Feature Article

The Cost of Comfort: Climate Change and Refrigerants

Refrigerants with very high global warming potential can negate the energy-efficiency benefits of many HVAC systems, including popular heat pumps.

Refrigerant recovery from HVAC equipment.

Photo: Rapid Recovery
What is the number-one action we can take to reverse anthropogenic global warming? Eliminate coal-fired power plants? Drive electric cars? Install solar panels? Paul Hawken’s new book, Drawdown, calculates and rates the environmental and financial impacts of addressing carbon output across various sectors. According to Drawdown, the number one action we can take to fix our greenhouse gas problem is…to reduce the impact of high-global-warming-potential (GWP) refrigerants.

Reducing those impacts won’t be easy. Refrigerants are the lifeblood of modern society. Refrigerators, freezers, and displays use them to keep our food at a safe temperature. Commercial chillers, air conditioners, mini- and multi-split heat pumps, and variable-refrigerant-flow (VRF) systems use refrigerants for space cooling and heating. They’re even used in vending machines, water coolers, ice machines, dehumidifiers, residential clothes dryers, and water heaters.

It’s not just that refrigerants are everywhere. Many systems use refrigerants with thousands of times the impact on global warming of carbon dioxide. These refrigerants can escape during installation, servicing, accidents, and disposal. For HVAC systems, the energy and carbon savings from their use usually outweighs the potential greenhouse gas emissions of the refrigerants over the equipment’s lifespan, but not if these systems are improperly installed, commissioned, or disposed of.

As we try to minimize energy use and move away from consuming fossil fuels toward more energy-efficient equipment, we are using more electricity for heating and cooling—and that means using more refrigerants than ever. Heat pumps and VRF systems (heat pumps that serve multiple rooms and can provide cooling to one part of a building while heating another), for instance, have become the go-to heating and cooling method for high-performance homes and many commercial spaces. These systems often use long lines of refrigerant that both increase the volume of refrigerant used, and expose it to the risk of release.

In this article, we’ll explore:

  • how refrigerants work
  • data comparing the carbon footprint of mini-split heat pumps and standard high-performance HVAC systems
  • ways of reducing refrigerant leaks throughout the appliance life cycle
  • alternative refrigerants and their limitations
  • some steps we can take to minimize the environmental impact of these important fluids

Published November 6, 2017