The Institute’s REAL Zero refrigerant containment campaign has evolved into a resource for the new era of alternative refrigerants, says James Bailey
The refrigeration industry has a significant carbon footprint and is one of the largest electricity users in the UK, accounting for an estimated 4 per cent of the UK’s total energy consumption.
Refrigerants can also lead to direct greenhouse gas emissions if allowed to leak into the atmosphere. As such, they continue to come under scrutiny from both legislation and environmental pressure groups.
Following the implementation of the finalised F-Gas Regulations; EU 517/2014, refrigerant choice, leakage issues and organisational development (training and skills) will become more crucial to the RACHP sector. REAL Zero continues to address these issues.
The Institute of Refrigeration introduced the REAL Zero project in 2008 to provide the UK refrigeration industry with information to assist both end-users and practitioners in addressing refrigerant leakage in more effective ways.
REAL Zero focuses on engineering best practice in sourcing and eliminating refrigerant leakage.
REAL Zero found, and reported on remedial solutions for common points of leakage, encompassing the following: shut-off valves; schrader valves; flare joints, mechanical joints and flanges; pressure relief valves (PRVs) and fusible plugs (over-pressure protection); shaft seals (open type compressors); condensers (shell and tube and air-cooled), line tap valves; pressure switches; O-rings; capillary tubes; return bends on evaporators and condensers; and condensate tray pipework.
Contributing to the ongoing success of REAL Zero are various technologies that were not widely available at the inception of the project. These include thermal imaging; use of trace gases (which enable leaks to be found at a lower pressure than leak testing with nitrogen alone); alternative jointing techniques; and sonic detection.
An example of its success, as measured in the retail sector (across three retailers) is a 31 per cent reduction in refrigerant leakage (67,000 kg) since 2008-09; this accounts for both HFC and alternative refrigerants. This is due in part to the requirements under the F-Gas Regulation to test and fix leaks, but the achievements were supported by the adoption of the REAL Zero recommendations and practices.
Evolution of REAL Zero
REAL Skills Europe launched in 2011 with the aim of providing EU-wide resources to foster the skills to help address refrigerant leakage. It was developed as a two-year project to provide access to high quality online training tools.
REAL Skills Europe has delivered relevant, consistent and quality e-learning training across EU partners to reduce refrigerant leakage for the long-term.
Efforts were concentrated on the environmental, cost and legal aspects of refrigerant leakage; reducing leakage through appropriate maintenance and service; minimising leakage in new systems; and reducing leakage through site surveys and advice.
REAL Skills Europe partners have continued to share technical expertise: multilingual training materials, an accessible e-learning training solution and a website to share and access practical guides are available at realskillseurope.com.
The new F-Gas Regulations will bring a phase-down of HFCs across Europe, accompanied by bans on their use in certain applications. Inevitably, interest in the use of alternative refrigerant options will now increase.
The REAL Alternatives project began by investigating with key stakeholders just how ready the refrigeration industry was for the wider uptake of alternatives such as carbon dioxide, hydrocarbon, ammonia and low flammables (R32 and HFOs), and researched what skills issues might need to be addressed.
Early in 2014, a survey was carried out via European partner organisations.
The results from over 100 detailed responses from a wide variety of companies showed that there is a high level of awareness of information and guidance on the use of alternative refrigerants.
Employers were concerned that accessible and reliable training would be needed to address concerns around fundamental skills of technicians and designers.
The survey responses pointed towards the need to have a mix of approaches to upskilling the current workforce. For individuals and employers there was a strong desire for learning to be formally assessed and certified.
Based on this feedback, the REAL Alternatives project has developed a range of e-learning modules and booklets. The material will integrate the best of the existing industry guidance and online tools that have been reviewed by the project and collected into an evolving central electronic library. This is now accessible at: realalternatives.eu/e-library.
The REAL Alternatives programme will build on the foundations of best practice that REAL Zero champions and extend that knowledge to alternative refrigerants, specifically addressing knowledge gaps in handling alternatives.
It is designed for technicians working primarily in service and maintenance.
The REAL Alternatives e-learning modules will cover:
- Introduction to the properties of alternative refrigerants;
- System design using alternative refrigerants;
- Containment and leak detection;
- Maintenance and repair;
- Retrofitting existing systems with low-GWP alternatives;
- Legal obligations when working with alternative refrigerants;
- Measuring the financial and environmental impact of leakage;
- Tools and guidance for conducting site surveys.
Improved access to information on low-GWP alternatives is likely to be a long-term project, given the 20-year phasedown period, the size of the workforce and current skills levels.
The F-Gas Regulations do not require a mandatory retraining or reassessment of existing qualified persons, but they will require that information on alternatives technologies and legislation be made available to those already certified.
This new programme will be a valuable free resource to address this.
With some European countries only recently having introduced F-Gas Certification for individuals and a growing interest in refrigerant containment from outside of Europe, there is set to be plenty of interest in this programme, which extends the principles of REAL Zero to containment of all refrigerants and in all regions, not just those covered by F-Gas.
The success of REAL Alternatives will be dependent on industry uptake and support.
Businesses operating within the UK will be well placed to embrace this fantastic learning opportunity and provide support to engineers and technicians operating within the refrigeration industry.
James Bailey of Abbey Design Associates is chair of the REAL Zero steering committee