06 January 2017

Facing up to the low GWP challenge

A-Gas Managing Director John Ormerod says the industry will need to shape-up over the coming months if it’s going to stay on target for the F-Gas stepdowns 

The months ahead could be challenging for the refrigeration and air conditioning industry in the UK. Although there is no formal stepdown in the supply of virgin refrigerants in 2017, pre-charged equipment will be governed by the F-Gas Regulations’ quota system from January 1 2017. All imports of equipment containing refrigerant need to be accounted for under this – estimated to be around 10 to 11 per cent of total refrigerant supply to the market.

This affects a wide range of products including two key areas: integral refrigeration cabinets and split air conditioning systems – the lion’s share of pre-charged equipment imported into the UK. Manufacturers need to be up to speed with their paperwork as they now have to buy quota allowances to import pre-charged equipment but I am confident that the broader market, including the engineer and end-user levels, won’t notice the difference.

Counterbalancing this is the final implementation of the MAC Directive for motor vehicles. All new cars  placed on the market in Europe will now have to have a low GWP refrigerant in their air conditioning systems but it’s unlikely that this will have a significant impact on the UK in the short term.

Cars with systems containing the new low GWP refrigerant of 150 or less are unlikely to require servicing or topping up for the next three to five years. There will be some lag between the implementation of the MAC Directive and the affect on the aftermarket but ultimately there will be some rude surprises for motorists when it filters through. The new refrigerants are likely to be 10 to 15 times the price of the old gases and this will raise servicing and top-up costs.

If you consider what’s going to happen in 2018 and beyond, 2017 is a crucial year for major users of refrigerants. Those who have failed to plan for the coming refrigerant phasedowns must stop sitting on their hands and migrate away from high GWP refrigerants as the years 2018 to 2021 will be tough ones for refrigerant supply.

Reduction steps for the quota of virgin high GWP HFC refrigerants are 37 per cent in 2018 and 55 per cent in 2021 compared to the base year 2015 – and this will be taking place in an industry which is still growing.

Up and until now supplies of virgin refrigerant have been fairly plentiful and I believe that it has given a false sense of security that it is going to continue in this way. So far there has been no major shift in behaviour. What there has been is a lot of planning going on and trials of low GWP refrigerants happening but to date we have not seen many major retrofit programmes.

It looks as if most of these will take shape in the coming months as end users begin to realise that the F-Gas Regulations will have a major impact on their businesses.  By this I mean they will be affected by shortages of virgin refrigerants which will lead to a rise in the prices.

Supermarkets should now have in place a strategy to move away from R404A. Controlling leaks should also be a top priority – a straightforward mechanism to reduce reliance on high GWP refrigerants which reduces engineer call-outs. I also believe that supermarkets should have an understanding of the resources they will require to make a serious dent on their entire refrigeration estate in terms of retrofits.

In many cases large chains have hundreds and maybe thousands of stores that need to be converted to low GWP refrigerants. Time and the number of engineers available is clearly a constraint but when you look at the bigger picture it can only be good news for contractors and sub-contractors who carry out the majority of the maintenance work for the supermarkets. Stores understand that they need to change but there is still some doubt that they have grasped the fact that time is not on their side.

The much-talked about Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol will clearly have huge ramifications in many parts of the globe but the UK and Europe is ahead of the game in setting out a phasedown of HFCs and in some respects its up to the rest of the world to catch-up. The refrigeration industry is showing how worldwide co-operation can ease environmental concerns. There’s a long way to go but the timetable is in place to ensure a greener planet.

As I have highlighted in previous articles, reclaimed refrigerants will continue to grow in importance as the availability of virgin refrigerant shrinks. A-Gas has invested in an additional separator at our Portbury site near Bristol and this will more than double our reclamation capacity in the UK. 

Looking ahead, by December 2017 I hope that the refrigeration industry will have had significant success in dealing with the R404A challenge. EPEE has suggested in its Gapometer Project – set up to measure compliance – that supermarkets should have retrofitted 50 per cent of refrigerant packs by this date. This is clearly going to be a tough ask and I suspect that the industry will be behind the phasedown targets by the end of the year. The only way to avoid this is to make a concerted effort in the coming months to catch-up and get back on track.