AC manufacturer concedes that R32 is the refrigerant for the foreseeable future, but stresses that flammables training is essential
Toshiba has confirmed that R32 is the refrigerant for the next generation of equipment, but has sought to ensure that installers are properly trained for the mildly flammable gas by offering to subsidise training – effectively making it free, by allowing the balance to be paid with its installer rewards points.
The influential AC manufacturer has held out longer than rivals in moving to R32, in the belief that a non-flammable alternative would become available, but delays in development of alternatives have led it to adopt the mildly flammable gas as a measure for the foreseeable future, UK general manager David Dunn told RAC.
He said: “We see R32 referrred to as a ‘transitional’ refrigerant, but currently there is no realistic alternative. If there was a better one at the moment, I would support it. It is true to say that last year I didn’t see the advantage in moving to R32, but now that there is no alternative, the emphasis is on working with it – and working with it safely.”
As a result of the strategic decision, Toshiba has unveiled a range of R32 equipment in the UK, coming hot on the heels of the European unveiling at the Mostra show, revealed last month in RAC. The new equipment, in common with rival manufacturers, achieves improved performance from the new refrigerant over R410A
But the manufacturer has underlined the prevailing concern around training for installers in flammables by revealing alongside the launch a commitment to subsidise installer training in R32 equipment.
He said: “It is vital that the correct training is provided. We feel that other manufacturers have neglected the training aspect when promoting R32. We certainly don’t want to put folk off the new technology, but we also don’t want to release equipment without ensuring that installers are properly trained.”
Mr Dunn echoed the mood of many in the sector, in stressing that while mildly flammables like R32 were not difficult to work with, they do require specific training for their handling. He said: “It’s important to remember that while these refrigerants are classified as A2L [mildly flammable] when in the refrigerant circuit, they become an A2 [flammable] when they are in atmosphere. So in our view, installers need to attend a flammables course. We think that other manufacturers have dumbed down the training element in the past - we don’t want to scare people, but at the same time, they need to have their eyes open.
The rise in flammable and mildly flammable alternatives make it more important than ever to prioritise containment, he added, which is why Toshiba has long been developing leak detection technology for its systems. “Without a leak, R32 is the safest thing in the world.”
The manufacturer has sought to raise awareness of the coming changes, with a survey to its customers and distributors. The response was that an overwhelming majority – 97 per cent – said they were ‘aware’ of the forthcoming transition to lower-GWP (and thus mildly flammable) refrigerant, and 75 per cent of respondents said they weren’t concerned by the prospect. However, when asked to list what was currently stopping them from converting to A2Ls, the top answer was issues around training. The second most-common delaying factor was the cost of conversion, closely followed by concern over how long the new gases would be in the market.
Perhaps unsurprisingly a high 51 per cent of respondents said that the biggest driving factor towards conversion would be soaring costs of R410A.
The manufacturer has been encouraged by the fact that 75 per cent of the survey respondents said they would undertake training in flammables if that training was free.
It is telling, he said, that only a small percentage of Toshiba customers have been trained in flammables handling. “Unfortunately there is a lot of scepticism out there when it comes to the alternative refrigerants.”
At RAC’s recent Round Table, delegates reported that a significant proportion of the industry appeared to believe that the current cost crisis around high-GWP refrigerant was just hype – with some believing refrigerant suppliers were deliberately gaming the system and others convinced that stability would return after Brexit.
Toshiba has sought to further drive change by calling a halt to further imports of its R410A non-VRF equipment into the UK. Smaller splits using R32 are available now, with bigger splits arriving in June.
In recognition that the cost of flammables training – which currently comprises a standalone course, since it isn’t covered specifically in foundation refrigeration training - is an issue with many firms, Toshiba has sought to eliminate, either partially or completely, the problem. It will provide a £250 voucher for each qualifying installer, with the remaining cost (typically around another £100) able to be offset using points from its installer rewards scheme.
Mr Dunn added: “If flammables training does become compulsory in the future, which a number in the industry have called for, we will make it a condition for our customers, as we currently do with F-Gas training.”
Toshiba’s new R32 range of Digital Inverter models has been modified to accommodate mild flammability, but the Super Inverter versions have been specifically redesigned for the refrigerant, Mr Dunn said. “Other manufacturers have put their electrics into a steel housing to get round the spark risk, but that risks overheating of the steel, which we think has already led led to failures. By contrast, we have developed a new cooling system to reduce heat failure – so we have improved the overall system. At the same time, this allows the manufacturer to claim a wider operating range – up to 52 deg C.
The peak SEER for the R32 range is 9.0, which Toshiba claims is the highest in its field.
Mr Dunn flagged up that applying R32 to VRF systems would require another step change in technology. He said: “Currently, 30 per cent of the UK sales for Toshiba are VRF, so it is a significant decision - we either need a new refrigerant or new equipment. In the absence of that refrigerant currently, it points towards a technology change.”