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The Commercial Facility Manager’s Guide to Refrigerant Management

Refrigerant management is an important topic, and one that can potentially add or subtract tens of thousands of dollars on your commercial building’s annual balance sheet. This is especially true if your HVAC equipment is over ten years old, but not yet slated for replacement.

Let’s take a quick look at the history of refrigerants, then dive into managing your refrigerant needs, specifically involving the R-22 phase-out.

A quick refrigerants history

Man-made (synthetic) refrigerants (known as HFCs or HCFCs) were created decades ago and have been consistently used in both residential and commercial air conditioning, refrigeration, and freezer applications ever since, primarily because they’re low cost and highly effective. The one drawback with synthetic refrigerants is their impact on the environment. Specifically, they contribute to the destruction of the ozone layer and the proliferation of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.

As a result, many synthetic refrigerants have been slowly phased out of use, in favor of alternatives that are safer for the environment.

HVAC System

What refrigerant phase outs mean for your facility

These phase-outs were intentionally spread over a long period of time because the EPA, and its equivalent in other countries, knows that large-scale replacement and/or retrofitting of millions of expensive commercial and residential systems in just a few years would wreak havoc on the economy.

For commercial building owners and managers, this has allowed plenty of time to plan and budget for compliance. On the other hand, over 20 years without an enforceable law has lulled some building owners and managers into a false sense of security.

The R-22 phase-out

To explore the challenges building owners are facing when it comes to refrigerant management, let’s look at the long-standing phase-out of R-22, also known as Freon.

For over 40 years, Freon was the most popular synthetic Hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) in use as a refrigerant across the board. While the EPA originally announced in 1990 its intention to eliminate all production and use, no official phase-out plans were developed until much later. Millions of compressors and chillers were designed, manufactured, and sold using R-22 refrigerant right up until 2010, and the chemical itself was being heavily manufactured in the U.S. and elsewhere until 2013, when the EPA suddenly reduced production.

The phase-out has been aggressive since then, with January 1, 2020 chosen as the date on which R-22 will no longer be manufactured or imported into the United States. As supplies have dwindled, the price of R-22 has skyrocketed in recent years and is still volatile today. That price will continue to rise as time goes on.

Here’s the situation you could very well be in right now: If you purchased a brand-new commercial HVAC system in 2010 that runs on R-22, you now have a perfectly good system that’s just 7 years old, but that costs 5 times as much to operate as it did when you bought it!

How to fix the problem

While the R-22 phase-out is probably the most extreme example facing commercial facility managers when it comes to refrigerant management, the following simple principles should help with any similar issues going forward.

  1. 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 in the North Carolina area. Next, measure its efficiency, and use that data as a starting point for smart decision making going forward.
  2. For minor leaks or standard charging, paying the higher price may be all you can do - Although it’s significant to pay five 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.
  3. 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 remaining.
  4. 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 EPA standards. After January 1, 2020, this will be the only legal source of R-22.
  5. Start making plans now for a future HVAC system replacement - While this is a big capital expenditure, it may be time to plan now, rather than waiting as the cost of phased-out refrigerant continues to skyrocket. Position this 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 the R-22 phase-out affects you directly, or you just want to learn more about how your facility can better handle refrigerant management, the energy engineers and qualified technicians at AirTight FaciliTech will be more than happy to help your facility in the Charlotte area. Contact us with any questions or concerns.

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