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Andrews Sykes Group has considered the implications of new regulations banning the widely used refrigerant R22.

Regulations banning R22 will come into force at the end of this year and will have far-reaching implications for owners and operators of many of the UK’s air-conditioning installations.

There has been much hype and doom-mongering, but are the implications as bad as some people say?
R22 is the most commonly used refrigerant in the UK with an estimated 10,000 tonnes installed in refrigeration, air conditioning and other cooling equipment.

It is a highly effective refrigerant that is believed to be used in around half of this country’s air-conditioning systems.

Unfortunately, R22 is a member of a class of compounds collectively known as hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), which have been linked to ozone depletion in the Earth’s upper atmosphere.

As a result, HCFCs ceased being used in new air-conditioning equipment in the UK in 2003, in favour of non-ozone-depleting alternatives such as R410a and R407c.

As from 1 January 2010, the use of virgin R22 and other HCFCs in the repair and maintenance of air conditioning and other refrigeration equipment will be banned.

To complicate matters further, the regulations also outlaw the stockpiling of virgin R22 for use after the deadline, so any R22 left unused at the end of 2009 will have to be returned for destruction at the owner’s expense.

As a final nail in the R22 coffin, its use – even in recycled form – will be completely banned at the end of 2014 – a date that many believe is under review by European Union (EU) legislators and could be brought forward.

So, with the likelihood that any air-conditioning system over six years old contains R22, what are the choices facing owners of such equipment?
Essentially there are four options: one, do nothing; two, continue to operate the equipment and use recycled R22 if the system needs a repair; three, replace the R22 refrigerant for one of the replacement ‘drop-in’ alternatives now available; or four, replace the old installation with a new one using R410a or other non-ozone-depleting refrigerant.

At first sight, in these tough economic times, option one may seem to be the most attractive.

Nothing in the regulations prohibits the use of R22 equipment even after the 31 December deadline so, if it is operating properly, there is no urgent need to replace an existing installation.

The risk with this strategy is, however, at some stage the equipment will require maintenance and at that point the system’s owner will be forced to choose between options two, three or four.

Even worse, with a failed system to repair urgently, there may be little opportunity for a proper assessment of the alternatives and expensive mistakes could be made.

Option two – the use of recycled R22 – seems to provide an easy way of extending the life of existing installations.

However, a recent study by the British Refrigeration Association identified that a volume equivalent to just 10 per cent of the amount of virgin R22 being used in the UK is being returned for recycling.

Due to its scarcity, recycled R22 is around three times the cost of virgin R22.

Therefore, unless the situation improves radically, its poor availability and high cost means that a policy of relying on recycled R22 when the need arises is unlikely to be wise.

So, what of option three, to replace the R22 in your air-conditioning system with one of a bewildering array of ‘ozone-friendly’ alternatives such as R410a, R404A, R407c, R417A or even propane or CO2?
Unfortunately, none of these alternatives offers refrigeration characteristics directly equivalent to those of R22.

Issues relating to the performance specification of the system, the pressure rating of compressors, condensers and associated pipe work, leak containment (particularly in the case of propane or CO2), lubricant compatibility and potential conflicts with manufacturer warranties will all need to be considered.

As a consequence, equipment owners and their maintenance contractors will be forced to conduct extensive testing before the most suitable alternative can be established.

For owners of ageing R22 air-conditioning equipment with a limited useful life remaining, these complications may be overwhelming.

This brings us to option four – the replacement of the old R22-based air-conditioning equipment with a new ozone-friendly system.

At first sight, this seems to be the most expensive solution.

However, there are a number of factors that make this alternative increasingly the option of choice for owners, operators and maintenance contractors alike.

The first reason is that as any R22-based air-conditioning system is at least six years old and likely, therefore, to be driven by obsolete fixed-speed compressor technology.

Its replacement with a modern, digital inverter-controlled system will bring significant immediate energy savings of up to 70 per cent.

Studies by manufacturers such as Toshiba and Fujitsu estimate that the replacement of a typical 5kW wall-mounted or ceiling cassette unit can save more than GBP550 per year in electricity (a 67 per cent reduction) and reduce the annual production of CO2 by more than 1.3 tonnes – improvements that begin immediately and continue throughout the life of the new equipment.

These savings alone mean that a new air-conditioning system is likely to pay back its original installation cost within four years in energy savings alone.

In addition, older air-conditioning compressors become worn, filters become blocked and heat exchangers fur up, therefore a new system will operate even more efficiently because it is likely to be working less hard and for fewer hours per day to provide the desired level of cooling.

Even if the system is well maintained, manufacturers are unlikely to continue to support ageing R22 equipment with a range of spare parts so many owners will suffer increasing costs and reduced spares availability, swiftly leading to the system becoming uneconomic to maintain.

The cost and time spent replacing outdated equipment can be reduced in some cases by retaining existing pipe work and electrical supplies.

Many equipment manufacturers have introduced condensers and fan coil units specifically designed for this purpose, which can simplify the installation and reduce disruption to building finishes and the activities of the occupiers.

Assuming the pipe work is replaced or found to be in good condition, a new installation will offer improved resistance to refrigerant leaks, ensuring owners can more easily satisfy their obligations under the European Fluorinated Gases (FGas) regulations.

These regulations require annual inspections to be carried out by qualified personnel; ensuring refrigerant systems are free of leaks and in full working order.

A new system is also far less likely to suffer a breakdown and the associated costs of downtime and repairs, and will commonly come with the added benefit of a manufacturer-backed three- or five-year warranty.

A little-known further benefit is that, as almost all modern air-conditioning systems incorporate heat pump technology as standard, the same system that provides comfort cooling in the summer can provide clean, highly energy-efficient heating in the winter.

So the arguments in favour of option four, a full system replacement, are surprisingly compelling but there are three more factors which make it even more convincing.

Firstly, if the installation is in a domestic property, purchased by a charity or by a range of other not-for-profit institutions, the reduced VAT rate of five per cent applies.

Secondly, the government’s commitments contained in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol came into force in February 2005.

The aim of radically reducing the UK’s CO2 emissions has led to the introduction of the Enhanced Capital Allowance Scheme.

This Revenue and Customs-backed scheme allows any company replacing an existing air-conditioning system with a more energy-efficient installation, to offset the entire cost of the project against its taxable profits in year the new system is installed.

This effectively reduces the cost of the new system by an impressive 30 per cent.

It should also be remembered that a more energy-efficient system will enable building owners to achieve improved energy ratings under the recently-introduced Energy Performance of Buildings Directive.

In addition, The Carbon Trust offers UK businesses of all types unsecured, interest-free loans up to GBP400,000.

These loans, repayable over four years, are designed to fund their investment in a range of modern, energy-efficient systems such as air conditioning.

If you are unsure whether your air-conditioning system contains R22 look for an information plate on the outdoor (condenser) units or the indoor (fan coil) units.

Alternatively, the manufacturer, the original installer or your maintenance provider should also be able to assist.

Fortunately for building owners who are concerned about meeting their responsibilities, a wide range of technical expertise and commercial guidance is available from companies that are members of the Register of Companies Competent to Handle Refrigerants (REFCOM).

The best advice is to make contact with early in order to develop an effective R22 replacement plan.

The banning of virgin R22 at the end of 2009 will not necessitate urgent action for most owners of air-conditioning equipment.

However, it does require owners of older air-conditioning equipment to consider a range of options, and the most cost-effective solution may not be immediately apparent.

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