Karl Richardson: time to address the realities of the future of ac

Karl Richardson of Logicool Air Conditioning & Heat Pumps argues that it is time to stop talking about R32 and recognise what is happening around us. 

The current predicament regarding the supply and demand of R410A in the UK and Europe is of concern to us all. Most news in the trade press suggests that we are “teetering on the brink” of a serious supply and demand issue that could threaten our industry.

The real problem is much greater than this, yet seems to be an issue that our industry is not aware of. The supply issue of R410A is not even the tip of the iceberg.

The advent of R32/A2L refrigerants is now most relevant only in the fact that all suppliers of commercial air conditioning equipment are rushing to launch product at the eleventh hour. In summer 2017 there was a reluctance by many contractors to install the product. Product availability was limited and there was, and remains, a concern over its flammability. Fast forward to today and there is a clamour from the industry for R32 equipment due to the spiralling costs of refrigerant, bottle rental issues and long-term availability.

Installers who remain reluctant or ignorant to the issue have no option but to commence with installation of R32 equipment as the alternative of R410A in most split systems will shortly be removed from the marketplace.

Those who are concerned about the flammability aspect need only to do research on how to manage installations. All F-Gas qualified engineers can handle R32. Let’s move on. The real issue is much bigger than a new reclaim unit for A2L refrigerants.

So, what is the real issue? What are we all missing?

First, let’s look at the facts before we look to the future:

HFC’s have a lifespan of between seven and 17 years. Many predict that within Europe (including post-Brexit Britain) HFC’s may no longer be available by 2030 at the latest. Supply of new equipment with HFC as the primary refrigerant may well have ceased by 2027.

• At least half of the UK suppliers of VRF equipment are in the process of introducing new product to market. The new products utilise R410A as the refrigerant of choice, not R32. A VRF launch is a major event. The timespan between product launches is typically three years or more.

• One manufacturer has only recently launched 8 and 10hp 2-pipe heat pump VRF utilising R32 refrigerant in Japan. Others are likely to follow. There is no news of a European launch and it is likely that 12hp will be the limit. Heat Recovery demand is peculiar to the UK as globally the demand is for 2-pipe heat pump, not heat recovery.

•The supply of R410A is approaching critical. Any read of an industry magazine, research of the F-gas regulation/phase down and a monthly email from your wholesaler informing you of price increases will confirm that we have a serious supply issue. This situation will not improve and demand will outstrip supply.

• Unlike the refrigeration sector with its use of R404A, there is no commercially available drop-in alternative to R410A. This is where the supply issues will bite hard. Lose 60kg of refrigerant and there is no alternative.

•R410A prices will continue to rise.

• R32 cannot be used as a drop-in replacement on existing R22, R407C and R410A systems

• The maximum charge of R32 into a system is 60kg. This eliminates larger VRF utilising this refrigerant.

• The maximum charge of R32 before additional safety measures are required is just under 12kg. After this,additional safety measures must be implemented. This means that almost all VRF installations charged with R32 would require the likes of a combination of leak detection, safety shut off valves and ventilation. A small VRF would require complex design considerations and discussions with clients that the measures are required due to the presence of a flammable product.

• 90% of the AC Split and VRF system equipment supplier sector have invested in heating and chiller technologies and/or acquired companies to allow them access to this market.

• No industry or technology stands still for 10 years.

• Changes to refrigerant choice are driven by a global demand for reduction in global warming.

The three final points are the most relevant. Industry and technology are fast moving environments. The air conditioning sector today is vastly different with regards to technology, refrigerant, electronics, innovation, etc, than it was in, say, 1985. Consider what was available then compared to what we have at our disposal now.

Today, we can place an order for an energy-efficient solution for a medium sized office building and have it delivered tomorrow. A recent innovation is that controls can be set-up with a mobile telephone. That is 30 years of progress.

What was a chiller like in 1985? Consider a 2020 model chiller with low-GRP refrigerant, multiple inverters, current compressor technology, VRF heat exchanger technology, Japanese manufacturer fan coils and recognised 2-core interconnecting comms cable, all connected to a recognised central controller. It’s not even “beyond the realms of possibility”. Is it coming to a site near you very soon?

We need to accept that our industry, after a period of very little change, is going to have to adapt to major changes over the next ten years. By 2027 the marketplace will be unrecognisable compared to today. Hybrid solutions will begin to dominate the marketplace. Some of these solutions are available now and some chiller solutions can be delivered in 48 hours, not six weeks.

Based on the above, it is my belief that this indicates a clear roadmap for the future of the VRF and chiller market. The issue of no imminent launch of an R32 VRF solution and the inevitable demise of HFC within the Kigali timeframe does not point the way to an immediate solution to the current VRF R410A problem and market requirement for a high efficiency, high capacity solution.

The Split System market is potentially more straightforward. It is entirely possible that R32 will be the last HFC solution for lower capacity air conditioning solutions. There is no other product available to us, it works, it is stable and it is cheap to produce. There is little reason to move away from R32 with a potential global HFC ban imminent.

Having spent many years training customers on the advent from R407C to R410A and, more recently the change from R410A to R32 I believe that the below is almost certain. This is only my opinion, not that of any manufacturer that Logicool represents but I would be happy to have the discussion again in 2022.

The potential Air Conditioning marketplace in 2022-2025

Likely

• Small capacity split systems utilising R32 refrigerant

• Heat pump monobloc “split” with proprietary matching manufacturer fan coil

• Hybrid chiller utilising VRF Inverter and compressor technology, low GWP refrigerant (CO2 or other non-HFC), proprietary matching manufacturer fan coil and controls.

• Hybrid VRF/chiller utilising water as the medium and low-GWP, non-HFC refrigerant

• Small capacity (no greater than 12hp) VRF solutions utilising R32

Possible

• HFO/hydrocarbon hybrid “cascade split” or “cascade monobloc split” systems

Unlikely

• Large capacity VRF charged with R32 or other A2L refrigerant

We need to stop talking about R32 and start listening to what is happening around us. The next conversation is the immediate future and it’s becoming quite urgent.