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R134a crisis leaves HFC blends in short supply - while prices rocket

Unprecedented demand for the refrigerant R134a is stretching availability of popular blends, including the R400 series and R125 to crisis levels, according to those involved with the product.

The potent cocktail of huge global demand for 134a, a rise in customers moving from R22 to HFCs and reduced production of the refrigerant has left stocks at an all-time low and prices at an all-time high.

“We are now at the stage where we can neither guarantee price or supply,” said one distributor. Another insider added “It isn’t a case of how much you will have to pay to get it - it is when will you be able to get it.

“If we have a prolonged summer I don’t know what we will do, as the demand will obviously increase further. Quite
simply, people will not be able to get the product. It is a potential disaster if you find yourself needing critical replacement.”

Refrigerant producers have raised prices consistently in 2010. Honeywell has advised of four separate price rises for its Genetron products, with the cost jumping more than 50 per cent since the end of last year.

One specialist said: “I can see the 400 series increasing 10 per cent a month and R125 will go the same way too. It is a particularly bitter pill for those who have converted out of R22 to one of the 400 blends, as they will find it

One experienced refrigeration specialist said R134a demand was at an all-time high, driven by a combination of demand from chemical firms and from the auto industry, throwing prices and availability into freefall: “Many people in the UK don’t think of R134a as a core refrigerant, but it is in demand all over the world: for the auto industry, for industrial use and for aerosols. There is no low-cost country. The most expensive 134a is currently coming out of China, for instance Everybody is scrabbling around.”

Refrigerant companies scotched any notion that premium customers would be able to reserve extra refrigerant. “No one is able to stockpile - there simply isn’t enough to go round. I had 60-100 tonnes of the stuff last
year, and this year I can’t get hold of 60 kg.”

The UK market currently pays one of the lowest international prices for 134a, one specialist noted, which doesn’t bode well in a global crisis. “UK customers are used to paying rock-bottom prices for their refrigerant, but they could find that manufacturers sell their stock abroad to the highest bidder.”