The Short & Sweet Guide to Refrigerant Management for Commercial Facility Managers
Believe it or not, refrigerant management is an important topic, and one that can potentially mean the difference of tens of thousands of dollars on your commercial facility’s annual balance sheet. This is especially true if your HVAC equipment is upwards of eight years old, but is not yet at the point where you’ve budgeted to replace it.
A quick history of refrigerants
Synthetic refrigerants (known as HFC’s or HCFC’s) were developed decades ago and used consistently in both residential and commercial air conditioning, refrigeration, and freezer applications because they were inexpensive and highly effective. The one drawback is that they’re extremely bad for the environment. Specifically, they contribute to the destruction of the ozone layer and the building up of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.
As a result, starting about 20 years ago, many synthetic refrigerants were slowly phased out of use across the globe, in favor of alternatives that are safer for the environment.
What refrigerant phase outs mean for you
These phase-outs have purposely extended over a very long period of time because the EPA, and its equivalent in other countries, knows that demanding large-scale retrofitting and/or replacement of millions of expensive commercial and residential HVAC systems, appliances, and the like -- in a short time -- would have a detrimental effect on the economy.
For the most part, that’s good for commercial building owners and managers because it means you’ve had plenty of time to plan and budget for compliance with official mandates. The other side of that coin is that over 20 years without an enforceable law has lulled some building owners and managers into a false sense of security.
Case in point: The R-22 phase-out
As an example of the challenges building owners are facing when it comes to refrigerant management, take the long-standing phase-out of R-22, also known as Freon.
For over 40 years, this was the most popular synthetic Hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) in use as a refrigerant across the board. While it’s been the EPA’s intention to eventually eliminate all production and use of R-22, originally announced in 1990, no official phase-out plans were formulated or described. Millions of compressors and chillers were designed and manufactured specifically to run R-22 refrigerant right up until 2010, and the chemical itself was being heavily manufactured in the US and elsewhere until 2013, when the EPA suddenly instituted a significant reduction in production.
The phase-out has been aggressive since then, heading toward the January 1, 2020 date on which no more new R-22 will be manufactured or imported into the United States. As supplies have dwindled, the price of R-22 has skyrocketed from $10-$12 per pound just a few years ago, to as much as $50 per pound today. That price is going to continue to rise as 2020 draws ever closer.
But, what if you purchased a brand new commercial HVAC system in 2010 that runs on R-22, having little or no idea that this phase-out was on its way or what that would mean for your operating costs? Now you have a perfectly good system that’s just 6 years old, but that costs 5 times as much to keep charged as it did when you bought it!
How to fix the problem
While the R-22 phase-out is probably the biggest and most immediate issue facing commercial facility managers when it comes to refrigerant management, the following simple principles should help with any similar issues going forward.
- Get your equipment thoroughly inspected - It’s important to determine how much refrigerant your HVAC system is likely to need throughout a typical cooling season, measure its efficiency, and use that data as a starting point for smart decision making going forward.
- For minor leaks or standard charging, paying the higher price may be all you can do - Although it’s awful to pay 5 times what you used to for minor leak repairs and recharging, that still may be a tiny fraction of the cost of replacing your equipment at this point, and worth the cost to keep your HVAC system operating efficiently for more of its expected life cycle.
- Explore the possibility of retrofitting - While retrofitting older equipment to utilize different refrigerant isn’t always the best option, especially since retrofitting often adversely affects the system’s efficiency - it could be a smart stopgap for newer equipment with a significant lifespan left in it.
- Work with a reputable refrigerant reclaimer - While phased-out refrigerants can no longer be manufactured or imported new, you will still be able to obtain a reclaimed or recycled refrigerant that meets EPS standards. After January 1, 2020, this will be the only legal source of R-22.
- Start making plans now to completely replace your HVAC system - As much as it may hurt from a capital expenditure standpoint, it’s better to bite the bullet and get ahead of this necessary evil rather than remaining in denial as the cost of phased-out refrigerant continues to skyrocket. Talk it up as part of your company’s green initiatives and be sure to explore any available grants, incentives, or rebates available to buildings making this hefty investment.
Whether you’re facing the R-22 phase-out directly, or just want to learn more about how your facility can better handle refrigerant management, the energy engineers and qualified technicians at Piedmont Services Group will be more than happy to help. Contact us with any questions or concerns. Or, download our ebook to learn more about the ROI of HVAC analytics.