ACHRNews- Refrigerant Reclaim is the Name of the Game

Woodcliff Lake, NJ – July 13, 2023 – With the U.S. phasing down the production of HFCs per the AIM Act, significant pressure is being put on the HVACR industry to properly manage these refrigerants in order to prevent shortages. In large part, this involves recovering and reclaiming refrigerants, which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is counting on to maintain existing equipment in the future as supplies of new refrigerant become scarce. The problem is, the amount of reclaimed refrigerant being produced is inadequate to meet the demand. The reclamation rate for HFCs has only increased by 6% since 2017, and a mere 1.6% of the HFCs sold in 2020 were reclaimed and made available for reuse. At ESCO Group’s recent National HVACR Education Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, Kate Houghton, vice president of sales and marketing at Hudson Technologies Co., talked about the need for more reclaimed refrigerants.

Short Shift

Hudson Technologies is the largest certified EPA reclaimer of refrigerants in the country, owning two of the four AHRI-certified reclamation laboratories in the U.S., said Houghton. The company accepts all recovered refrigerants, as well as pays for 20-plus different refrigerants. They also do site work, which often involves recovering and reclaiming refrigerant in the field for larger industry systems.

“We’re the leader in refrigerant management sustainable solutions, so we do everything from refrigerant reclamation, sales of reclaimed refrigerant, to on-site services,” she said. “We do a lot of work in the field on large chiller systems and industrial systems, bringing those systems back to energy efficiency, recovering and reclaiming the refrigerant. We’ll also destroy CFCs and create carbon offset projects. Everything we do at Hudson ties back to sustainability, which is core to our mission.”

Houghton stressed how important recovering and reclaiming refrigerants is becoming, given that the production of HFCs will decrease by an additional 30% in 2024, in addition to the 10% reduction that occurred last year. And while the HVACR industry has previously transitioned from HCFCs to HFCs, the timeline for this shift is much shorter. That’s because the AIM Act, which passed in December 2020, addressed the refrigerant before the equipment, said Houghton. Since the regulation started in 2022, the HVACR industry had only one year — 2021 — to respond by stockpiling refrigerants to mitigate the reduction. However, supply chain disruptions and global transportation difficulties in 2021 limited the opportunity to prepare for the phasedown.

“This is so very different than the phasedown of R-22,” said Houghton. “With the HCFC phaseout, we had a number of years — a long period of time to prepare for and build up refrigerant stockpiles. In this regulation, we had one year. Next year, we go to a 40% reduction across all HFCs, so again, very different dynamics. And we expect to see very significant supply shortages starting as early as January of next year.”

Part of the problem is that even as HFC production is being phased down, R-410A units are still being sold, as there are currently no alternative refrigerants available for most residential and light commercial HVAC equipment.

“As we’re phasing down refrigerant, we’re simultaneously continuing to grow demand and continuing to grow the installed base,” said Houghton. “Think about that homeowner who buys an R-410A system this year. Two years from now, there may be no R-410A to service that equipment. That’s the dilemma that we’re facing. The installed base is growing. Virgin refrigerant is declining. That gap really can only be filled by reclaimed refrigerant.”

Not Enough Recovery

Unfortunately, not enough recovered HFCs are being turned in, so there is not enough reclaimed refrigerant to bridge that gap.

“What’s disturbing is the trend that general reclamation has peaked, and it’s now declining,” she said. “Yet we’re heading towards a world where there’s more demand and more requirements because of regulation for reclaimed refrigerant. When you compare the amount of HFCs going in to the market based on allocation systems and you compare the reclamation data, about 1.6% of that annual sale of refrigerant or allocation of refrigerant is reclaimed. While it will never be 100%, it certainly should be more than 1.6%.”

The reason why this number is so small is that refrigerant is likely being vented in the field rather than recovered, and some of it is also being reused illegally. But the real problem starts with the recovery, said Houghton.

“Reclaim doesn’t happen unless the refrigerant is recovered,” she said. “It has to get into that cylinder before anything else can happen. Don’t even worry about separation, because you can’t separate what was vented. That’s the real heart of the problem. The only way to begin to solve the problem is refrigerant simply has to be recovered, because what is not recovered can never be reclaimed.”

And one of the main reasons why technicians do not recover refrigerant in the field is that they believe it takes too long. According to Houghton, studies show that the average residential recovery takes about 20 to 30 minutes, while a commercial rooftop may take 60 minutes.

“The notion that technicians don’t have time to do recovery because they have to get to the next job is something that we need to tackle,” she said. “And whether that’s training or methodology, the average recovery doesn’t take that long. But frankly, it’s seen as a problem and a hassle. Technicians say, ‘I don’t have 20 minutes. My boss wants me to get to that next job.’”

Another reason why refrigerant is not being recovered is that there has been a shortage of recovery cylinders over the last two years. Houghton noted that this was due to the pandemic, steel shortages, etc.; however, this has changed, and while there are still pockets where contractors can’t swap out cylinders at their wholesaler, recovery cylinders are more widely available, she said. Contractors may also be reluctant to recover refrigerant because they are concerned that they’re going to be charged by their distributor or wholesaler for turning in mixed refrigerant. Houghton notes that this was a problem in previous years but that things have now changed.

“If you go back two or three years ago, the price of HFCs was significantly lower than the price today,” she said. “That meant that there was not a lot of economic value for reclaimers to process mixed refrigerants, because that takes time and money. And there was plentiful virgin production, so competing with that was difficult. So yes, contractors would see charges for mixed refrigerant. Fast forward and we’re starting to see tightening of supply, and economics are starting to come into play. There are no mix charges anymore. And if someone is charging them, then look for another outlet, because there’s plenty of places that are not charging for mixed refrigerants, including us. It’s an impediment to growing reclamation, because people think it’s going to cost them money to turn in recovered refrigerant, and we have to ensure that folks understand that it is not simply true.”

In addition, contractors may not turn in recovered refrigerant because they believe they will not be paid for it, so why bother. Contractors may think it’s a wasted effort, said Houghton, because they’ve done the right thing in recovering the refrigerant but are not receiving any compensation for it. This, too, has changed.

“There’s a lot of value in recovered refrigerant,” she said. “You don’t even want to know what people are paying for CFCs and R-22, but HFCs are also valuable. And if you’re not being paid, then it’s time for a change. Start thinking about refrigerant as an asset versus a liability.”

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