Propane… Possible Commercial Refrigerant?

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In a time when refrigerants are being closely evaluated for their environmental impacts, propane (R-290) is emerging as an increasingly viable alternative. With a global warming potential (GWP) of 3 and an ozone depletion potential (ODP) of 0, R-290 poses virtually no threat to the environment. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has listed R-290 as an acceptable refrigerant substitute under its Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP), and recently exempted it from the venting prohibition in Section 608 of the Clean Air Act.

For some perspective on what’s behind all the concern about refrigerants and the environment, the EPA estimates that an average supermarket using the hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerant R-404A leaks about 25 percent of its refrigerant charge annually, resulting in approximately 1,556 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent emissions — or the annual energy from 165 homes. If you extrapolate that data across the number of grocery stores and other refrigeration applications in service globally, the magnitude of this impact quickly becomes apparent.

It’s no surprise then that an international wave of regulatory actions aimed at phasing down high-GWP HFC refrigerants is underway, including: the E.U.’s F-gas regulations, the EPA’s SNAP process and the recent amendment to the Montreal Protocol. One net result of this regulatory activity is an increased interest in the potential of natural refrigerants, including R-290.

According to Howell Feig, national sales manager of AHT Cooling Systems USA, 2016 was a turning point for propane adoption.

“More and more of our customers are moving toward propane,” said Feig. “From a business perspective it just makes sense. Our self-contained, R-290 based units are eco-friendly, energy-efficient and reliable.”

Changing perceptions lead to broader adoption

With many operators stating corporate sustainability goals and seeking to avoid regulatory entanglements, R-290 is one of the few options capable of meeting both strategic objectives. And, as modern refrigeration technology has evolved to ensure component and equipment safety, the stigma that R-290 is unsafe is quickly evaporating.

“It hasn’t been overnight, but perceptions about propane are definitely changing,” Feig said, recalling that AHT’s focus on propane started with its European customers almost 20 years ago.

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