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F-words

The EU’s F-gas regulations are aimed at limiting their application and consequent emissions. Mike Nankivell, Chairman of the ACRIB F-gas group, gave a presentation on the latest update to the F-gas regulations at the recent CIBSE Building Performance Conference. Here he summarises the potential impacts of the latest revisions.

Although a year has passed since the government introduced tighter regulations on the use of Fluorinated gases (F-gases) to comply with EU’s F-gas regulations, the refrigeration and air conditioning industry is still struggling to come to terms with the impact of the latest changes.

The latest (2015) revisions to the F-gas rules strengthened existing measures in relation to containment, recovery, certification and sale of F-gases; introduces additional bans on usage; a ban the servicing of certain equipment with high global warming potential (GWP) F-gases; and more critically, a phase down of HFCs in the EU to 21% of a 2014 baseline by 2030. The revisions are intended to help further reduce emissions of fluorinated greenhouse gases, which are covered by the Kyoto protocol to limit global warming.

The air conditioning industry will have to adapt to the changes

The most common types of F-gas are hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) which, unsurprisingly, contain hydrogen, fluorine and carbon. These are generally used in a variety of refrigeration applications including commercial refrigeration, industrial refrigeration, air conditioning and heat pumps.

The phase-down in HFC use is expected to have an impact on commercial refrigeration systems in particular because these systems tend to be charged with HFCs with the highest GWPs, for example, R404A which has a GWP of 3922. Under the new rules, from 2020 HFCs with global warming potentials of more than 2,500 will be phased-out in all refrigeration systems.

It should be noted that the phase-down still allows production of HFCs with a GWP lower than 2500 beyond 2030, and the regulation actively encourages recycling so it would be incorrect to presume that all HFCs will not be available beyond 2030. Where a system’s refrigeration charge is recovered and cleaned, or recycled, it will fall under a different section of the new regulation that will allow its reuse. Where this is the case, its re-use will not be determined by the phase-down process.

The most common types of F-gas are found in a variety of systems including heat pumps

As a result of the F-gas regulations, refrigerant producers now have maximum quotas based on equivalent CO2 emissions (CO2e) rather than limits on the quantities of specific refrigerant types. Because of this, the presumption is that the production of lower GWP refrigerants, such as R410A and R134a, may increase in the short term. Although, in the longer term, even HFCs with lower GWPs will likely be phased out if the industry is to meet the 21% target.

Unhelpfully for the air conditioning and refrigeration industry, in particular specifiers and installers, refrigerant producers are not making clear the likely availability of F Gases such as R410A or R134a in the next five-to-10 year period as the phase-down starts to make its impact felt.

Over time, as the phase-down continues, currently common refrigerants, such as R134a, will need to be replaced by ultra-low GWP options such as ammonia or CO2 or perhaps hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs). HFOs, Like HFCs, contain hydrogen, fluorine and carbon but as they are derivatives of alkenes they have significantly lower GWP than HFCs and are not included in F Gas quota system.

Installers do not know the likely availability of F-gases ten years down the line

When considering any replacement refrigerant, a variety of properties should be assessed including: operating pressure, energy efficiency, materials compatibility, toxicity, flammability and cost. One of the biggest challenges for manufacturers looking for replacement refrigerants is that many of the alternatives that are currently available do not perform as well in the same application as the HFCs they are intended to replace. Hopefully, this situation will change with future advances in the refrigeration technology.

In direct expansion (DX) systems, R32 would appear to be the preferred option to replace R410A despite the industry standard BS EN 378:2008 Refrigerating systems and heat pumps safety and environmental requirements placing a limit on the size of the refrigerant charge. Currently R32 is being offered as an alternative refrigerant in smaller capacity systems. However, a revised version of the standard, which provides scope to relax the charge limits, is currently out for approval. If the revisions to the standard are adopted, then R32 could be offered as an alternative to R410A in larger capacity DX systems including variable refrigerant flow (VRF) solutions.

It is worth noting that both R32 and HFOs are classed as ‘mildly flammable’. As a consequence, the revised version of BS EN 378 is set to include a new refrigerant category ‘A2L’ for such refrigerants.

Chillers are most likely to be affected by the new rules

Arguably, it will be chillers (charged with refrigerants covered by the HFC phase-down) and not DX systems that will be most impacted by the new F-gas rules. This is simply because the 25-year life expectancy of a chiller is greater than that of a DX system, which might be expected to last 15 years or so. At the moment it would appear that the safest choice of refrigerant for those looking to specify a chiller would probably be R134a, simply because R134a machines can generally be converted to use HFOs, which are not included in the F-gas phase-down.

The EU predicts the F-gas regulations will cut F-gas emissions by two-thirds by 2030, compared with 2014 levels. This legislation is aimed at stabilising CO2e levels of F-gas at roundabout the 100m tonnes by 2030. However, to achieve the EU’s roadmap of cutting emissions by 80-95% by 2050 additional measures will be required. This suggests that at some time in the not too distant future the industry can expect a further tightening of the F-gas regulations. You have been warned.