HPAC Magazine

Think Ahead To Get Ahead

Serving your customers well means analyzing the refrigerant and equipment at individual sites and planning wisely.

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September 1, 2012 by Dave Demma

Figure 1 Analysis of annual refrigerant leakage
Figure 1 Analysis of annual refrigerant leakage

Without getting into the nitty-gritty details of the allocation reduction and the corresponding reasons for it, there is a lot less R-22 available for sale in 2012 versus 2011. Everyone who has taken an economics course knows the basic principle of supply and demand. Specifically, as it relates to the current R-22 situation, the supply has been significantly reduced, the demand has been marginally reduced, and therefore the price has increased…a lot. And it will continue to increase as the allocation reduces every year until the phase out of new R-22 production in 2020.
It also stands to reason that as the production levels of R-22 decrease, driving the price upwards, that the relatively inexpensive R-22 from countries, which have not restricted its production will be attractive to those individuals who will seek profit without regard to obeying the law. Smuggling refrigerant is not new. When CFC production was decreased, driving the price upwards, it created a similar situation where those with disregard for the law saw smuggling foreign made R-12 into the U.S. as an opportunity to make money.
With China manufacturing approximately 50 per cent of the world’s supply of R-22, there is substantial opportunity for profit-driven illegal activity for those that are tempted. How does this smuggled refrigerant impact the governmental efforts of attempting to “encourage” consumers to move away from R-22? That is hard to say.
There are some that blame part of the continuing demand for R-22 on the fact that dry charged R-22 equipment continues to be available as an option to replacing entire systems with equipment using more environmentally-friendly refrigerants.
The problem with this entire scenario is that the consumer  always foots the bill for the good intentions of lawmakers. The fact is that the global economy is beyond stagnant, and there are many who are struggling financially. Many individuals are either unemployed or under employed. Try telling a homeowner who is barely making ends meet, who suffers a compressor failure on a seven-year-old condensing unit, that he needs to fork over the money to replace his entire system because the government has made the decision that he can no longer purchase new equipment with R-22.
For these situations there is a definite place for dry charged units. In some instances it is the only viable alternative for a struggling homeowner or business owner. And some of the newer dry charged units are equipped with POE oil, so they can be used with lower GWP refrigerants such as R-407C.
Now, given that the price of R-22 will continue to escalate, what do we do about it?
A Nothing. This is known as the ostrich approach, or “head in the sand.” It is not a proactive solution and certainly not doing the best by your customer.
B A planned approach of retrofitting to an R-22 alternative as equipment upgrades/remodels are undertaken, or when compressor failures occur.
C A well planned analytical approach, where the customer’s equipment type and size, expected annual leak rate along with expected annual price of replacement refrigerant are considered in an attempt to determine if there is an economically viable reason to convert from R-22 to some alternative. After this analysis it may be determined that there may never be an economic reason to convert the system.
D Plan to replace R-22 equipment with new equipment using an alternative to R-22. This would occur once the reasonable life expectancy of the equipment has been reached, or in the case of a catastrophic failure of the equipment.
Looking at the scenarios above, B and C could likely be combined into a singular plan encompassing several options.
First, does the size of the system warrant consideration for a refrigerant retrofit? Figure 1 shows a sample analysis.
Second, is this an application where future equipment remodel/upgrades would facilitate an opportunity for a refrigerant conversion? For example, is it a supermarket that plans to undergo a remodel where the display cases will be replaced? If so, this would be a good time to consider converting the system to a new alternative refrigerant.
For a supermarket chain, an added benefit of a timely refrigerant conversion is that it allows the R-22 recovered during the conversion to be used to supply the needs of the other remaining R-22 stores.
Third, if annual maintenance is being performed on equipment that uses semi-hermetic or open drive compressors, replacing the mineral oil with POE oil will position the system for a simpler conversion when the time is right.
Once the decision has been made to perform a refrigerant conversion, the next logical step would be to determine which refrigerant to convert to. Since there are no “drop in” replacements for R-22, there are several criteria which should be considered before making a decision:
1 The thermodynamic properties of the refrigerant, which will determine the equipment capacity with the new refrigerant as compared to the capacity with R-22.
2 System efficiency with the new refrigerant, which will have an effect on the power consumption.
3 Environmental concerns. There is no getting around the fact that many businesses are concerned about their “carbon footprint.” As such, low GWP refrigerants are favoured to achieve this. It would be prudent to factor in the system efficiency with the new refrigerant along with the refrigerant’s GWP when considering carbon footprint. There is no sense in using a low GWP refrigerant if the system experiences a 15 per cent reduction in efficiency with the new refrigerant.
4 Ease of conversion. Will the new refrigerant require system components such as thermostatic expansion valves or refrigerant distributor nozzles to be replaced/upsized? If so, this leads to a more expensive project and a longer down time. Will any of the piping runs need to be upsized? If there is a substantial reduction in capacity with the new refrigerant, will additional compressor capacity be required?
5 The price and availability of the replacement refrigerant. If the system is converted to a refrigerant that is no longer under patent, you can expect its price/lb to be lower than a refrigerant that is under patent. Additionally, refrigerants that are no longer under patent will be more readily available, since all refrigerant companies will be able to supply them through their distribution networks.
6 Regardless of the refrigerant used in the conversion, plans must be made to replace all of the elastomer seals in the system. Laboratory tests have shown that elastomers will absorb some amounts of refrigerant and oil, resulting in a percentage swelling of the seal. The amount of swelling will depend on the type of refrigerant and oil. Existing seals, which have swelled resultant to exposure to R-22 and mineral oil, have taken a set in the joint they are providing a seal for. In addition, they have had fairly constant pressure exerted against them for some years and will not provide an adequate seal once the refrigerant and oil have been replaced in the system.
There is certainly a lot to consider and the big unknown is where the price of R-22 will be in a year, two years, five years. The time to prepare is now. <>

Dave Demma holds a degree in refrigeration engineering and worked as a journeyman refrigeration technician before moving into the manufacturing sector where he regularly trains contractor and engineering groups. He can be reached at ddemma@uri.com.

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