger

In 2017, the courts ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did not have the authority to phase down HFCs under the Clean Air Act, throwing the HVACR industry into turmoil. OEMs that were researching alternatives to HFCs suddenly had no idea what actions the EPA would take regarding these refrigerants, and to date, there is still no guidance from the federal agency.

States such as California stepped into the void, implementing regulations that would aggressively phase down HFC refrigerants. Eventually, a group of 25 states banded together to form the U.S. Climate Alliance, which is “committed to reducing emissions of short-lived climate pollutants,” including HFCs. Many in the HVACR industry are hopeful that the EPA will issue final regulations soon so as to avoid a patchwork of regulations that could vary from state to state.

R-22 phaseout

While HFC regulations – or the lack thereof – are taking up most of the oxygen in the room these days, a more pressing concern for the HVACR industry is the phaseout of the production and importation of virgin R-22, which took place at the end of 2019. While exact numbers are unknown, quite a bit of refrigeration and air conditioning equipment still uses R-22, so the need to service this equipment will continue for many years. For this reason, contractors should expect to continue carrying R-22 on their trucks, as well as R-410A, for the foreseeable future.

Refrigerant manufacturers and reclaimers insist that there should be no worries about a shortage of R-22 because the industry has a stockpile of virgin R-22 available (although exactly how much is not known), as well as a robust reclaimed R-22 supply pipeline, which is anticipated to meet market demand for years to come. According to a statement released by the contractor trade organization ACCA there will be enough stockpiled and reclaimed R-22 to allow for a smooth transition period, and refrigerant manufacturer Arkema estimates that there is sufficient R-22 to serve the market needs for at least five years.

The cost of R-22 has also been fairly stable this year for both virgin and reclaimed refrigerant, so most do not anticipate prices to increase significantly next year. In order to keep prices low, however, reclaimers would like contractors and technicians to be more careful when recovering refrigerant, as there has been an uptick in the amount of mixed refrigerants they are receiving. While most mixed refrigerants can be reclaimed, it can be costly and time consuming to do so, which leads to higher prices for reclaimed R-22. With that said, the reclaim market remains strong with many companies offering reclamation sales and service around the country.

If virgin or reclaimed R-22 becomes difficult to obtain, contractors may want to consider using an HFC-blend substitute refrigerant, such as R-427A, R-407C, or R-438A (EPA lists the approved substitutes on its website). They should be aware, however, that most substitute refrigerants are not “drop-in” replacements, and some changes to the cooling equipment may be necessary. It is a good idea to always check with the equipment manufacturer to ensure the substitute refrigerant is acceptable and will not result in system efficiency losses or void the warranty.

Current state

Ever since the courts ruled that the EPA did not have the authority to regulate HFCs, the agency has been working on developing new rules regarding HFCs, which it initially said would be issued in early 2019. That deadline has obviously passed, which means that as of right now, there are no federal regulations in place regarding the use of HFC. However, some states — namely California — are implementing aggressive phasedown schedules that could be realized as early as next year.

The main problem remains finding a non-flammable, low-GWP refrigerant that can be used in stationary air conditioning systems. To that end, several OEMs have announced plans to move forward in replacing R-410A with A2L refrigerants, which have a lower GWP, but are also mildly flammable.

Carrier, for example, has identified R-454B as its primary lower-GWP solution to replace R-410A in all of its ducted residential and light commercial packaged solutions sold in North America. R-454B is an A2L blend that is composed of R-32 and R-1234yf, and the new refrigerant is expected to be offered in Carrier products beginning in 2023.

Daikin recently announced that it plans to develop ducted and ductless residential, light-commercial and applied products that utilize pure R-32, which is also an A2L refrigerant. The company said its choice of R-32 for the North American region is consistent with the wide global acceptance of the refrigerant, noting that more than 84 million R-32 residential units have been safely installed across 70 countries.

Right now, A2L refrigerants have not been approved for use in stationary air conditioning equipment in the U.S., which has been slow to make changes to its building codes. Manufacturers are hoping that the appropriate changes will be made, so they can move forward in their production of equipment that contains A2L refrigerants. With the current building code cycle, the soonest this type of equipment could be available would likely be 2023 or 2024.

As the HVACR industry continues to grapple with varying refrigerant regulations at the state level, most are hoping that the EPA will soon release its proposed regulations regarding HFCs. Until that happens, there will likely continue to be a lot of uncertainty about refrigerant use in the HVACR industry.

For now, contractors should stay informed about local and federal refrigerant regulations; check with their local supply houses to ensure they have an adequate supply of virgin or reclaimed R-22; research substitute refrigerants and figure out which one(s) may be the best for their customers; and be diligent about recovering R-22 from existing equipment and returning it to a reclaimer.