In eight years, the most common air-conditioning refrigerant in the world, HCFC R-22, will be phased out of production. It is likely that your school uses this refrigerant in its air-conditioning system. While this is hardly a doomsday proclamation — in fact, it should be celebrated for environmental reasons — it does require administrators to think ahead when making decisions about their capital investments. Knowing a few phaseout dates and refrigerant alternatives will help school officials decide whether to replace, repair or retrofit their cooling systems.
From invention to extinction
Along with space flight and computers, refrigeration made the “top 10” list of greatest inventions of the 20th century. The refrigerants used in these systems changed very little since the 1920s when CFC R-12 was used in the first centrifugal chiller. The fledgling air-conditioning industry grew into a multibillion dollar industry, and refrigerants fueled their growth.
But by the end of the century, the two refrigerant families most commonly used in air-conditioning systems — CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) and HCFCs (hydrochlorofluorocarbons) — made another list — the extinction list. The chlorine in these substances damages the ozone layer, and the refrigerants are being phased out in accordance with the Montreal Protocol of 1987. Signed by 180 nations, this worldwide agreement targets CFCs and HCFCs as ozone-depleting substances, and requires that they be phased out over the 40-year period that began in 1990.
To replace CFCs and HCFCs, a new family of refrigerants was developed. HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons) are ozone-friendly and safe for daily use in schools. A common HFC, R-134a, is widely available as a refrigerant in large cooling systems. It is a direct replacement for CFC R-12 and is already the workhorse refrigerant of the foreseeable future.
Whether to repair existing equipment or replace it — and when — are key decisions administrators will face as a result of the Montreal Protocol. For example, what is the expected life of your existing equipment, and how long will the refrigerant in it be available? If you're thinking about a new purchase, what type of refrigerant does it use and how much longer will it be manufactured? Phaseout dates and replacements will influence those decisions.