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Tue 7 Jul 2009 04:00 AM

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Full-phase ahead

Mike Thompson, environmental affairs director at Trane in the US, talks to MEP Middle East about air-conditioning and the implications of the US refrigerant phase-out for the Middle East.

Full-phase ahead
Full-phase ahead
Mike Thompson at the Trane Dubai head office.

Mike Thompson, environmental affairs director at Trane in the US, talks to MEP Middle East about air-conditioning and the implications of the US refrigerant phase-out for the Middle East.

With the global air-con industry focusing on resource optimisation and energy efficiency at present, especially in the UAE, being environmental affairs director at a major player like Trane must be a ‘hot-seat’ position. Thompson laughs good-naturedly at the suggestion. “Environmental issues are nothing new,” he points out. “It started with the discovery that the fluorocarbons were one of the main causes of ozone depletion in the 1970s, and of course the Montreal Protocol in the 1980s. It has gone through many facets, and I think we are being far more responsible about it today than we have ever been.”

He says public perception plays a major role in the issues of the day. “However, public perception and reality are quite divergent. In the air-con industry, people think that using carbon dioxide as a refrigerant is a really good thing, as it means getting rid of these terrible fluorocarbons – but the reality is that fluorocarbons have been of tremendous benefit to the industry. If used responsibly, they can have a very minimal impact on the environment. You always have to be careful of the unintended consequences of moving to different chemicals. That is really the big thing: the long-term impact,” says Thompson.

Refrigerant of the future

“You have many touting carbon dioxide as the refrigerant of the future, but it is certainly not useful for all applications. On our equipment, you would consume about twice the amount of energy to get the same tonnage of cooling than you would with fluorocarbons, and so the side-effect of that would be devastating.” Thompson adds that the chemicals available today have a much smaller environmental impact than the chemicals used 20 to 30 years ago. “Our goal is to never leak any refrigerant. If it stays contained inside the machine, it will never have an opportunity to damage the environment.”

If the refrigerant issue is removed from the equation, then the air-con industry’s biggest impact on the environment today is through energy consumption. “There is no more energy-efficient way to cool a building than using fluorocarbon refrigerants,” argues Thompson. “Thus we need the public and also the legislators to look at all the aspects – the global warming impact, the ozone depletion potential and the energy efficiency. We need to find the best balanced approach in order to have a minimal impact on the environment. Sometimes people get very emotional about one facet of that, and completely ignore the other aspects. Most equipment manufacturers design around current criteria. But you have to understand the implications – cost is extremely important. Therefore the best-cost, highest-efficiency products today use fluorocarbons. That is the refrigerant of choice.”

Trends down the line

What other factors have to be taken into account with such an important choice? “It takes several years to design a new product or to use a new refrigerant, because of the different compressors and the characteristics of the chemicals and so forth.

“The industry sees trends down the line, and the manufacturers need to know what is going on several years ahead. It is a little bit nerve-wracking, because it costs millions of investment dollars. Therefore we need to make good solid decisions that do not change every couple of years,” says Thompson.

But is there such a thing as a ‘perfect refrigerant’ that the industry is striving for? Thompson’s emphatic answer is no. “In the 1980s we phased out CFCs, the major ozone-depleting substances. They were replaced by HCFCs, which had a much lower impact on the ozone layer. Then you have HFCs, which have zero ozone-depletion potential, but in many cases they are contributors to global warming.

“The Montreal Protocol, the international treaty dealing with ozone depletion, addresses these substances, but now legislation stemming from the Kyoto Protocol is addressing global-warming chemicals, and one of those six categories of chemicals is HFCs. So we are seeing a tremendous pressure in the industry right now to move to a new generation of chemicals with a very low contribution to global warming. We do not know what these new chemicals will be.

“In the US, we are phasing out R22 at the end of this year for use in new equipment. In the Middle East, it is not quite that quick, as you have 20 more years before you really have to phase out that particular refrigerant.“At Trane, we have been slowly transitioning our products to R410a over the last number of years. If they can develop new chemicals with good end-use properties, together with good energy efficiency, it will be a very good thing for the industry and the environment.

“It will be an exciting few years ahead, as the expectation in the industry is that changes are imminent in terms of the current crop of HFCs,” comments Thompson.

Musical chairs

Isn’t this ‘musical chair’ version of refrigerant replacement something of a knee-jerk reaction in the face of growing environmental pressure? “We need to ensure we are not changing these phase-out dates constantly. The Montreal Protocol is a good example. They have adjusted the caps and the volume that can be sold slightly over time.

“But the dates you can use these refrigerants up to have not changed significantly over 15 years – and that is good, because we are selling equipment that lasts from 15 to 30 years, and customers have to be confident there will be future availability of these refrigerants over the life of the equipment. We have to be very rational and calm in how we look at these things,” urges Thompson.

“In the end, when I am looking at a piece of air-conditioning equipment, the refrigerant that is inside should be of relatively low concern to the end user.

“People would like to use a refrigerant that will be available forever and never be phased out, but I know of no refrigerants like that today. So these are all under constant risk and evaluation. However, the Montreal and Kyoto Protocols have set out dates to ensure long-term availability,” explains Thompson.

Industry concern

What about the industry’s concern at the potential future shortage of R22 in the future?

“Trane does not believe it will be a tremendous problem,” asserts Thompson. “We believe the price of this refrigerant will go up some. It will not go up to any dramatic level, and at some point there will be a balance, and it will come out at a price that will encourage more recycling and recovery. The biggest challenge at the moment is to encourage the industry to recycle and recover refrigerants properly, and to watch their leakage rates.”

Thompson points out that even though the Montreal Protocol phases out certain chemicals, it does not mean you have to stop using such equipment. “There are still many end users of R11 and R12, which are CFCs phased out in 1996 by the developed countries. These refrigerants are readily available, and in some cases the price has even gone down over the last 13 years, as is the case with R11. This is good news, as it means more people are concerned about recycling and recovery. It pushes volume into the marketplace, and that stabilises prices. Recycling and recovery is an important part of the industry that is not practiced well enough in many parts of the world,” argues Thompson.

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