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Phasing out refrigerants doesn’t have to mean using more energy

HVAC giants such as Ingersoll Rand are prioritizing innovation that considers both.

Long before companies made managing energy consumption a corporate priority, the dialogue centered on a dizzying matrix of regulations governing their use of ozone-depleting refrigerants — the stuff that keeps freezers frozen and building heating and cooling equipment chilled. 

Now, they must find a balance between these sometimes seemingly conflicting priorities.

For building managers in particular, that traditionally has been far from simple. That’s because the same chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) that poke holes in the earth’s ozone layer when they leak are what keep heating, ventilation and air-condition (HVAC) equipment running so effectively.

Now, however, some of the biggest names in HVAC technology are prioritizing innovation that balances the use of refrigerants with low global warming potential (GWP) and the demand for better energy efficiency. Ingersoll Rand, for one, has committed $500 million in research and development to surmounting this challenge between now and 2020. Honeywell plans to spend almost twice that amount to increase production of low-GWP refrigerants, insulation, aerosols and solvents.

Both are doing so under the guise of the Advanced Cooling Challenge, launched during the Clean Energy Ministerial in June.

"Access to cooling is at the heart of opportunity, health and prosperity, but the challenge we have before us is how to deliver that cooling sustainably to more people," said Gabrielle Dreyfus, the U.S. lead for the ministerial’s Super-efficient Equipment and Appliance Deployment (SEAD) Initiative. "The Advanced Cooling Challenge aims to inspire governments and industry to make, sell, promote or install super-efficient air conditioner or cooling solutions that are smart, low global warming potential and affordable." 

The initiative comes as U.S. real estate portfolio managers and equipment providers prepare for a 2020 deadline set almost three decades ago — that’s when one of the most efficient refrigerants, a substance called R-123, will be banned from new equipment (at least in developed economies such as the United States).

Trane, an Ingersoll Rand division dedicated commercial HVAC systems, started talking up its options for that switchover more vocally in mid-June. The parent company’s plan: cut the greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint of its products by 50 percent by 2020. At the same time, Ingersoll Rand intends to incorporate GWP refrigerant options across its entire portfolio by 2030.

Part of that strategy involves a new line of CenTraVac centrifugal chillers introduced for the North American market in mid-June. One model of the equipment, meant for large commercial buildings and industrial facilities, will accommodate both R-123 and a next-generation, low GWP refrigerant called R-514A (produced by global chemical company Chemours). A larger system will use another non-flammable, low-GWP options called R-1233zd (made by Honeywell).

Access to cooling is at the heart of opportunity, health and prosperity, but the challenge we have before us is how to deliver that cooling sustainably to more people.

Even more intriguing to companies that aren’t ready to ditch their existing Trane chillers: the company has launched a retrofitting service to help convert existing CenTraVac chillers to the R-514A refrigerant. “The more sophisticated the customer is, the more apt they are to embrace the greener technology,” said Dave Regnery, president of commercial heating, ventilating and air-conditioning for North America, Europe, Middle East and Africa at Ingersoll Rand.

Chillers represent an extensive capital investment. Many rooftop units remain in service for 12 to 15 years, depending on the climate in which they are installed. (Equipment installed near the ocean, for example, might have a shorter lifespan because of higher levels of salt in the ambient air.) Centrifugal systems, considered one of the most economical ways to cool down a building, can easily can last for several decades. “It’s really that much of a variable,” Regnery said. 

That’s why Trane’s retrofit option — along with refrigerant management services such as the one sold by EOS Climate (which make it simpler for companies to contain or recycle their existing refrigerants) — is likely to be around for years to come.  

How big of a deal is managing HVAC equipment? Navigant Research estimates that these systems consume as much as 40 percent of all the electricity required by a given building, depending on big variables such as the climate of the geography in which it is located. The focus on energy efficiency is driving significant investments, with revenue for commercial equipment expected to more than double to $47.5 billion in 2024 (compared with a 2015 baseline).

Trane is one of the most significant global players in the commercial HVAC segment. Its big-name competition includes Johnson Controls, which is pioneering multiple approaches to building automation; Carrier, which has added low GWP options to its supermarket refrigeration technologies; Danfoss, which has created a $5 million R&D center to help test the energy efficiency of low GWP alternatives; and Daikin, which is prioritizing automated demand response technologies as a part of its response to the Advanced Cooling Challenge.

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