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The Facility Manager’s Guide to Effective Commercial Refrigerant Management

HVAC technician working on hvac unit

While it may not be top of mind at all times, refrigerant management is an important topic for commercial building owners and facility managers to consider. Understanding and optimizing it for your building can potentially mean thousands of dollars on your annual balance sheet, especially if your HVAC equipment is more than eight years old, but is not yet in need of replacement.

The background of commercial refrigerants

Synthetic refrigerants (often referred to as HFCs or HCFCs) were created decades ago and have been used extensively in both commercial and residential refrigeration, freezer, and air conditioning applications because they were both highly effective and low cost. The only real drawback to their use is their negative impact on the environment. Specifically, they’ve been proven to contribute greatly to the destruction of the ozone layer and of trapping greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming.

So, beginning about 20 years ago, many synthetic refrigerants started being slowly phased out around the world, replaced by environmentally safer alternatives.

Refrigerant phaseouts and you

These phaseouts of synthetic refrigerant were intentionally spread over a very long period of time because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — and its contemporaries in other countries — recognize that switching refrigerants requires large-scale retrofitting and/or replacement of billions of dollars in commercial and residential HVAC systems and appliances. Forcing businesses and citizens alike to take this on over just a short period of time would have put undue strain on the world economy.

So, overall, the 20+ years during which the refrigerant phaseouts have been going on have been good for commercial building owners and managers. It means you’ve had plenty of time to strategically plan and budget for compliance with new refrigerant laws. Unfortunately, though, going more than 20 years without an enforceable set of regulations has caused some to procrastinate, leaving them inadequately prepared for the coming end to the phaseout period.

The R-22 phaseout

The longstanding phaseout of R-22 (aka Freon) is an example of the challenge facing building owners and facility managers when it comes to refrigerant management.

For over four decades, R-22 was the most popular synthetic Hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) in the world for use as a refrigerant in thousands of different applications. Because of its environmental impact, the EPA in 1990 announced its intention to eventually eliminate the use and manufacture of R-22. However, no official plans were provided for how this was going to occur.

Because of this lack of direction, for 20 more years — right up until 2010 — millions of commercial HVAC components using R-22 refrigerant were designed, built, and sold. The chemical itself was still being manufactured extensively worldwide until 2013, when the EPA enforced a sudden cut in production.

Since then, the phaseout of R-22 has been aggressive, with a target date of January 1, 2020 marking the point when no more new R-22 will be manufactured in or imported into the United States. As a result, supplies of the refrigerant have quickly dwindled, and the price of Freon has exploded. What cost just $10-$12 per pound a few years ago, now costs $50 (or more) per pound today. No doubt, the price will continue to rise right up to the 2020 end date and beyond, until the Freon supply is completely depleted.

Here’s where the real challenge comes in for commercial building owners: if you purchased a brand new commercial HVAC system in 2010 that was designed to use R-22, (which many did, having no idea the EPA’s phaseout was on its way,) your building now has a healthy system that’s just seven years old and running well, but that costs you five times what it used to every time you get the coolant charged.

That’s financially unsustainable.

Enough about the problem, what’s the solution?

The R-22 phaseout may be the most immediate refrigerant management issue facing commercial facility managers right now, but it’s not the only one. And, there’s no way of knowing if and when another new regulation or restriction will pop up that has similar effects. The following five tips should help building owners and facility managers more effectively deal with this situation in the future.

  1. Invest in a thorough inspection - The goal is to determine how much refrigerant your HVAC system will likely need during a typical cooling season, measure the system’s efficiency, and use the data you collect as a baseline for smart ordering and decision making going forward.
  2. Get used to paying more - Although it’s challenging to see an increase in a portion of your operating costs, your refrigerant costs for routine charging and the cost of repairing minor leaks are still tiny in comparison to the cost of replacing your equipment at this point. If your HVAC system is less than 15 years old and it’s still operating efficiently, it makes sense to let it continue living out more of its expected lifespan.
  3. Investigate retrofitting options - Paying a commercial HVAC contractor to retrofit older equipment to use approved refrigerant isn’t always the best option, especially since retrofitting often makes the system less efficient. But, it could be a smart investment if the equipment is still newer and you can expect it to last many more years.
  4. Work with a refrigerant reclaimer you can trust - While R-22 will be completely phased-out by 2020 in terms of manufacture and import, it will still be possible to get Freon that’s been reclaimed or recycled and meets EPA standards. After January 1, 2020, this will be the only legal source of R-22. So, start developing a relationship now with a refrigerant reclaimer you’ll be able to work with in a few years if you decide to continue running your current equipment.
  5. Eventually, you’ll need to completely replace your HVAC system - While all of the advice above can help you get the most out of your current system, you’ll want to come to terms with the fact that it’s better to bite the bullet and get ahead of replacement rather than staying a slave to the rising cost of phased-out refrigerant. Research the cost so you can appropriately plan for the capital expenditure, and get help exploring available grants, incentives, or rebates that can help.

Whether the R-22 phaseout is impacting you directly, or you just want to learn more about how your commercial facility can improve in refrigerant management, the energy engineers and qualified technicians at Midwest Mechanical want to help. Contact us with any questions or concerns.

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