High-GWP Refrigerants: Stealth Climate Destroyers
Paul Hawken’s book Drawdown looks at a number of strategies that would “reverse the buildup of atmospheric carbon within thirty years.” Based on careful analysis, his team concluded that the number-one action we can take to reverse anthropogenic global warming is to manage high global warming potential (GWP) refrigerants. Wait…what?! What about increasing insulation in our buildings? Or replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy? Or reducing the impacts of steel and concrete? Or biking to work? They can’t be serious.
But refrigerants are no joke. The refrigerants used in equipment that cools our food and keep us comfortable have global warming potentials more than 2000 times higher than CO2.
November’s BuildingGreen Report feature article The Cost of Comfort: Climate Change and Refrigerants looks at the refrigerant conundrum: why high-GWP refrigerants are a problem, what can be done to minimize their negative impacts in the short term, and how technologies and regulations are addressing the problem for the future.
The current state of refrigerant management is troubling. High-GWP refrigerants vaporize without a trace so enforcing proper disposal is difficult. They leak into the environment when first added to HVAC equipment, and again when that equipment is repaired, and when it is disposed of. Refrigerant will leak from a poorly installed connection. Unscrupulous workers sometimes vent refrigerant (rather than capturing and recycling it) when fixing pumps and other components…and then sell you more of the same refrigerant to recharge the system. Slow leaks in long refrigerant lines, such as those used in VRF systems, are often addressed by simply adding more and more refrigerant. And when equipment is decommissioned, scrap metal dealers don’t necessarily want to capture and store refrigerants, so there are “accidental” refrigerant leaks during transport and storage. Stopping these ingrained behaviors is going to be tough, and current federal regulations are weak at best and usually not enforced. And perhaps more importantly, the cost of capturing and storing refrigerants is not worth the labor for some, providing an economic disincentive to recycle them.
Using low-GWP refrigerants will solve many of these issues, but new refrigerants are typically more flammable than current U.S. codes allow, so codes and equipment will need to change to optimize their use. It will take some time before these systems are readily available and, in the meantime, legacy equipment will be running high GWP refrigerants for years to come.
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But here are a few takeaways from the article you can use to minimize the impacts of high-GWP refrigerants until solutions are available:
- Use reclaimed/recycled refrigerant in equipment. Refrigerants can be recycled over and over without losing performance. Encourage the practice to increase adoption.
- Install monitoring equipment to ensure HVAC systems are running efficiently, and make repairs immediately. Leaks are often discovered when equipment stops working effectively and occupants take notice, but by then most of the refrigerant is likely lost. The proper amount of refrigerant optimizes performance, as well, so less energy (and fewer CO2 emissions) will be required to run equipment.
- When equipment hasn’t leaked refrigerant but needs repairs, such as when a pump breaks, insist that maintenance staff or contractors capture the refrigerant and reuse it.
- Use reputable refrigerant and salvage companies that will capture refrigerant at the end of equipment’s useful life.
There are reasons that Drawdown chose refrigerants as the most solvable climate challenge, but refrigerants are complicated and changing decades of ingrained industry behaviors is not going to be as easy as implied. I encourage you to explore this fascination topic so you’ll be ready to make smarter decisions regarding current and future HVAC equipment choices.
Again, check out November’s BuildingGreen Report feature article The Cost of Comfort: Climate Change and Refrigerants for more.
Ehrlich, B. (2017, December 6). High-GWP Refrigerants: Stealth Climate Destroyers. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/blog/high-gwp-refrigerants-stealth-climate-destroyers