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Looking for alternative refrigerants to R-410A @ Heat Pump Summit in Nuremberg

Late 2017. “What is the replacement refrigerant for R-410A” is the question that perhaps more than any other is being asked in the HVAC industry. This is a consequence of other factors, such as: how much will R410A cost in the next semester? Will it continue to be so difficult to source as has been the case for the last few months?

Personally, I tried to find a response by participating at the Heat Pump Summit at the end of October in Nuremberg.

Not everyone may know that in the intervening year between two editions of the biennial Chillventa exhibition, the scientific and industrial community in the heat pump sector meets in the for-once-empty halls of the Nuremberg exhibition centre. The goal of the summit: to discuss the hottest topics. 

The bitter-sweet heat pump market

Looking at the heat pump market, “there is certainly something to celebrate!”. This is what Thomas Nowak, Secretary General of EHPA 1, said  in his introductory speech to the summit. In 2017, the 10 millionth heat pump was installed in Europe, and a large part of these are installed in Italy and France. Yet it should be stressed that this number accounts for just over 10% of operating heating systems, and that gas boilers still occupy the vast majority of the market. Such a market, in other words “business as usual”, is not sustainable from an environmental point of view.

1 European Heat Pump Association

This is why the rest of the day saw a number of interesting heat pump applications presented, particularly in the relatively unknown industrial market.

Among these, Choyu Watanabe from Chubu Electric Power Co. Inc., illustrated an interesting approach that sees Japan at the forefront in the use of heat pumps for heat recovery in industrial processes, for example, the cutting and washing of metals. Savings of up to 80% on annual operating costs, and intelligent use of energy.

Cordin Asparagus from the University of Applied Sciences of Technology Buchs then optimally summarised the market of high temperature industrial heat pumps (over 90°C). This included the first references to refrigerants, although in this application R-410A is not used and the proposed alternatives, such as ammonia, CO2 and R-1336mzz(Z), refer to R-134a. Definitely a useful clue, but not an answer to the question that everyone is asking.

Another interesting viewpoint was presented by Peter Wagner from BDH, an energy company in the Netherlands. Hybrid heat pumps for residential applications exploit the principle whereby more than 70% of annual operating hours require a heating capacity of less than 30% of the total. Consequently, a relatively small heat pump is sufficient, with the remaining capacity provided by a gas system for an efficient, compact and cost-effective solution.

In short, a worldwide market that is full of opportunities, yet an application that is far from being exploited to its full potential.

At the end of the first day refrigerants were discussed again, particularly flammable fluids such as propane and the new A2L blends, currently the subject of considerable attention by the European Union. The discussions were then to be continued the next day.


Why does R-410A cost so much?

The critical situation regarding the unavailability of the R-410A in the HVAC industry, previously examined in our blog, was discussed during the networking cocktail evening, accompanied, among other things, by great live music.

In particular, in October Italy had the highest prices in Europe, excluding taxes, as well as the most difficulties in sourcing the gas. This fact was highlighted by several trade associations, Assofrigoristi, CNA 2 and Eurovent, which brought the European Commission’s attention to the situation, defining it as “unjustified” and “disproportionate”.

Alongside this is the issue of technological development. Or better, a lack of development among manufacturers of various types of air-conditioning and heating units. At the present they do not seem ready to use alternatives, and this problem is not limited to Italy.

Personally, I believe that the main reason is that the F-gas regulation has mainly affected the refrigeration market, “punishing”, if I can use that term, R-404A. This has generated significant stress in the industry, which has reacted with short-term (retrofits with blends including R-448A and R-449A) and long-term alternatives (natural fluids such as CO2, propane and ammonia). As a consequence, as refrigerant phase-out for air conditioning applications has not been addressed, the HVAC market has looked on passively and suddenly found itself without concrete alternatives and with R-410A prices going sky-high.

However, I believe that this situation will come to an end in 2018, as nobody, even refrigerant manufacturers who have invested considerably in seeking suitable blends for retrofits, will want to lose out. Manufacturers have also explained that price increases and unavailability are the result of problems at Chinese plants - currently being resolved - affecting R-125, a component of R-410A. Prices will thus return to acceptable levels, although far higher than historical levels, and quotas will still be allocated to R-410A.

2 National Confederation of Crafts and Small and Medium Enterprises


Flammable gases OK, but when?

Returning to the subject of the summit, the second day saw the focus on technologies associated with residential heat pumps, the most common application. Speaking of alternative refrigerants, Pascal Wilmot (Emerson Climate), Jorg Saar (Danfoss) and Matteo Munari (Alfalaval) proposed components compatible with propane, R-32, R-452B and R-454B. These are all flammable refrigerants, especially propane, which is category A3 (highly flammable), while the others are category A2L (mildly flammable).

Apparently these are the only choice in the absence of A1 (non-flammable) alternatives, as confirmed Joachim Garstel from Chemours, world leader in the production of synthetic refrigerants. Hence our first response, the alternative will be flammable.

What are the consequences of this? From a technological point of view they are quite negligible, as these are refrigerants that can replace R-410A without radically changing the design of air-conditioning units. Indeed, efficiency, pressures and temperatures are similar or have manageable differences without major complications. Flammability, on the other hand, represents a challenge from several points of view: the layout, for example, outdoor packaged units are more suitable than other configurations, the arrangement and choice of components, in particular water heat exchangers, electronics and leak detection, but above all safety regulations.

The current situation in Europe is not simple: national and local regulations are often more restrictive on the use of flammable liquids than the general directives. These, in particular EN378 and the requirements of the ATEX directive, are difficult to interpret regarding system design and for those who have to approve this in the field. The only news, announced by Pascal Wilmot, is the publication of the draft update to the IEC60335-2-40 standard. This provides simplified guidelines for the use flammable refrigerants on heat pumps and similar home appliances, and finally contains details on the use of A2L refrigerants, differentiating these from A2 and A3. The time needed for approval and conversion into European (EN) or American (UL) standards are usually one and a half years from IEC approval.
In the meantime we need to be patient and not stop investing in research and development!


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