By Bobby Almeida, Project Manager
One major contributor to environmental issues such as global warming are the refrigerants that live behind the scenes in our everyday lives. Refrigerants are used in everything from air conditioning equipment to refrigerators to car air conditioning to the freezer section at your grocery store and so many more places. These chemicals help us stay comfortable, keep food from spoiling, and other necessary aspects of modern-day life. However, few people are aware that the most common refrigerants in use today contribute significantly to global warming.
Refrigerants are broken down into different categories based upon the elements that make them up. Old refrigerants were comprised of substances called chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs. These refrigerants were ideal for a long time due to their inflammability, non-toxicity to humans, and ability to effectively work in air conditioning and refrigeration equipment. However, it was later discovered that CFCs were a major culprit in the depletion of the ozone layer. Once this was discovered the world banded together and adopted the Montreal Protocol, which phases out CFC refrigerants. Today CFC refrigerants can only be found in very old equipment.
The immediate alternative to CFCs were hydrochlorofluorocarbons, or HCFCs. HCFCs do not deplete the ozone layer at the same rate as CFCs, but they still do have some ozone depletion potential. Due to this, HCFCs are also controlled under international protocols and are not ideal to use.
Today, the most common refrigerants used are hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs. HFCs do not harm the ozone layer at all, so most people consider them to be the refrigerant that should be used for sustainability purposes. However, while HFCs do not harm the ozone layer, they are a major contributor to global warming. A single pound of the refrigerant R-410A (which is very common in current HVAC systems) contributes as much to global warming as 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide. Two thousand pounds. A few pounds of R-410A leaking into the atmosphere can cause as much global warming as driving your car for an entire year. While the EPA does regulate who can handle refrigerant containing devices and how they handle them, the truth is that refrigerant leaks into the atmosphere all the time. New equipment can have leaks that aren’t discovered at first. Technicians can accidentally leak some into the atmosphere while working on a unit. Older units develop leaks through wear and tear. We have seen maintenance logs on older HVAC units showing that they require 10 to 20 pounds of refrigerant added each time the unit is serviced. That’s up to the equivalent of 40,000 pounds of carbon dioxide. A study published in 2013 in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics showed that without any phase-out of HFC refrigerants, they will cause up to 0.5 degrees Celsius of global warming by 2100. A common goal in minimizing climate change is to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius or less. Without action, HFC refrigerants would cause up to a quarter of the allowed global warming.
Luckily there are new refrigerants available and more keep getting developed. One category of these refrigerants is hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs). HFOs cause no depletion of the ozone layer and have a global warming potential similar to that of carbon dioxide. These refrigerants are available in some HVAC equipment already, but hopefully the manufacturers and industry move towards adopting them in all equipment.
To help us get as close as possible to the 2 degrees Celsius limit for global warming significant strides will need to be made in the refrigerant industry. Progress is being made – the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol regulates HFCs and has been adopted by 65 countries including the European Union. The United States has not adopted the Kigali Amendment, but there is strong support from the refrigerant industry and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. California has a plan in place to phase out some HFCs which is a good first step. While we wait for the U.S. to ratify the Kigali Amendment every project can design and install low global warming potential refrigerants to do their part.