Let the Refrigerant Phase-in Begin

Apr 16, 24 | Efficiency & Refrigerant Regulations

Share This Post

Evaluating next-generation commercial refrigerant alternatives in established and emerging applications

Despite years of speculation and uncertainty, the phasedown of hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants has officially arrived in the United States. For food retailers, it’s no longer a question of “if” it will happen, but rather when they will need to act. It also means they will soon be deciding which alternative refrigerants will become the foundations of their future refrigeration strategies.

As I noted in a recent article for Contracting Business, the next generation of refrigeration equipment will be more diverse, with no one-size-fits-all solution. Proven eco-friendly refrigerants CO2 (or R-744) and R-290 (aka propane) — as well as emerging A2L options — are among the most likely successors capable of meeting needed global warming potential (GWP) reductions.

Although the entire industry is going through this refrigerant transition together, each retailer will need to make their own choices. Equipment and architectural decisions should not be taken lightly, as they can impact your operations for the next 10–20 years. It is critically important to align refrigerant choices with your company’s long-term operational and sustainability goals.

Regulatory and sustainability drivers

Retailers in California were among the first to make the transition in the U.S., largely in response to HFC phasedown mandates set forth by the California Air Resources Board (CARB). The passing of the American Innovation and Manufacturing (AIM) Act in 2020 laid the groundwork for an HFC phasedown on the federal level. The next phase of HFC-reduction rulemaking from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will set the stage for the emergence of lower-flammability A2L refrigerants and increased charges of R-290 (subject to use conditions).

At the same time, environmental, social and governance (ESG) initiatives are prompting many companies to pledge sustainability targets over the coming years and decades. Because refrigerants are a potentially significant contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions — both directly from leaks and indirectly from their impact on energy efficiency — selecting a next-generation alternative is among the most important sustainability decisions a company can make.

CO2 growth in North America

With a GWP of 1 and zero ozone depletion potential (ODP), CO2 is a sustainable alternative that is poised to play a key role in the U.S. refrigerant transition. Copeland has been developing CO2 system technologies for more than a decade, including compression, controls and components integrated to deliver seamless performance and help simplify CO2 refrigeration applications.

Large, centralized CO2 systems

For large retail outlets, CO2 transcritical booster (TCB) systems provide a centralized, all-CO2 strategy for both medium- (MT) and low-temperature (LT) loads. Although early CO2 TCB systems proved to perform well in cooler climates, modern CO2 TCB systems utilize new design approaches to optimize system performance in warm weather conditions as well.

The expanding potential of R-290

Over the past decade, the natural refrigerant R-290 has emerged as a viable low-GWP (GWP = 3) alternative, especially in smaller, self-contained refrigeration units that don’t require large refrigeration loads. Although R‑290 offers proven sustainability and performance benefits, its A3 “higher flammability” classification must be considered.

The revised UL 60335-2-89, 2nd edition standard could potentially expand the sizes of R-290 cases by raising the charge limits on commercial self-contained, plug-in displays to 500 grams for open appliances (without doors) and 300 grams for appliances with doors or drawers. Currently in-progress SNAP 26 proposals — as well as model and building code updates — must first be approved before the industry can implement these higher R-290 charges. For now, retailers should be aware that the potential for larger-capacity, self-contained, R-290 units is on the horizon.

Preparing for the emergence of A2Ls

A2L refrigerants have long been recognized as potentially viable alternatives to high-GWP HFCs. Their “lower flammability” classification, in some cases, will require proper safety management and risk mitigation strategies. Leak detection sensors, proper ventilation, and safety shut-off valves may be required in some remote systems with larger charges. For larger systems end users concerned with reducing both their Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions, A2L refrigerants offer an attractive solution due to their better performance compared to other low GWP options or even the mainstay HFCs utilized today. A2Ls provide improved energy efficiency versus other low GWP options, leading to lower indirect emissions (Scope 2) from electricity consumption. This can be particularly beneficial in regions where the electrical grid is more carbon intensive. Moreover, the lower GWP of A2Ls as well as the lower risk of leaks due to the reduced operating pressure contributes to a reduction in direct emissions (Scope 1), aligning with the sustainability goals of many organizations.

As A2L adoption in U.S. commercial refrigeration is still in its early stages, companies transitioning to these refrigerants can leverage their high-performance, low-GWP characteristics to meet their environmental & operating cost targets more effectively.

Make the most informed refrigerant decisions

As you plan your refrigerant transitions, Copeland can provide guidance on how to phase out high-GWP HFC infrastructures while phasing in more sustainable replacement refrigerant strategies. To learn more about Copeland’s low-GWP, alternative refrigerant-based solutions and application expertise, please visit the emerging refrigerants section of our website.