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Knowledge is king

With more than 200 engineers having already completed Daikin’s R32 course at its training centre, RAC attended class to gain an insight and an engineer’s perspective. Julian Milnes reports

It could be said that the recent arrival of the refrigerant R32 on these shores is rather timely, if you consider the continuing momentum of the F-Gas phase-down regulations, which is requiring many companies to embrace an alternative, lower GWP refrigerant.

And in many ways R32 fits the bill, thanks to its 675 GWP rating, together with its energy efficiency properties and refrigerant performance claims.

Furthermore, the refrigerant has been used in Japan since 2012, with more than 4 million products sold – therefore it comes with a proven history of usage out in the field.

So it seems it should all be plain sailing for this new-generation gas in the UK, shouldn’t it?

That is, until you bring two words to the mix – “mildly flammable”. While this subject has proved to, ahem, ignite all sorts of rumours and hearsay regarding R32’s characteristics (more of that later), the reality is some distance from the scaremongering.

With that in mind, Daikin has been at the forefront of championing the benefits of this refrigerant in the UK over the past year and has recently launched an R32 training course at its swish new training facility in Woking.

The training centre, according to the company’s legislation specialist Graham Wright, has had more than 200 engineers through its door, keen to learn the whys and the wherefores of this very current gas.

To get an insight into Daikin’s approach, and to chat to engineers on the subject of R32 to gauge the task ahead, RAC took up the company’s invitation to sit in on one of its training sessions at its training HQ.

The training centre, situated near Woking train station, is as comprehensive as we’ve seen in the industry.

Located on two floors, there are more than enough purpose built rooms and in-house technology to cover all aspects of the learning arena, with all the latest Daikin equipment on show, linked up to fault finding circuitry to put engineers’ skills to the test.

Taking a seat among the day’s trainees, RAC settles in to begin its education in the ways of R32, which is handled by Mr Wright, keen to change the assumed preconceptions of at least some of the class’s attendees.

Why change?

We start with the opening gambit, chapter one: “Why change to R32?”.

The background is in the form of the F-Gas regulations, with a phase-out of refrigerants more than 2,500 GWP (chiefly R404A) in the pipeline, along with a phase-down of refrigerants below 2,500 GWP (chiefly R410A) and the introduction of a new measure for refrigerant charges setting the scene.

Added to these points is the subject of cost over the aforementioned options.

Mr Wright poses the issue of whether they (namely R410A) will increase in price as time (ie phase-down) moves on and there’s less availability. To bolster this statement, a graph is highlighted (we’re given a book of the slides to take away) correlating to an amount required/refrigerant cost equation as we head to 2030 – the former going down as the latter rises.

There was also a specific comparison with the established R410A (a blend 50 per cent blend of R32 and 50 per cent R125), which just ducks below the first, post 2,500 GWP, phase-down (it’s rated at 2,088 GWP) and will be legal to use until 2030, just like R32.

What doesn’t work in R410A’s favour is firstly the obvious dramatic difference in GWP together with being less energy-efficient and requiring more charge volume (remember class, this means it will cost more).

Attention is then turned to the subject of flammability. R32 falls into a newly created category within the EU, entitled ‘low-flammability’ or ‘2L’ with the gas only burning when there is a mixture of between 14 and 31 per cent in the air.

Mr Wright starts punchily: “There isn’t a spark big enough to make R32 burn.” This follows concerns of ignition when in the general atmosphere. He adds that brazing on a system will cause ignition, though will go out when ceased, and only if the gas hasn’t been properly recovered before working on the system.

To further emphasise these characteristics, a video is shown to highlight the physical differences of low and high flammability in a controlled environment – R32 demonstrates a light blue flame when ignited, but no dramatic combustion, as evident with the higher-rated comparison gas.

Next on the agenda are the practicalities of working with R32 out in the field – there are no special requirements for pipework and pressure testing is exactly the same. Tools such as weighing instrument, pipe bender and pipe cutter are compatible with those used on both R410A and R22.

Additionally, vacuum pumps, electric gas leak detectors and refrigerant recovery systems can also be employed across the board – however, in these cases small print should be checked, and in the case of the latter it should manufacturer-certified, he notes.

However, this does not mean the recovery machine also has to be listed as ‘flameproof’, as was asked by an attendee in a former session.

Following the first presentation of the day, which was aimed at educating and debunking some of the myths surrounding the refrigerant, RAC caught up with
Mr Wright to get his take on the audience’s reaction.

“This year it’s all about educating the industry. We’re keen to get the message across that the reality with R32 is that there’s very little difference when it comes to working practices out in the field. And despite a price premium (to be expected with a new product), this should be compensated by the increased performance.”

Breaking for a coffee, there was an emerging recalibration of opinion among the engineers attending regarding the refrigerant’s characteristics. “It seems a lot less dangerous than the rumours surrounding it,” said one engineer.

Before the next session begins, which would focus more on the technical aspects and applications of R32, RAC bows out to chat with the engineers, to get their take on the course and their preconceptions on the refrigerant before today’s presentation.

Hurdles remain

Despite all agreeing that they’d been enlightened in terms of the performance and characteristics, and some rather impressed with its all-round ability, it was evident that hurdles still remain for the manufacturer.

Daikin’s strategy of education will no doubt be extended further afield, and it may need to be, with one engineer commenting: “It will be a tough sell to consultancies, as soon as they see the word ‘flammable’ I can see some having second thoughts, while others may just object to having it in their business, even though the reality presents no danger.”

They admitted that there are rumours of it being liable to spontaneously combust, such has been the Chinese whispers effect, “though once you get the facts you understand that it’s pretty much like any other refrigerant you work with,” said one.

Speaking to another attendee, who said they’d come along “as it was time to get up to speed with this technology”, they voiced concerns regarding the issue of cost when the selection process is made.

As mentioned, the premium price is claimed to be offset by improved performance, but when put side by side with an alternative, it was stated that people tend to go for the cheapest, and this specifically meant R410A, as the phase-out “was so far away that you didn’t need to think about alternatives”.

This is clearly the area where more education needs to be done, though Daikin UK knows that Rome wasn’t built in a day.

That said, with the first UK R32 installation confirmed several months ago, and training courses continuing to be booked up, it’s fair to say that the word is starting to spread.

If this year is all about educating the industry to the realities of R32, then the next will no doubt see the message spread wide and installations beginning to grow significantly.

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