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Saving systems, and the planet, one leak at a time

System leaks are nature of the HVAC/R beast. But finding them fast can stop the problem becoming bigger, more expensive and less harmful to the environment. We find out what is exactly happening and what we can do...

The environment is at a tipping point, precipitated by years of unrestrained man-made pollution. And, while virtually everything we buy or use has some kind of impact on the planet, the spotlight is on the transport and heating industries. They must stop manufacturing products that burn fossil fuels; only by doing this can we make a positive impact on our world and meet our UK target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Extensive electrification is the route forward for transport and heating, so what does this mean for the air conditioning and refrigeration industries which are all-electric? Are we off the environmental hook? We ask industry leaders are we doing enough?

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Know your ESG

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What's the best product for the job?

*Please note that any opinions expressed in interviews are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Aspen Pumps Group.

We also wanted to hear what you engineers think about the loss of refrigerant and what can be done. 

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*Please note that any opinions expressed in interviews are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Aspen Pumps Group.

Undetected leaks: the numbers

Many of the estimated five billion refrigeration, air-conditioning and heat pump systems in use globally, use refrigerants with significant global warming potential (GWP), where a single kilogram can cause as much atmospheric damage as 3900kg of carbon dioxide. In the UK alone, of the 4,000 tons of refrigerant gas sold annually (source: A-Gas), ten per cent is lost through undetected leaks and it’s estimated that, worldwide, emissions from refrigerant leakage accounted for 7.8% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 (source: London South Bank University). These losses also reduce the efficiency of refrigeration systems, leading to indirect emissions through increased fuel consumption and higher maintenance costs. This is bad for our health, our wealth and our planet. 

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A widely used rule of thumb for leakage rates is around 10% of the charge size. The better retail operators like ASDA have driven this down to 6-8% on their estate with better engineering practices, but 10% is a good number to use. Put in context, the UK refrigerant market is approx. 4000t annually and most of this is for service work (fixing leaks).

John Ormerod

Managing Director A-Gas

Cooling down is a hot topic

We need to be aware of the size of this problem because, as the planet heats up, so do sales of air conditioning units, especially in the residential market. Statista estimates the market will be worth 367.5 billion USD by 2030 and the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that global demand for space cooling will more than triple by 2050. If all these units are serviced regularly, and any leaks detected and stopped, then there’s no problem but, as the evidence shows, there clearly is one. Sometimes there may be a suspected leak in a commercial system but shutting down for repair won’t be countenanced.

More often, it’s likely that sheer ignorance of the issue is responsible for refrigerant leaking unchecked into the atmosphere and that’s dangerous.

But checks are in place; regulations introduced this year in the UK ban the use refrigerants with a high GWP in commercial refrigeration systems, and there’s a legal obligation to have units with specific amounts of refrigerant serviced on a regular basis. It’s annually for 5 TCO2, bi-annually for 50 TCO2 or every three months for 500 TCO2. There’s no such regulation for smaller units (less than three kilograms), which leads to continued pollution unless we do something about it.

Refrigerant gases are a lot safer now, but when flammable and toxic gases are in play, as they are today, we as an industry, must play safe.

The ozone layer: a damaging discovery

The ozone layer: a brief background

Dangerous refrigerant gases were banned decades ago and, for those of you who weren’t born then, here’s a short history lesson to put today’s gases in environmental context. In 1985 a scientific expedition discovered a hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica which was caused directly by the release of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the atmosphere. Two years later, the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty, was in place to cut the use of CFCs by half. In 1990, the use of CFCs was banned in industrialised countries and, by 2010, in developing countries too. The Antarctica ozone layer is slowly closing as a direct result and models predict that it will recover by 2040 (source: NASA Earth Observatory). (Photo by Simon Berger from Pexels)

GWP- Gases need to change

GWP: Refrigerants are changing

CFCs were replaced by hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) which have little effect on the ozone layer but contribute heavily to global warming, as they have a high GWP and are thousands of times more potent that carbon dioxide. Under the October 2016 Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, HFCs faced international replacement by either HFCs with lower GWP, such as R32, hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs), HFC-HFO blends or ‘natural’ refrigerants especially hydrocarbons, which have a minimal impact on global warming. In the UK and Europe, we continue to transition to refrigerants with ever-lower GWP, as directed by F-Gas Regulations, but there are still five billion appliances using refrigerant gases out there, so you can see the size of the problem.  

Who is responsible?

If there’s anything we know today, the impossible can happen, so we need to be vigilant to prevent the avoidable and mitigate risk; in short we need to comply with regulations on refrigerant use and leak detection testing in commercial premises. From our own research, conducted during 2021, we know that there are companies out there that are unaware of their environmental responsibilities regarding leaking refrigerant and unaware that they are liable if they have not complied with legislation. As in all things legal, ignorance is no defence.

When it comes to domestic AC units, it’s still the Wild West. It’s a growing but unregulated market and it’s difficult to get a consumer to pay for a regular service; if they knew the environmental consequences of doing nothing, they might think differently. And that’s where we come in, from manufacturers, engineers to wholesalers and facilities managers, we can all help to get the news out there and keep it top of mind.

We’re making a start by using this article to spread the news here, on social media and by talking to journalists so they can too.

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