F-Gas Regulation: When refrigeration equipment operators have to act!

Interview with F-gas experts Rainer Henrici and Christian Teller

The F-Gas Regulation aims to reduce fluorinated greenhouse gas emissions across the EU. We spoke with Rainer Henrici, Senior Project Manager at Infraserv Höchst, and Christian Teller, certified expert in refrigeration and aspiring master builder for refrigeration systems at Infraserv Höchst, about the upcoming challenges facing refrigeration equipment operators.

Rainer Henrici and Christian Teller / Infraserv Höchst

The current version of F-Gas Regulation No. 517/2014 has been in force throughout the EU since January 1, 2015. What makes the F-Gas Regulation such an explosive topic for refrigeration equipment operators and the chemical industry six years later?

Rainer Henrici: The predecessor F-Gas Regulation primarily addressed factors such as containment, leak detection and recycling. The new version broadens the scope of the bans that will have to be rolled out in stages. For example, refrigerants with a GWP value exceeding 2,500 kg CO₂ have been prohibited in new stationary systems since the beginning of 2020. It is also prohibited to fill existing systems with virgin refrigerants above a certain charge size.

Christian Teller: The new version of the regulation also introduced equivalent values, which can be calculated by multiplying the charge size of the refrigeration system by the GWP value of the refrigerant. That makes it much easier to classify refrigerants based on their global warming potential.

Rainer Henrici: It’s particularly helpful in recognizing when action is needed and when I, as an operator, should ask whether it still makes economic sense to retrofit the system or whether I should go ahead and install new equipment right away.

Christian Teller: Operators of existing equipment need to know that not every defective refrigeration system can be repaired or retrofitted for an lower-GWP alternative refrigerant. These systems have to be replaced if a retrofit makes no technical or economic sense.

“The obligations and prohibitions set out in the F-Gas Regulation will be implemented in stages until 2030.”

Rainer Henrici: And that’s precisely where we get to the phase-down, which is another requirement introduced by the new regulation. In the chemical industry, the phase-down applies to equipment with charge sizes up to the metric ton range, especially in process refrigeration. But it also affects applications such as laboratory cooling, small-scale refrigeration and air conditioning.

What are the consequences of the F-Gas Regulation phase-down?

Rainer Henrici: The phase-down caps and gradually reduces the total amount of CO₂ equivalents. In 2021, only 45% of the 2015 volume will be available to the EU market ...

Christian Teller: ... and this artificial shortage of fluorinated refrigerants naturally means that they will inevitably become more expensive and thus less economically attractive.

Kg CO₂ equivalent: The increase in the greenhouse effect from emitting one kilogram of refrigerant is equal to the increase from emitting x thousand kilos of CO₂ from burning oil or gas in a heating system.

And what are the impacts in practice?

Rainer Henrici: If I’m an operator who requires a certain amount of fluorinated refrigerants, I will have to reduce the specific GWP value of the refrigerant.

“The regulation’s provisions apply not only to producers, importers and distributors of hydrofluorocarbons and associated equipment but also to the companies operating the equipment.”

Christian Teller: Let me give an example to illustrate this point: The now-regulated cryogenic refrigerants R-404a and R-507 have GWP values of about 3,900 kg CO₂. R-448a and R-449a, the current alternatives, have GWP values of approximately 1,400 kg CO₂. In CO₂ equivalents, that translates into 70 metric tons of CO₂ for an 18 kg charge of the old refrigerants compared to 25 metric tons of CO₂ for the current, equally safe alternatives.

Rainer Henrici: However, the phase-down will still bring some challenges in the coming years. For example, the average GWP value of a refrigerant has to be 1,000 kg CO₂ or less starting in 2021.

What does this mean in concrete terms for refrigeration system operators?

Christian Teller: As I mentioned before, the current phase-down level is 45% (2021) of 2015 volumes and will have to fall to 21% by 2030. Acceptance among chemical firms is very high. Companies have been taking a close look the F-Gas Regulation and want to retrofit refrigeration systems to handle lower-GWP refrigerants, such as R-513a, in a timely manner.

“The goal is to develop alternative refrigerants so we can stop using F-gases altogether in the foreseeable future if at all possible.”

Rainer Henrici: Operators will increasingly be forced to switch to low-GWP refrigerants in the future. However, this will only work over the long term if A2L flammable refrigerants are also an option ...

Christian Teller: ... and because flammable refrigerants can’t be used everywhere, it will be necessary to develop more alternatives so that we can stop using F-gases altogether if at all possible. That takes research. So in the long run, natural refrigerants such as CO₂ or propane will likely move into the spotlight.

Where has the F-Gas Regulation already been successful?

Rainer Henrici: There been quite a few strides made in the provision of fluorinated low-GWP refrigerants, while more applications using natural refrigerants have been developed.

“Many supermarket chains already actively use natural refrigerants.”

Christian Teller: We are also seeing ammonia – as well as CO₂ – gaining importance as a refrigerant. Other opportunities are opening up for air and water, which are also natural refrigerants. They’re still niches today, but who knows where the market will go in the next few years?

What’s the most urgent thing we need to do about developing more sustainable refrigerants in order to keep pace with the F-Gas Regulation phase-down?

Rainer Henrici: What we really need right now are safety concepts for flammable refrigerants with low GWP values. We’re seeing some good progress in that area.

What are the biggest pitfalls for operators when complying with the regulation? What aspects are often neglected by companies and operators?

Christian Teller: Unfortunately, not all companies have gotten the message that they can’t simply refill a refrigerant if their system springs a leak. First, they have to siphon off and weigh the refrigerant. Second, they have to pressurize the refrigeration system – whether a chiller or split air-conditioning system – with a test medium such as forming gas or nitrogen and then check it for leaks. Third, they have to determine the correct charge size and charge the unit. This process obviously takes longer than simply topping off the refrigerant, as people commonly used to do.

Rainer Henrici: It can be disastrous if operators neglect new technologies. A lot of current equipment is inadequately prepared for new refrigerants, which makes it difficult to keep it running over the long term. Flammable refrigerants are often a particular problem.

Christian Teller: Waiting too long can get really expensive. Flammable or toxic refrigerants with low GWP values require new risk assessments and special safety measures. This usually involves high costs that would have been better spent on completely new equipment.

How can Infraserv Höchst help operators and companies to optimally implement the phase-down?

Rainer Henrici: We specialize in environmental protection and facility management for the chemical and laboratory sectors and so are intimately familiar with the ins and outs of the new F-Gas Regulation. That allows us to give operators timely, comprehensive advice and retrofit existing equipment so that it continues to operate economically with currently approved refrigerants for quite some time. We are also happy to develop a new solution if a retrofit is no longer advisable.

Christian Teller: That’s right, but the new solution has to be individually tailored to the operation. Each refrigeration system is a unique product. That’s why there is no one-size-fits-all solution that we can just pull off a shelf and offer to customers. We inspect each system in person, work out one or more approaches and present them to the customer together with a quote, ideally in person.

The phase-down affects more than just the production and operation of cooling systems. It also affects entire supply chains and maintenance plans – right down to sending in specially certified staff for service calls. And that requires early planning and a clear work organization. What questions should operators and companies be asking first in this context?

Rainer Henrici: Refrigeration system operators should first check how long the refrigerant they use will still be available on the market in the required quantities. They should start thinking about alternative solutions early on and look for companies who can retrofit their equipment.

Christian Teller: Operators should bring an experienced system builder on board as soon as they realize that their existing equipment will no longer conform to the F-Gas Regulation.

Rainer Henrici: Infraserv customers have a huge advantage here. Our certified employees receive ongoing training and stay on top of the latest industry news and trends. That saves our customers the hassle of having to train and certify their employees themselves.

How can companies handle the transition as effectively and economically as possible? What is the best way to offset unavoidable major investments?

Rainer Henrici: It’s important to prepare for retrofits or new equipment early on and set aside the necessary capital or even apply for it. Infraserv itself launched the “Refrigeration 2025” program for industrial refrigeration some time ago.

Christian Teller: There is also the option of using drop-in replacements, such as R-513a with a GWP value of 675 instead of R-134a with a GWP value of 1,430. Drop-ins let you retain most of the refrigeration components. That means lower capital expenditure than a complete replacement of the system. However, you first have to ensure that all the refrigeration system components are compatible with the new refrigerant and new oil. Operators should be aware, though, that this is only a transitional solution.

Rainer Henrici: R-134a, for example, will be phased down starting in 2021 based on its GWP value of 1,430, making a shortage and higher prices likely. So companies should not install new systems that use this refrigerant, particularly if they want the systems to run for a long time, as they usually do in industrial refrigeration.

How can Infraserv Höchst support companies/operators in the long term outside of complying with the F-Gas Regulation?

Christian Teller: We are always available to answer our customers’ questions and work out custom solutions, whether it’s replacing an air-conditioning system or building a new refrigeration system for a data center. Our main focus is on energy efficiency and the long-term availability of components and refrigerants.

Rainer Henrici: The F-Gas Regulation is so complex that manufacturers and operators run a real risk of overlooking something, which could have costly consequences – including an equipment shutdown. Infraserv therefore offers a comprehensive portfolio of advisory and support services for implementing the phase-down and all other measures, such as retrofitting existing systems, installing new ones or selecting a future-proof refrigerant.

Christian Teller: We are happy to check all the manufacturer documents for an existing system and take a close look at its inner workings to evaluate the impact of the F-Gas Regulation on it, including measurements and leak checks. We then point out areas that could be optimized and possibilities for energy savings...

Rainer Henrici: ... and if the current system is obsolete, we will be happy to design a new one – one with low operating costs and long-term security of supply, as we mentioned earlier.

Mr. Henrici, Mr. Teller, thank you for talking to us today!

Your message to us

Do you have any questions? If so, simply fill out our contact form. We look forward to hearing from you!