Refrigerant use, new regulations and bans

The following article provides guidance on refrigerants currently in use. The latest revision of the F-Gas Regulation, EU Regulation No. 517/2014 on fluorinated greenhouse gases, introduces important provisions on refrigerants that are still in widespread use. Several of these substances will be completely banned by 2030.

As an operator of refrigeration, air-conditioning as and heat pump equipment, you will find some basic information on refrigerants below that will help you to easily determine the status of your systems. It will also help you decide whether to retrofit or purchase new equipment.

Refrigerants and their key properties

By common definition, refrigerants are working fluids that can extract heat from a fluid through evaporation in refrigeration or heat pump equipment, thus producing cold. It should be noted that refrigerants are not coolants. Coolants can transport cold or remove heat, whereas a refrigerant is used to actually produce cold.

The refrigerants’ thermodynamic properties are particularly important. First, a refrigerant must not freeze under any circumstances. It should evaporate sufficiently in the evaporator at all operating temperatures with as small of a pressure drop as possible. Its heat of vaporization (enthalpy) should be as high as possible in order to achieve a certain refrigerating capacity at the lowest possible flow rate.

The refrigerant’s critical temperature must also be adequately high. Its temperature glide should be very low or non-existent to keep the temperature as constant as possible during vaporization. This is especially important for single-substance refrigerants or even azeotropic blends, whose constituents do not separate during boiling despite having different boiling points.

It should not take too much pressure to liquefy the refrigerant in the condenser. In addition, a refrigerant should have the highest-possible volumetric heating capacity: This lets the volumetric flow rate stay low and the unit or system be more compact.

Other positive use properties

  • Not flammable/explosive
  • Not harmful to health
  • Ecologically harmless (little to no greenhouse effect, no ozone-depleting effect)
  • Highly compatible with other materials used in the equipment
  • Low viscosity for best possible flow properties

Since few refrigerants have all these desirable properties, limitations will almost always have to be accepted or some effort will be required to make up for undesirable properties. In many cases – depending on the system or machine – a desirable property will compensate for a negative one.

For example, toxic or corrosive refrigerants can achieve a high heat of vaporization and are therefore quite popular. When they are used, appropriate safety precautions have to be taken where feasible because of their hazardous properties. Other substances are chosen for their low global warming potential despite their flammability, if permitted by safety regulations.

The decision to use or avoid a certain refrigerant is application-specific. Many different refrigerants are in use and their pros and cons should always be weighed against each other.

Procuring fluorinated refrigerants (F-gases)

Purchases of F-gases often require a special certification (company certification or personal certification) issued by the state environmental authorities. Specialized refrigeration and air-conditioning companies have to present their company or personal certification before purchasing fluorinated refrigerants from wholesalers. It is against the law to sell refrigerants to non-certified companies or individuals.

Most common current refrigerants and their alternatives

After chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were partially banned in the 1980s due to their ozone-depleting properties and finally banned completely in the 1990s, Germany decided to only allow non-ozone-depleting refrigerants to be used in new systems.

These systems now widely use F-gases (hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs). However, several of these refrigerants are harmful to the climate due to a strong greenhouse effect. R-410a, which is widely used in stationary air-conditioning systems, has a GWP (global warming potential) of 1,725 and is extremely harmful to the climate; it must not be allowed to leak into the environment under any circumstances.

R-404a, R-507 as well as R-134a, which is mainly used in vehicles, also have high GWP values (3,920, 3,850 and 1,430, respectively). R-134a was banned years ago from air-conditioning systems in new passenger cars since it escapes relatively easily from those types of systems.

R-1234yf is considered a good alternative to R-134a since it has a low GWP of 4 and several properties comparable to R-134a. However, the hydrofluoroolefin (HFO) used in R-1234yf (2,3,3,3-tetrafluoropropene) is mildly flammable.

Halogen-free alternatives to F-gases

Non-halogenated (i.e. non-chlorinated or non-fluorinated) hydrocarbons (liquefied gases) such as R-290 and R-1270 offer one way to avoid the adverse environmental impact of hydrofluorocarbons. Substances such as propane, propene and butane are neither toxic nor harmful to the ozone layer or climate. Their main disadvantage is that they are flammable as well as explosive if released into the air in high concentrations.

Safe, compliant use of these substance requires extensive precautions and technical measures. Another disadvantage of hydrocarbons is their high solubility in common oil-based lubricants.

Ammonia, a component of R-717, has long been used in industrial and small-scale equipment and absorption heat pumps. However, this nitrogen-hydrogen compound has not gained acceptance as a widespread alternative to halogenated hydrocarbons. While ammonia has compelling thermodynamic properties, it is highly toxic and fairly incompatible with other materials. For example, it corrodes metals (copper) when combined with water.

CO₂ (known as R-744) is also another possible halogen-free alternative to climate-damaging refrigerants. Carbon dioxide does affect the climate, but far less than F-gases. In addition, a relatively small amount of CO₂ is needed to operate refrigeration units and heat pumps.

CO₂ is also non-flammable and rather inexpensive. It also has several favorable refrigeration properties, most notably a high volumetric refrigeration capacity. One of its disadvantages is that it requires a relatively high pressure and thus rather complex units (strong piping, higher material costs) to be liquefied.

Halogenated alternatives

As illustrated by the example of R-1234yf as a possible alternative to R-134A, manufacturers and operators are focusing a great deal of attention on refrigerants that are or contain hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs). Their very low greenhouse warming potential is a compelling argument, while they possess many properties that are similar to the F-gases still widely in use.

Their biggest downside is their – admittedly low – flammability. Other disadvantages include the potential for low volumetric refrigeration capacity, relatively high temperature glide when used in blends and elevated compressed gas temperature. Last but not least, not only are HFOs and HFO blends still quite expensive, they may not yet be fully available.

Regulation (EU) No. 517/2014 on fluorinated greenhouse gases and future bans on F-gases

Regulation (EU) No. 517/2014 on fluorinated greenhouse gases , or F-Gas Regulation for short, has been in force since January 1, 2015. It requires a 70 percent reduction in industrial emissions of fluorinated greenhouse gases from 1990 levels by 2030. Its specific goal is to reduce emissions in the EU by 70 million metric tons of CO₂ equivalents to 35 million metric tons of CO₂ equivalents.

In addition to tightening rules on leak checks, certification, disposal and labeling, the F-Gas Regulation phases down the allowed quantities of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) so that only one fifth of the current sales quantities will be available in the market by 2030. It also imposes bans on the use and marketing of certain F-gases if climate-friendlier alternatives are available and feasible.

We have provided a GWP calculator so that you can quickly gauge the impact of the regulation on your business. The calculator makes it extremely easy for you to determine the GWP value of your current refrigerant and the consequences for you.

The following provisions took effect on January 1, 2020:

  • It is prohibited to use refrigerants with a GWP above 2,500 in systems with over 40 metric tons of CO₂ equivalents (affects the common refrigerants R-23, R-404a, R-422a, R-422d, R-507, R-508a and R-508b)
  • It is prohibited to recharge refrigeration equipment (over 40 metric tons of CO₂ equivalents) with virgin F-gas with a GWP above 2,500
  • It is prohibited to market commercial refrigeration, freezer and other equipment with F-gas that has a GWP above 2,500
  • It is prohibited to market mobile air-conditioning units with a GWP above 750

Other, wider-reaching prohibitions will gradually on January 1, 2023, January 1, 2025 and January 1, 2030.

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