I love roller coasters, don’t you? Except when the roller coaster is U.S. environmental policy on refrigerants. We have all been riding the refrigerant roller coaster over the past few years.
In 2016 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency implemented a schedule for phasing in regulations for hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and substitute refrigerants. First came sales restrictions so that only EPA-certified technicians could buy HFCs, just like the chlorofluorocarbons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (CFC and HCFC) sales restriction. Then in 2018, appliance disposal documentation and recordkeeping requirements went into effect for all refrigerant types including HFCs. In 2019 the leak repair and reporting requirements were extended to include HFCs.
Then came a successful lawsuit against the EPA for overstepping its authority with the Clean Air Act in regulating HFCs. The EPA had to rescind the HFC leak repair and reporting requirements, which were announced in April 2020. Let the venting begin!
When the Trump administration announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, many governors across the nation formed the U.S. Climate Alliance, which now consists of 24 states and Puerto Rico. The Alliance’s purpose is to implement standards and policies that promote the goals of the Paris Agreement and the spirit of U.S. Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) Rules 20 and 21, regulations for high-global warmth potential (GWP) refrigerants.
December 2020: Enter the American Innovation and Manufacturing Act of 2020. The AIM Act gives the EPA the authority to implement HFC production phase downs and use in equipment, putting us back in sync with the Kigali Amendment of the Montreal Protocol. The EPA is also cleared to implement sector-based controls in addition to HFCs service, repair and disposal requirements.
A recent EPA webinar reviewed the requirements and methods for reclaiming used HFCs and substitute refrigerants for reuse. One provision is to require original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to incorporate a certain percentage of reclaimed refrigerant in new equipment. This is a clear indication of movement toward practical regulations on the use, reuse and disposal of substitute refrigerants.
On April 30, 2021, EPA Administrator Michael Regan signed a proposed rule titled, “Phasedown of Hydrofluorocarbons: Establishing the Allowance Allocation and Trading Program under the American Innovation and Manufacturing Act.” This proposed rule is the first regulation under the AIM Act of 2020 to address the production and consumption of HFCs.
Less Confusion, More Progress
The AIM Act’s phase-down schedule may negate the need for the state-based U.S. Climate Alliance initiatives for restrictions on high-GWP refrigerants. Many manufacturers and industry groups have expressed a preference for federal standards and guidance over a patchwork of varying state-based initiatives.
Who Is Affected?
Facility owners, heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration (HVAC/R) contractors, and OEMs are being affected by the AIM Act provisions and by the EPA restoring regulations affecting HFCs—and substitute refrigerants—for phase down and phase out. Further impacting owners and contractors will be some form of restored regulations for leak repairs, leak inspections, leakage reporting on HFC and other substitute refrigerants to be in sync with the stratospheric ozone depletion regulations. Stop the venting!
Progress Is Prosperity
Uniformity in regulations and requirements at the federal level will be less costly and easier to enforce than state-based initiatives. Conformity with international standards and treaties will boost commerce, help reduce waste and curtail costly efforts involving unproductive and harmful products. Next-generation refrigerants and technologies will promote industry growth and jobs, which is what the AIM Act was designed to do.
With the world standardizing air conditioning and refrigeration systems using refrigerants that have virtually no environmental impact—and better energy efficiency—we all stand to gain.
What Is Your Plan?
As you can see, the HFC “holiday” is coming to an end, but regulatory change is an opportunity for facility owners, managers, and contractors to review current refrigerant management policies and practices with an eye toward the future. What might affect operations in the event of phase downs on a particular refrigerant or refrigeration technology?
Questions to ask:
- Which low-GWP refrigerants are good candidates for your operation?
- Are they SNAP Rule 23-approved mildly flammable A2L refrigerants (SNAP 23 overwrote 20 and 21)?
- Have local building codes been updated for A2L refrigerants like R-32 or R-454B?
- Are your technicians and contractors trained on safe use and handling of A2L refrigerants?
- Are your refrigerant recovery units rated for A2L and other substitute refrigerants?
- Is your documentation and record-keeping system updated to meet the challenge of new regulations?
- Does your system have an accurate equipment inventory with refrigerant types and quantity per circuit?
- Will your system identify which refrigerants in use have high GWPs?
- Is the GWP calculated for each refrigerant and carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) for each piece of equipment?
- Does your system track refrigerant usage, leakage and CO2e for each piece of equipment?
- Can your system produce the EPA-required annual “125% Chronic Leaker” report and records?
- Have you evaluated a forward-looking refrigerant transition for the equipment? Can it be converted to a low-GWP refrigerant? What impact would that have on capacity and energy efficiency? Safety?
- Have you conducted a contain/convert/replace analysis for each piece of equipment? Is there a documented transition plan for each system?
- Is there guidance from leadership, and has your organization established a defined list of acceptable refrigerants—and nonacceptable refrigerants—as they relate to your operation?
- Has your organization established written policies, procedures and work instructions for refrigerant management?
- Have all affected employees received refrigerant management training? This would include EPA certified technicians (in-house and contractors), supervisors, facility managers and environmental managers.
Now is the time to begin the dialogue—conduct the investigations, anticipate costly surprises and help prevent mistakes—and chart the path forward. We are at a pivotal point in history where humanity has decided to take action to save itself from its own shortsightedness, and cross the bridge to a safer, more sustainable and productive world. That’s why it’s time we put the brakes on the refrigerant roller coaster.