The industry has to face up to the ‘new normal’ of restricted R410A and R404A availability, but we have to work together to limit the damage
For the past few months, we’ve been detailing the challenges facing the refrigeration industry, given the steadily decreasing volume of R404A in the market and the increasing price as a consequence. Contractors in refrigeration have had to deal with a market that has seen prices increase tenfold in the space of twelve short months.
The AC sector has been largely an observer to the machinations of supply and demand in refrigerant. Until now.
Now R410A, the lifeblood of the AC industry, has become very firmly part of the challenge relating to the declining market in higher-GWP refrigerants. Whether or not it is because the folks in refrigeration are doing the right thing and transitioning away from R404A (and thus R410A comes under the spotlight for the quota holders as the next-highest GWP) or whether it is simply a result of the comparatively higher number of individual AC contractors seeking R410A for their projects, it is clear that R410A is now running into serious supply issues.
We are now hearing plenty of tales of AC contractors running into difficulties over the amount of R410A they are allocated by their usual wholesaler (or distributor). Whether this is down to variation in the distributors’ expected allocations or the contractors’ expected volumes, it doesn’t matter – what matters is there is now, patently, not enough R410A to go around.
Clearly this risks slowing air conditioning projects up and down the country, both for refurb and for new installations, if we, as an industry, do not do something about it. The question is what can the industry do?
The first thing, I would argue, is that we as an industry need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. We are all in this together - it is in all our interests to get cooling projects finished, isn’t it? This is surely no time for individual suppliers to be prioritising a short-term gain by stockpiling R404A, for the better profit, if the consequence is that contractors in another part of the industry are going short. So, the representative bodies need to be proactive and ‘call out’ those in the distribution game who don’t have the longer-term health of our industry at heart.
But to me, this situation cries out for something even more ‘industry-focused’ – can we get together to create something like an R410A Clearing House, so that wholesalers and distributors that do have spare gas can divert it to the people that need it most? Or is that too hard to achieve in practice. Or in fact, is that simply too altruistic a goal for a sector of the industry that is driven by the economics of the market? Have I gone too Bob Geldof on this?
What is clear is that we are staring at the abyss now in refrigerant terms - the higher-GWP gases are rapidly reducing in availability (and increasing in price), and the situation is only going to get tighter, so we need to act as a unified industry.
I hope that the rumours of profiteering amongst wholesalers and distributors that have been circulating recently are only rumours and that in reality, they are simply managing demand for all their customers [although perhaps not communicating it very well]. If it is the actions of one or two salespeople, then this needs to be dealt with. Because this is a time, arguably like no other in our cooling careers, when we need to act as an industry for our customers, the end users not as individuals.
As one insider pointed out recently, there are quite a few areas where an inability to top up with R410A or R404A could have consequences that bring an industry challenge to the atttention of the wider public - from supermarkets to data centres. Indeed, as he noted, imagine the outcry in the context of all the current furore about the NHS if hospital operations have to be cancelled because the air conditioning can’t be topped up.
The consequences are real. So this is where the industry needs to work together.