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Horses For Courses

A-Gas Managing Director John Ormerod explains why non-flammable gases will not be the right choice for all installers.

The development of a new non-flammable refrigerant for medium temperature commercial refrigeration applications with a GWP of more than 150 should be welcomed by the market. The arrival of R471A, which Honeywell has branded Solstice N71, and is seen as an R404A alternative, will help end users struggling to comply with new standards that restrict refrigerants with a GWP greater than 150 in new systems.

This aspect of the F-Gas regulations has been law since the beginning of the year. The regulation has banned the installation of new commercial refrigeration and freezing systems larger than 40kW capacity, using gases with a GWP of 150 or more.

This new medium temperature non-flammable gas will have a role to play in centralised supermarket systems and other areas of the food processing industry. End users can continue using higher GWP gases in existing equipment – there is no ban in that area.

I have no doubt that as we move slowly away from the restrictions forced upon us by the pandemic, the food processing and supermarket industries will begin to accelerate plans to update equipment and look for more low carbon alternatives. But, in reality R471A is a low pressure refrigerant suitable only for medium temperature or chilled food applications.

A man working in a warehouse, he is wearing a hi vis jacket and moving gas cylinders

Reaching the limit

On the plus side, it is likely to show some energy efficiency gains over naturals like CO2 and higher GWP R404A. There is a role for non-flammable refrigerants, but I do not view them as the complete answer to meet the low GWP challenge in all areas of our industry. They are not suitable for low temperature applications and in this instance it will be a fence too far for some end users.

It will also be very difficult to create non-flammable refrigerants offering a very low GWP. I believe we have reached a limit here, because most of the HFOs are mildly flammable to some degree. R1234ze is an interesting example in this respect.

It is non-flammable for transport purposes but at the elevated temperatures you are likely to see in some refrigeration systems then it will reveal flammable characteristics. This highlights how gases can be a real mixed bag when used for different purposes. Unfortunately this does not make it any easier for installers to get their heads around the pros and cons of GWP refrigerants.

On the face of it, natural refrigerants like CO2 with a GWP of one seem a perfect solution – especially where emissions from leaks are concerned. There is a trap here, as considering the contribution of leakage to emissions in isolation leaves you well off the pace.

fire protection cylinder heads

The amount of energy used by any piece of refrigeration equipment will also have an effect on global warming and both aspects have to be considered before choosing the right refrigerant for the job. In some cases you may solve any problems relating to emissions from leakage but in turn use more power to do so. Clearly there has to be a balance between the two.

Consider this: if you are thinking of using a natural like CO2 is it always the right answer? Or are you merely transferring an emissions problem elsewhere? By choosing a refrigerant with a slightly higher GWP, you may make considerable gains by reducing power usage and cutting emissions. All in all it can be a dilemma for installers looking for simple solutions.

Further afield the European Commission has belatedly started to support the concept of energy efficiency first as part of the EU Green Deal – a philosophy that promotes the idea that the more energy efficient a system is, the less power it is going to use and the fewer emissions it will produce.

If you are an installer, there’s no doubt that you will have to do your homework on all the changes that are happening governing refrigerants – especially as the UK is now outside the EU and operating its own system of standards. With the need to reduce emissions a leading issue it has emerged as an increasingly complex area.

close up of grey cylinder with blue valve head

Businesses are being asked to have a greater understanding of their carbon footprints and my advice to installers is talk to their refrigerants’ supplier who in most cases will ensure your refrigerant choice is the right one. They will advise on energy efficiencies and provide the answers needed for installers and end users to adopt a more holistic approach.

What you can be sure of is the role that recovered and reused refrigerants play in the future will grow. If you want to cut carbon emissions they tick all the boxes. Any refrigerant that is reused rules out the need to rely on virgin materials in production and that is a key part of being a more environmentally-focused business. As long as gases are reused and not emitted into the atmosphere, they are not harming the environment.

Refrigerants sent to A-Gas reprocessing centres undergo chemical analysis, are cleaned of contaminants and pass through our reclamation and separation plant to create a product that matches the virgin refrigerant specification. This refrigerant becomes fully reclaimed product and is returned to the market in line with the AHRI 700 standard

industrial gas cylinder yellow shrouds

Reclaimed refrigerant is quota free and gases saved from disposal and returned to use also reduce raw material usage, energy consumption and unnecessary transport normally associated with virgin production.

A-Gas Rapid Recovery, the F-Gas compliant on-site recovery service, is a good example of how refrigerant recovery can be made easy. Large quantities of refrigerant can be removed swiftly and safely by our mobile A-Gas Rapid Recovery teams, before being transported to our reprocessing centres.

I’ll leave you with some key figures. A recent European Environment Agency report suggested that only around three to five per cent of all refrigerants are being recovered and reused. So on this basis there is still a huge amount of work to do before we pass the winning post in making large reductions in our emissions in the refrigeration and HVAC industries.

tamper proof sleeve applied to cylinder valve