Those operating in multiple states must know how to deal with the various issues this fractured regulatory environment presents or risk putting their businesses and people’s lives in harms way.
Fortunately, the HVACR industry is working diligently to make sure the transition to low-GWP refrigerants goes as smoothly as possible in the United States, forming a Safe Transition Task force to address these issues as well as working with all of the relevant federal, state and local governments and organizations to address their concerns.
Navigating the SNAP regulations
The Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol is an international treaty signed in 2016 that aims to reduce greenhouse emissions from HFC refrigerants. The treaty allows each ratifying country to determine its own regulatory structure such as an outright ban, a quota system or an allocation. Thus far, the treaty has been ratified by 79 countries including the European Union, Japan, Australia, Mexico and Canada. The United States has not ratified the Kigali Amendment and is extremely unlikely to under the current administration.
To achieve the first two phasedown steps in the Kigali Amendment, the U.S. EPA set a phasedown schedule for high-GWP refrigerants using rules 20 and 21 of its Significant New Alternatives Program (SNAP). These rules were used to regulate the phaseout of CFCs and HCFCs during the initial Montreal Protocol and EPA believed the Clean Air Act gave it similar authority to act on greenhouse gases. Two refrigerant manufacturers, Mexichem and Arkema, however, sued the EPA in federal court over this interpretation and won, effectively limiting the federal government’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases without new legislation.
In April 2020 the United States Court of Appeals once again weighed in EPA’s SNAP Program. In a decision in a lawsuit brought by the National Resources Defense Council, the court ruled that the 2018 Notification of Guidance published by the EPA in the Federal Registrar was “procedurally inappropriate because it constituted a rulemaking and therefore required a period of notice and comment, which the EPA had not provided.” While the court essentially reversed the 2018 SNAP Guidance that vacated the EPA’s rules regulating HFCs based on procedural errors, it also made clear that the court’s original decision still rests on a solid legal foundation, meaning that the EPA cannot require businesses to replace HFCs with a low-GWP substitute. So where does that leave the industry? The answer is unclear. AHRI continues to consult with legal experts and work with the EPA to determine the best path forward.
The EPA also recently issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking of SNAP Rule 23, listing new refrigerant alternatives that included low-GWP A2Ls for the commercial and residential air conditioning and commercial refrigeration sectors. While the EPA cannot require businesses to replace HFCs with these new low-GWP alternatives, it has paved the way for the industry to introduce these new refrigerants to these important sectors.
Rule 608 of the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to regulate the maintenance and servicing of equipment using ozone-depleting refrigerants. The rule “prohibits knowingly venting or releasing ozone-depleting or substitute refrigerants in the course of maintaining, servicing, repairing or disposing of appliances or industrial process refrigeration.” After the 2016 election but before President Trump was sworn into office, the EPA issued a rule that updated Rule 608 to include HFCs.
In February 2020, however, Andrew Wheeler, the EPA Administrator, signed the rule titled, Protection of Stratospheric Ozone: Revisions to the Refrigerant Management Program’s Extension to Substitutes. This rule reversed the 2016 rule, which extended 608’s coverage to HFCs. According to AHRI, “This action does not rescind the applicability of the other 40 CFR Part 82 Subpart F provisions that were extended to substitute refrigerants, such as the sales restriction and technician certification requirement, safe disposal requirements, evacuation requirements, reclamation standards, and requirement to use certified recovery equipment. Likewise, this action does not affect the requirements for appliances containing ozone-depleting refrigerants.”
Due to the lack of action on the federal level, states are stepping in to push the phasedown agenda. The U.S. Climate Alliance is a group of 24 states and Puerto Rico that pledged to implement policies that advance the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement after the United States withdrew. The Climate Alliance represents 55 percent of the U.S. population and an $11.7 trillion economy and several of these states have included HFC regulations as part of their climate plans. California, Washington and Vermont have already adopted phasedown plans based on the proposed SNAP rules while Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and New York are in various stages of adopting regulatory programs.
Unsurprisingly, California is setting pace for the Climate Alliance states in its aggressive regulations of HFC refrigerants. The California Air Resources Board, or CARB, is the state agency charged with developing the regulations and it is guided by California’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from HFCs by 40 percent by 2030 compared to a 2013 baseline. Thus, California is writing HFC phasedown rules that go beyond those laid out in SNAP Rules 20 and 21 and put it on a pace 5-10 years ahead of the Kigali phasedown schedule:
- A ban on air conditioning systems (excluding chillers) using refrigerant with GWP greater than 750 GWP by 2023.
- A ban on chillers (comfort and process) using refrigerant with GWP greater than 750 by 2024.
- A ban on new commercial refrigeration systems with a charge greater than 50 pounds using refrigerant with GWP greater than of 150 GWP by 2022.
- A ban on servicing existing equipment with refrigerant with a GWP greater than 1,500 GWP by 2022.
- This keeps in place the updated Rule 608 that the EPA is currently reviewing.
- A potential exemption for reclaimed refrigerant and R-410A remains an option.
Because California set such ambitious HFC emissions reduction goals, CARB cannot afford to only regulate new installations as the other Climate Alliance states are doing. Instead, it must also regulate emissions from existing installations, or “banked” emissions. Currently, CARB is working to define a system retrofit so that it might determine an existing system must convert to low-GWP refrigerant.
Generally, the other states regulating HFCs – Washington, Connecticut, Delaware, Vermont, Maryland, New York and New Jersey – are following the sectors and limits laid out in SNAP Rules 20 and 21. While, these states differ on sector implementation dates, none of them are going as far as California in regulating existing installations. Rather, they are all adopting similar – and in some cases copying exactly – regulations to limit the GWP of new and expanded systems.
A2Ls, as categorized by ASHRAE, are the new class of low-GWP refrigerants expected to replace the phased out HFCs in most applications. Globally, A2Ls have been used safely for years: more than 8M mini-split systems using R-32 and more than 68M automobile air conditioners using A2Ls have been installed. Since A2Ls are new to the United States, however, and these replacement refrigerants are mildly flammable, safety and training are big issues. The safety concerns around A2Ls mostly have to do with their ignition potential in a fire started elsewhere.
A3 refrigerants such as R-290 (propane) are highly flammable and their use is already included in safety standards. Some of their requirements include: no more than 150 g per refrigerant loop, no nearby sources of ignition and no use near points of egress. Some manufacturers have redesigned their products to safely use flammables, reducing refrigerant charge and the potential for leaks. One manufacturer reports on 6,000 commercial propane ice machines operating with no problems.
ASHRAE is the body governing standards for applications and UL does the same for equipment. ASHRAE 34 is the standard that defines and categorizes refrigerants as an A2L or A3. ASHRAE 15 is the standard governing the installation of systems using these refrigerants. ASHRAE 15 Addendum “d” was approved in October of 2018 to regulate the use of A2Ls in “high probability systems,” which includes unitary systems, split systems, multi-split systems, rooftop units and other similar equipment. Addendum “d” stipulates, among other things, that for larger charge systems leak detectors are required and they must trigger ventilation to dilute the refrigerant and sound an alarm. ASHRAE Addendum “h” regulates the use of A2Ls in systems located in machine rooms and stipulates that when the charge exceeds the Refrigerant Concentration Limit (RCL) the system must be installed in a machine room. Neither Addenda “d,” nor “h,” however, covers refrigeration application. ASHRAE committees are currently working on a separate addendum for these applications.
UL Standard 60335-2-40 regulates the use of A2L refrigerants in air conditioning equipment while UL Standard 60335-2-89 does so for refrigeration equipment. These standards are used by manufacturers for building and listing equipment using flammable refrigerants. UL 60335-2-40 was recently finalized to fully allow the use of A2Ls and will be published later in 2019 for incorporation into model codes. The process for finalizing UL 60335-2-89 was started in July, 2019. Edition 1 of UL 60335-2-89 allowed charges of 150g of any flammable refrigerant, and while Edition 2 will be based on IEC 60335-2-89, which allows 500g of R-290 and 1.2kg of A2Ls, UL 60335-2-89 may deviate from those charge limits.
Once news standards are completed for A2Ls and A3s they need to be included in the model codes, which are then used to write state and local building and fire codes. The adoption of these standards into the ICC and the UMC, the two main model codes used by state and local jurisdictions, is not certain. The ICC recently voted against a measure to exclude UL 60335-2-40 from the 2021 model code, paving the way for a vote on its inclusion in October 2019. There are, however, significant concerns over safety and lack of training associated with 2-40. Also recently, ASHRAE 15 was rejected by the UMC due to similar concerns about lack of training for the handing of flammable refrigerants. If these standards are not adopted into the two main model codes, states seeking to phaseout HFCs will have to orchestrate their adoption into individual jurisdictions’ building codes. And, especially in California, local fire chiefs have expressed a lot of concern about exposing firefighters to flammable chemicals during fires.
The HVACR industry recognizes all of the challenges associated with transitioning to low-GWP refrigerants, flammable ones like A2Ls and A3s. As a response, AHRI, the industry’s main trade group in the United States, has assembled the Safe Refrigerant Transition Task Force to plan an orderly transition. Under the task force are a number of working groups developing plans for Operations and Maintenance, Codes and Standards, Storage, Transport, Recovery, Communications and Safety.