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Will the US follow Europe with hydrocarbons?


USA: While flammable hydrocarbon refrigerants are now commonplace in Europe, a leading US manufacturer, faced with a global drive to reduce HFCs, wonders if and when they will be accepted in the US.

Isobutane is the norm in domestic refrigerators across Europe and elsewhere, and other flammable hydrocarbons are available and widely used in plug-in commercial refrigerators and even in chillers.

The US has been far more reticent in accepting hydrocarbons. Propane (R290) was approved for use in certain commercial applications in 2011 but it was not until last year that a number of others were approved for use under the EPA’s Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) programme. Despite this delay in the US, the country’s leading component manufacturers have long since been researching, developing and supplying hydrocarbon compatible products for overseas markets.

Writing in E360 Outlook – the house magazine of compressor manufacturer Emerson Climate Technologies – director of marketing Allen Wicher speculates whether the many benefits of flammable refrigerants will ever outweigh their perceived risks in the US.

“When it comes to adherence to environmentally sound practices, the European Union and its member countries have consistently been ahead of the curve,” he writes. “The EU’s F-gas regulations were among the world’s first actions to phase down hydrofluorocarbon refrigerants in favour of GWP natural alternatives. At the same time, consumer, OEM and retailer preferences for sustainable goods and eco-friendly systems contributed to driving compliance with these regulations.

According to Wicher, the use of R290 (propane), specifically, in commercial refrigeration is the subject of much debate in the US. “Its A3, flammable classification conjures up negative connotations in the minds of operators, technicians and public officials alike: beliefs that when examined closer are largely unfounded,” he says.

“In Europe, the use of R290 based equipment is well into its second decade and continues to play a big role. Some leading retailers are even making it a cornerstone of their refrigeration portfolio. How this may influence R290 perceptions and its subsequent adoption in the US remains to be seen.”

Results from Emerson’s test labs, comparing EER of R404A to R290 in medium back pressure (MBP) and low back pressure (LBP), show a significant improvement when using R290. Testing takes place in a controlled environment designed to simulate typical operating conditions

He discusses R290’s environmental credentials: non-toxic, a GWP of 3 and zero ODP, albeit with its high flammability. He also praises its excellent thermodynamic properties — such as pressure, low back pressure, volumetric capacity, capacity and coefficient of performance. “Similar to R22, and even outperforming it in certain parameters,” he says.

“In Emerson Climate Technologies’ test labs and published studies alike, R290 consistently outperforms R404A in energy efficiencies.

“In the US, the R290 picture is quite different. The US is generally much more hesitant to view the IEC standard for the 150g charge limit as a rubber stamp to move forward with R290 commercial refrigeration installations. In the absence of national R290 safety standards, even applications with small charge limits are subject to the authority of state and local governance, as well as fire marshal jurisdiction — and these differ drastically from region to region.”

Limited uptake

As a result, commercial adoption has been limited primarily to the most established grocers, foodservice outlets and small format retailers who are willing to absorb the cost required to achieve requisite safety assessments and certifications, and/or those seeking to meet corporate sustainability objectives.

“In recent years, the US regulatory climate has brought R290 back into industry and public awareness. First, in 2011 the EPA listed R290 as acceptable, subject to use conditions, for use in certain commercial refrigeration regulations, keeping the IEC recommendation for a 150g charge limit. More recently, the EPA also instituted the phase-down of R404A and other common refrigerants over the next several years. On a parallel timetable, the DOE has mandated significant energy reductions in commercial refrigeration equipment, thereby favouring the use of systems and refrigerants that produce high energy efficiencies.

“The combination of these two regulations is motivating OEMs and the entire refrigeration supply chain to try and meet both objectives in a single design cycle. While R290 is one of the few approved refrigerants capable of satisfying both regulatory actions, the lack of a national safety standard is still a barrier toward wider US adoption,” he says.

With revisions to international standards governing safety and increased charge sizes with flammable refrigerants due shortly, US efforts to establish national standards are also in motion. These are being formulated not just for R290, but also for the new A2L, “mildly flammable” hydrofluoroolefin refrigerants and blends — some of which have yet to be EPA approved.

“Even with the existing barriers to R290 adoption, the EPA approval of R290 in 2011 prompted some of the larger foodservice and small format retailers to work through their OEMs to introduce light commercial equipment to the market. And with the promise of a true national standard, more OEMs are in the process of developing complete lines of R290 based equipment,” Wicher reveals.

“As the EU’s international standards continue to evolve, the industry is appealing for the option to increase the 150g refrigerant charge limit to much higher allowable charges. Should this become enacted, there’s no question it will influence the emerging standards in the US, where the possibility of increasing the charge limit to 300g is already being discussed. This would add flexibility to system design and help transition R290 to larger commercial applications.”

From the recent edition of E360 Outlook. Click here to read the article in its entirety.

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