The industry needs to be prepared for the rapid expansion of natural refrigerants, and that means having competent engineers
A wind of change is blowing through the refrigeration industry. It is driven by two key timelines - the January 2010 EU ban on the use of virgin HCFCs (notably R22) and the 2015 deadline which will see reclaimed versions of HCFCs banned too.
This plus increasing pressure on corporate sustainability has prompted companies to dramatic increase take-up of refrigeration and cooling systems that use natural refrigerants. Gases such as ammonia, carbon dioxide and hydrocarbon refrigerants offer the dual benefit of zero Ozone Depletion Potential (ODP) and minimal Global Warming Potential (GWP).
The high efficiency of naturals also sees them making a lower indirect contribution to global warming than many fluorocarbon refrigerants.
It is hardly surprising then that there has been a leap in the number of refrigeration systems using natural refrigerants, particularly carbon dioxide. 2010 saw a massive, 400 per cent increase on the previous year, driven for the most part by the supermarket chains.
That is the good news. The bad news is that many contractors are not properly trained to install, commission and maintain these new refrigeration systems, which can operate at higher temperatures and higher (vapour) pressures. They do not have the skills to keep systems performing at optimal energy and cost-efficiency over their life cycle. The poor availability of these critical competencies is a brake on change.
The refrigeration industry has recognised that, in order to accelerate the switchover and make HFC-free options ever-more accessible to supermarket retailers, it must have the right training in place to provide a consistent stream of qualified natural refrigeration engineers. Training has always been a key element – and concern – for the refrigerants industry and a number of major suppliers have established their own facilities, such as the one HRP has in Slough. But while training for the F-Gas Regulations is well-established and well-understood, the new skills needed for the latest refrigerants are still in development.
Fortunately City & Guilds, the biggest name in UK vocational training, is about to plug the gap. From January 2011, it will start accepting applicants for an NVQ 3 course, designed to address these skills shortage and dispell some of the mystery surrounding the new technologies.
The course has been put together by industry experts at the British Refrigeration Association, including BOC, one of the UK’s most recognised providers of refrigerant gases.
The course content spans the design, installation, commissioning and servicing of natural refrigeration systems. It comprises 200 hours of training - a mix of classroom theory and practical sessions working on test rigs and covering industry essentials such as health and safety and the criteria for regulatory compliance.
The objective is to give students the competencies required to enable them to operate in the field on their own.
The potential of natural refrigeration for the retail sector should not be underestimated - independent research conducted for the Chilling Facts II report has found that one third of the carbon footprint of supermarkets stems from their use of HFCs. Enabling them to switch to carbon-friendly alternatives thus could offer retailers much more emission-cutting potential than cutting back on carrier bags, for instance.
The UK would be well-advised to follow the example of countries like Denmark, which has embraced green refrigeration systems. With more than 500 stores running on natural refrigerant technology, the Danes have proved that they offer a viable, eco-friendly alternative to traditional systems.
The City & Guilds qualification will help the UK refrigeration industry to grow the skills to support this change. And, the better prepared we are, the less of a shock the 2015 ban on reclaimed HCFCs will be.
Barry Lyons is Business Development Manager at BOC. Tony Wright is Sales and Marketing Director of HRP Ltd
Business benefit of natural refrigerants
- Regulatory compliance: Unlike HFCs and HCFCs, natural refrigerants are not subject to the Montreal or Kyoto Protocols or EU environmental legislation.
- Long term viability: They are not subject to future phase-out controls, nor is it likely that they will be subject to future EU legislation.
- Low environmental impact: They have zero ODP and minimal GWP. In comparison, commonly used HCFCs and HFCs have a GWP varying from hundreds to thousands.
- Compatibility:They work well with commonly used oils and other fluids.
- High performance: They have excellent thermodynamic properties.
- Cost effectiveness: Using naturals generally supports lower operating costs due to less leakage and improved energy efficiency.