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CFCs and their alternatives - exploring chiller options.

The accelerating depletion of the Earth's ozone layer is no longer in question. According to Time magazine, a recent NASA study revealed that the ozone layer covering northern Europe, Canada, Russia, and the northernmost parts of the United States could be temporarily depleted by as much as 40 percent in early spring 1992. Previous estimates of ozone declines ranged from only 4 to 8 percent over the past decade.

Alarm over this finding reverberated worldwide. President Bush called for U.S. companies to phase out ozone destroying CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) by 1995, and the EPA has mandated the phase-out of CFC production by 1996.

The problem, of course, is that CFCs are everywhere--in cleaning solvents, blown insulation, and car air conditioners. Unfortunately for real estate owners and managers, CFCs also are the most widely used refrigerants in commercial chillers. Although refrigerants account for only about 15 percent of all CFCs used in the United States, there is as yet no good substitute for their use in chillers. The most widely used substitutes, HCFCs (hydrochlorofluorocarbons), also deplete the ozone layer, although at a slower rate. Other substitutes--such as hydrocarbons, hydrofluorocarbons, and ammonia--protect the ozone, but are more flammable and volatile to handle.

In addition to mandating the phase out of CFC production by 1996, the federal government has taken two steps to combat ozone depletion. First, it placed a steep tax on the production of virgin CFCs to discourage usage.

Second, amendments to the Clean Air Act of 1990, which go into effect on July 1, 1992, place strict regulations on the handling and use of CFCs and other less destructive alternatives. The "no venting" law will be enforced with fines up to $25,000.

(For more information about new EPA rules on CFCs, see the Legislative Update section in this issue.--Editor)


Caught between environmental liabilities and the high cost and long life of commercial chillers, real estate owners and managers are faced with tough decisions. Nor are these choices made any easier by the continuing evolution of both HVAC technology and government regulation.

The HVAC industry continues to develop and test new refrigerants, among them fluorinated ethers, propanes, and butanes. A breakthrough could happen at any time, but most experts forecast that long-term alternatives will surface at the end of this decade.

In the meantime, owners of CFC chillers have three principal options:

* Contain CFCs responsibly in your present chiller until the chiller needs to be replaced due to age or mallunction.

* Convert it to use HCFC-123 or HFC134a, a hydrofluorocarbon compound with no ozone depletion potential.

* Replace the chiller with an absorption chiller or other equipment that uses less damaging refrigerants.

The best choice depends on your particular situation. Older chillers may be ripe for retrofitting or replacing, while it may be best to leave newer chillers intact. Regardless of your long-term decision, prepare for the future by contacting the chiller manufacturer and planning for contingencies. If a compressor or a motor breaks down, for instance, install new parts that are compatible with both CFC and alternative refrigerants.


Several practices should be implemented by owners who choose to continue using CFCs. Refrigerant conservation is the top priority to minimize impact on the environment and reduce operating costs. According to the February 1992 issue of the ASHRAE Journal, equipment leaks account for 41.5 percent of annual refrigerant losses.

"You should be looking at things such as increasing the number of leak checks you do each year," says Joe Monfre of the Trane Company's Existing Building Services Unit. "Many people just look at a chiller one time per year. Upwards of three to four times per year is really what is required. It may even make sense for maintenance personnel to keep a leak detector on them any time they are in the room and do periodic checks at random"

Carrier Corporation distributes a list of "do's" and "don'ts" titled Code of Service Practice for Handling, Conservation, and Containment of Refrigerant. Industry experts recommend that managers take these steps as well:

If you own a low-pressure chiller, install a new purge unit. The new units have a superior refrigerant-to-air exhaust ratio. Improper purging accounts for 12.2 percent of refrigerant losses, according to the ASHRAE Journal. Frequent purge-unit activity also may indicate a leak in the system that needs to be repaired.

To operate the chiller more efficiently, install a microcomputer control panel. This unit provides regular printouts on operating characteristics of the system and may be cross-checked for improved preventive maintenance procedures.

Have a qualified laboratory perform an analysis of the refrigerant and oil. Catching an irregularity early will prevent the need for correcting major problems later.

"There are sure-fire methods for testing the chillers," says the York spokesman. "If those methods are used and leak procedures are practiced today, there should be virtually no leakage. It should be something less than one or two percent each year."

The advantage of keeping a wellfunctioning CFC chiller is that you avoid purchasing expensive equipment during this uncertain period in the real estate industry. Chillers are major investments that often have more than 30 years of operating life.

And because a chiller is a closed-loop system, a leak-free system that runs the highly destructive CFC-11 is no more damaging to the environment than a retrofitted chiller that runs on the far less damaging alternative HCFC-123.

"From an economic standpoint," says the York spokesman, "if you have a CFC-11 air conditioning unit that is well-maintained and you are satisfied with the energy efficiency of the equipment, then the best strategy might be to sit tight."

Nor is there reason to fear the immediate unavailability of CFC gases. Reclaimed refrigerants are now becoming available on the open market. Although users are not now required to recycle their CFCs, refrigerant recycling equipment that reduces the moisture, acidity, and particulate matter in used refrigerants is becoming widely available and affordable. On-site equipment avoids the need to transport the refrigerant, thereby eliminating additional costs and regulatory compliance.

Off-site equipment for processing CFCs is provided by chiller manufacturers and independent contractors. Advantages of off-site processing include lower costs and reduced liability. Companies providing reclamation services should be required to certify their material as meeting the ARI Standard 700-88. Use of refrigerants not meeting this standard can cause serious equipment damage and may affect the chiller manufacturer's warranty.

The main disadvantage to off-site processing is the cost of replacing the refrigerant. Most programs provide a credit for recovered refrigerant, but that seldom covers the entire price.

There are drawbacks to sticking with a CFC chiller. Prices of CFCs will rise as the supplies dwindle and tax increases are imposed. Alternative refrigerants are currently two to four times more expensive than the CFCs, according to Du Pont spokeswoman Cathy Andriadis, but prices are projected to surpass the alternatives sometime in 1994. By 2000, CFCs may cost from two to six times the price of today's alternatives.

Recycled CFCs do not face any federal taxes but are likely to cost as much as virgin CFCs as supplies become scarce. However, tighter maintenance procedures should reduce the need for additional gas.

Property owners also must consider increasing public and political awareness of the ozone problem and global warming. Competitors who switch to alternative refrigerants may tout their buildings as being more "environmentally friendly." Conversion There are approximately 80,000 CFC chillers operating today. About half are candidates for retrofits. Newer machines are more likely candidates for retrofit, according to Charles Baum, senior accounts manager for Du Pont. Older chillers cannot be economically retrofitted because of the cost of bringing them up to acceptable capacities and efficiencies.

Because 20 percent of capacity and 5 percent of efficiency will be lost in a conversion from CFCs, it is important that the original chiller manufacturer perform a computer analysis to determine whether adequate efficiencies and capacities can be maintained before a conversion is undertaken. Other considerations include the remaining life of existing equipment, current performance, and maintenance history.

Of the 40,000 units considered suitable for retrofit, 32,000 are hermetic chillers with the motor inside the unit. Because HCFC-123 is not compatible with most chiller motors installed before 1988, the motor in these units will have to be replaced, raising conversion costs to between $50,000 to $60,000. Maximizing efficiencies could bring that total to approximately $100,000, according to Baum.

The other 8,000 units are open-drive chillers, with motors outside the refrigerant loop. Conversion to compatible equipment will run about $10,000, but maximizing efficiencies may increase the conversion price substantially.

An engineered conversion of a chiller is best handled by the manufacturer. "The manufacturer alone has done the research on how a new refrigerant-- HCFC-123, for example--will perform with components of the existing unit," wrote Bruce Siebert of the Trane Company in an article on conversions.

"This intimate knowledge of the chiller equipment...usually relieves the owner of many conversion complexities, including compliance with state and federal EPA regulations regarding emissions"

There are many benefits to retrofitting to a less damaging refrigerant. Prices of the alternative refrigerants, although high today, will be relatively cheap within several years. By switching now, you avoid a potential "back end" rush to convert, especially if a CFC shortfall prompts many owners to retrofit their chillers.

Precautions still must be taken with every refrigerant, but in the event of an accident, the long-term repercussions and liabilities of an HCFC spill are small compared to the highly destructive nature of CFCs.

The disadvantages of retrofitting a chiller center on more than just the initial outlay of money. Unlike CFC-11 and CFC-12, which have been used for many years and are considered safe, HCFC-123 is undergoing extensive toxicity testing. Research released in August 1991 showed that exposures to 1,000- and 5,000-parts-per-million doses of the chemical produced benign tumors in laboratory animals.

Du Pont subsequently reduced the recommended allowable exposure limit for HCFC-123 from 100 ppm to 10 ppm for an 8- to 12-hour workday. HFC-134a is also undergoing toxicity testing, but the results are about one year behind the HCFC-123 test results.

In the meantime, York and Trane have continued to offer HCFC-123 retrofits. Included in the package is installation of an equipment room exhaust system and an air monitoring alarm system that alerts workers to potentially unsafe levels of the refrigerant.

Victor R. McCloskey, vice president of sales and marketing for York International, stated in a January 1992 position paper: "For now, we believe HCFC-123 can be safely used in chiller systems within the recommended allowable exposure limit (AEL). Recent EPA-sponsored tests have confirmed that technicians performing service work on such chillers are exposed to far less than the 10-parts-per-million AEL established for HCFC-123. But until toxicity testing is completed this year, the jury is still out."

Production of HCFC compounds is now scheduled to end by 2020. However, the Bush Administration has indicated that an earlier phase out is being considered. EPA Administrator William Reilly has said that the EPA will propose ending HCFC production by 2005. Replacement One way to avoid many of these issues is to replace your present system with an absorption chiller. Its refrigerant is water. It may be powered by steam, gas, or propane, but not by electricity.

Unfortunately, converting a CFC system to an absorption system is not possible because the cooling technologies are altogether different.

"You have to look at your energy cost, the rates as well as the availability," says the York spokesman. "Rebates or incentives from utility companies may help make absorption chillers a more attractive alternative. Many electric utilities are offering incentives to commercial customers that take some or all of their air conditioning off peak rate and opt for a gas-fired absorption chiller."

Absorption chillers are more expensive than CFC electric chillers on a perton basis. However, the long-term operating costs may actually be less if a cheap supply of fuel is available. In some municipalities, such as New York City, a readily available supply of steam makes an absorption chiller a natural choice with few drawbacks.

If your location has plentiful cheap electricity or the long-term supply of gas is questionable, then a chiller that runs on HCFC-22 is a viable option. HCFC-22 has been used for years and is not considered toxic. However, as with HCFC-123, it is still an ozone-depleting gas and will eventually be phased out of production. Conclusion The HVAC industry is facing major challenges as it struggles to find environmentally safer alternatives to CFCs and HCFCs. During the transition, answers to the questions of if and how to retrofit existing chillers must be based on each owner's particular situation, reflecting both economic and environmental concerns.

Owners of CFC-11 and CFC-12 systems need to weigh the benefits of continuing CFC use against the costs of retrofitting to an environmentally safe refrigerant or changing to a different chiller system.

Whatever the decision, managers should implement conservation measures and hire reputable contractors who are up to date on the new regulations and procedures. Refrigerants can remain "friendly" to the environment as long as they are handled properly and accidents are avoided. Adam Bartsch is a Chicago-based freelance writer.
COPYRIGHT 1992 National Association of Realtors
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Title Annotation:chlorofluorocarbons
Author:Bartsch, Adam
Publication:Journal of Property Management
Date:May 1, 1992
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