Assortment of large refrigerant cylinders.

Mitigating Refrigerant Price Increases

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Cost of Refrigerant

F-Gas Causing Refrigerant Prices to Skyrocket

Under EU No 571/2014 (F-Gas Regulation), European markets are experiencing the start of a drastic phase-down in the availability of HFC refrigerants (a reduction to 63% of the 2015 baseline figure). This is a steep reduction from the 93% availability in 2017, and the refrigeration industry is feeling the effects. For example, during the latter half of 2017 the price of R-404A increased by 700%. R-404A, with a Global Warming Potential (GWP) of 3,922 tCO2e, is not alone in seeing these exceptional price increases. It is one of a group of gases with a GWP of more than 2,500 tCO2e that will be banned from use in stationary refrigeration equipment starting in 2020 (with the exception of equipment designed to cool below -50°C). Additional refrigerants on this list of banned gases include: R-507, R-422A, R-422D, R-434A and R-428A.

Increases Not Limited to High GWP Refrigerants

The rising prices are not restricted to these high GWP refrigerants. R-134a, with a GWP of 1,430 tCO2e, has also seen increases in the region of 400%. As illustrated in the following chart, a similar price increase is apparent for many other commonly used refrigerants, including R-407C and R-410A.

table illustrating increases in refrigerant prices

Information based on refrigerant prices in the European Union from 2014 to 2017.

The 2018 reduction in HFC availability is expected to cause refrigerant prices to continue to trend upward. The lower GWP refrigerants (HFOs and HFO / HFC blends) replacing HFCs do not carry the same comparatively low price-tag to which the HVAC-R industry has become accustomed. Higher refrigerant prices are expected to become a global phenomenon as producers struggle to meet end-user requirements while maintaining their production quota.

Standards for Refrigerant Leaks

Leaking refrigerant gases have become more expensive than ever before. It is estimated that, in many cases, the cost of refrigerant loss is now higher than the cost of a technician’s time to repair a leaking refrigeration system.

F-Gas mandates that systems containing a refrigerant charge greater than 500 tCO2e have a permanent leak detection system installed. The regulations also increase the required frequency of leak inspections if permanent leak detection is not installed for refrigeration systems containing greater than 5 tCO2e. F-Gas does not provide any guidance as to the type of leak detection systems that can be used, or requirements for the system’s capabilities.

“Operators of the equipment listed in points (a) to (d) of Article 4(2) and containing fluorinated greenhouse gases in quantities of 500 tCO2e or more, shall ensure that the equipment is provided with a leakage detection system which alerts the operator or a service company of any leakage.”Regulation No 517 / 2014, Article 5(1)

The Need for Low-level Leak Detection

Historically, refrigerant leak detection equipment was targeted at meeting the code requirements established by EN 378:2016 and ASHRAE 15. The goal of these safety standards is to ensure the safe use of refrigerants and the safety of personnel working with and around refrigeration systems. The ensuing requirements of EN 378:2016 are that the concentration at which a leak must be detected is relatively high for refrigerants of A1 safety classification, running upwards of 15,000 ppm (parts per million) in many cases. By contrast, ASHRAE 15 determines a detection level of 1,000 ppm for many of these A1 refrigerants. Either way, in most refrigerated spaces and machinery rooms, reaching these levels would require a catastrophic leak of a large volume of refrigerant.

Monitoring for refrigerant leaks at 1,000 ppm (or higher) can be viewed as an effective way to enhance the safety of refrigerant applications. It does not provide a method for catching smaller refrigerant leaks, which can result in a significant and expensive refrigerant loss.

Reducing Refrigerant Leaks

Given the growing cost of replacing and topping-up refrigerant, implementing a strategy to reduce refrigerant leak rates is coming more sharply into focus. This cannot be achieved by using detection systems looking for leaks in the region of 1,000 ppm, as are often used to achieve safety compliance.

Low-level leak detection instruments are available and field-proven. A number of manufacturers offer detection systems with a minimum detectable level (MDL) in the region of 20-25 ppm, while only a few offer equipment capable of measuring leaks down to 1 ppm. The benefits of successfully implementing a leak detection system capable of such low-level detection of refrigerant leaks is a central part of developing an effective refrigerant management strategy designed to reduce leak rates.

The instruments capable of low-level refrigerant detection are most typically aspirated systems, using a pump to draw a sample from the point of detection back through a tube to a centralized monitoring location. This allows for cost-effective use of higher technology, normally a precision sensor based on infrared absorption measurement techniques. These systems have in the past been viewed as being cost prohibitive in comparison to the lower cost diffusion sensors used for refrigeration safety applications. The immediate benefits to be gained in reducing leak rates, based on the current price of refrigerants, can be seen to offer a swift return on investment if effectively deployed.

The following illustrates a refrigerant leak in a machinery room (or similar sized space) with even diffusion of leaked gas into the space.

Leak detection systems with an MDL greater than 25 ppm may fail to alert users to significant refrigerant losses.

As the above example shows, a leak detection system that is not capable of detecting levels lower than 25 ppm would not detect this significant leak, yet 150 kg of R-404A would leak over the course of a year. In the current market, that equates to thousands of $ / € / £ in undetected lost refrigerant.

In reality, leaked refrigerants will not immediately diffuse to an even concentration. That will take some time. This demonstrates another important factor in detecting a leak, which is the placement and quantity of detection points.

Use of aspirated systems allows for multiple points of detection to be deployed in a space for limited additional cost. On large sites with many zones to be monitored, this can be achieved by using “splitter” or “spur” kits on the end of each sample tube. In practice, this could allow for four points of detection to be in place on one zone, thereby allowing these points to be placed at the locations in the system most likely to leak. This includes valves, joints, flanges and other parts of the system subject to the changing pressures and temperatures that can cause mechanical stress.

Further, monitoring for leaks can be successfully deployed in areas that would not offer a reasonable possibility of detection if using instruments detecting at levels of ~1,000 ppm. For example, a supermarket store floor can be monitored for leaks from display cases and refrigerant pipework across a whole building. The ability to detect at sub-10 ppm levels (notably, this is mandated by the California Air Resources Board’s stringent Refrigerant Management Program) offers the opportunity to pick up small leaks even in large open spaces, furthering enabling leak rate reduction strategies to be successful. Technology with this capability exists in both fixed position and portable configurations, allowing permanent monitoring and fast location of these leaks.

Refrigerant Management Solutions

The return on investment from leak detection can now be measured in months instead of years. In many cases, the detection and repair of a single small yet significant leak can pay back the investment in leak detection in a single hit.

As important and valuable as it can be to detect a refrigerant leak before it becomes a larger, more expensive issue to resolve, doing so is of no use unless something is done to initiate action to repair the leak.

Refrigerant Tracking Software

In order to make best use of low-level leak detection system, it must be integrated with a system that is able to alert appropriate personnel to the leak event and initiate a repair procedure. This can be achieved through a building management system / building automation system (BMS / BAS), though is increasingly being manifested through dedicated refrigerant management software. Such software solutions are able to offer additional benefits. By tracking each individual refrigeration asset, it is possible to see patterns and trends of which asset or type of equipment is typically the cause of most leak events. This data can in turn be used to drive a preventative maintenance program to help stop issues before they arise.

Tracking and recording refrigerant use per asset, and per site, is another powerful tool for reviewing refrigerant use across a multi-site enterprise. The data is a regulated reporting requirement, but again has use in determining trends to initiate proactive leak rate reduction measures.

It should also be noted that effective reduction of leak rates can also have a strong impact upon the energy efficiency and effectiveness of a refrigeration system, further contributing to cost savings.

Mitigating Refrigerant Price Increases

With further phase-down of HFC refrigerants scheduled to occur through to 2030, the rapid increase in prices show no signs of abating. As important and effective as they are and remain for refrigeration safety monitoring, many leak detection systems offer no solution in the battle to mitigate these rising costs by reducing leak rates.

Low-level refrigerant leak detection solutions are readily available, and are field-proven to deliver an ROI very quickly. These systems allow for the detection and repair of small refrigerant leaks, preventing larger leaks and mitigating the ever-increasing costs of these precious gases.

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