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Technician checking the operation of the air conditioner

If you’re like me, you probably don’t think much about the refrigerant in your air conditioner or fridge. You just want them to keep you cool and your food fresh, right? Well, you might want to pay more attention to what’s inside those machines, because the refrigerant industry is going through some major changes in 2024, including a noticeable shift towards heat pumps. And these changes will affect not only your comfort and convenience, but also the environment and the economy, specifically in regards to the use of new chillers.

What Are Refrigerants and Why Do They Matter?

Refrigerants are substances that absorb and release heat in a cycle of evaporation and condensation. They are the key ingredient in refrigeration and air conditioning systems, which use compressors and expansion valves to move the refrigerant around and create cooling effects. Refrigerants can be natural or synthetic, and they have different properties and impacts on the environment. Some common types of chillers used in refrigeration systems include rotary chillers, centrifugal chillers, and positive displacement chillers such as reciprocating, scroll, and screw chillers.

Some refrigerants, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), are known to deplete the ozone layer, which protects us from harmful ultraviolet radiation. These refrigerants were phased out under the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty that aims to protect the ozone layer. However, some of the alternatives that replaced them (we’re talking about hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)), have another problem: they are potent greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming. In fact, some HFCs have a global warming potential (GWP) of thousands of times that of carbon dioxide.

That’s why, in 2016, nearly 200 countries agreed to amend the Montreal Protocol and phase down the production and consumption of HFCs. This amendment, known as the Kigali Amendment, sets different timelines and targets for different groups of countries, depending on their level of development and consumption of HFCs. The goal is to reduce the global use of HFCs by 80-85% by 2047, which could avoid up to 0.4°C of global warming by the end of the century. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently issued a final rule, known as the EPA’s final rule, to implement a 40% reduction below baseline levels of HFC production from 2024 through 2028, in alignment with the AIM Act passed in December 2020. This regulation highlights the importance of understanding refrigerants and their impact on the environment.

What Are the New Refrigerant Regulations for 2024?

The Kigali Amendment entered into force in 2019, and the first reduction step for developed countries was in 2019, when they had to freeze their HFC consumption at the average level of 2011-2013. The next reduction step is in 2024, when they have to cut their HFC consumption by 10% from the baseline level. Developing countries have a later start date and a slower phase-down schedule, but they also have to comply with the Kigali Amendment for the calendar year 2024.

In addition to the Kigali Amendment, some countries and regions have their own regulations and policies to limit the use of HFCs. For example, the European Union has a regulation that sets a quota system for HFCs, which reduces the available supply of HFCs by 79% by 2030. The United States, which has not yet ratified the Kigali Amendment, has a proposal to phase down the production and import of HFCs by 85% by 2036, as part of the American Innovation and Manufacturing Act. China, India, and other major HFC consumers are also developing their own plans and standards to transition to low-GWP refrigerants, including the use of QR codes for tracking and monitoring and the newly released 2024 Allocation Rule by the EPA.

What Are the Alternatives to HFCs and What Are Their Pros and Cons?

The search for low-GWP refrigerants is not easy, as there is no perfect solution that meets all the criteria of performance, safety, cost, and environmental impact. Some of the alternatives that are being considered or used include:

Hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs): These are synthetic chemicals that have a very low GWP, as they break down quickly in the atmosphere. They are also efficient and compatible with existing equipment. However, they are still relatively new and expensive, and some of them are mildly flammable or toxic.

Hydrocarbons (HCs): These are natural substances, such as propane, butane, and isobutane, that have a very low GWP and are cheap and widely available. They are also efficient and can improve the energy performance of refrigeration and air conditioning systems. However, they are highly flammable and require special safety measures and standards in accordance with local and federal codes and regulations.

Carbon dioxide (CO2): This is a natural substance that has a very low GWP and is abundant and inexpensive. It is also non-flammable and non-toxic. However, it requires high operating pressures and has a lower efficiency than other refrigerants, especially in hot climates.

Ammonia (NH3): This is a natural substance that has a zero GWP and is one of the oldest refrigerants in use. It is also very efficient and can be used in large-scale industrial and commercial applications. However, it is toxic and flammable and requires strict safety precautions and regulations.

Water (H2O): Yes, water can serve as a refrigerant. However, it has a very low efficiency and requires a lot of energy to operate. It is mainly used in absorption refrigeration systems, which use heat as the driving force instead of electricity, and its use must comply with respective state and local codes. Additionally, it is the responsibility of the installing contractor or owner to confirm that the GWP values for refrigerants meet their respective state and local codes.

How Will the 2024 Refrigerant Regulations Affect You?

The new refrigerant regulations will have various impacts on different stakeholders like manufacturers, service providers, and consumers. Some of the possible effects are:

The new refrigerant regulations for 2024 are part of a global effort to phase down the use of HFCs and transition to low-GWP refrigerants. This will have significant implications for the refrigerant industry, as well as for the users and the environment. The challenge is to find the best balance between performance, safety, cost, and environmental impact, and to ensure a smooth and successful transition. The opportunity is to create a more sustainable and efficient refrigeration and air conditioning sector, which will improve the quality of life and the health of the planet.