The Path to a Safe Refrigerant Transition: It’s Coming Whether We’re Ready or Not

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A safe transition to low-GWP refrigerants in the US is made more complex by the Montreal Protocol, the original international treaty finalized in 1987 to phase down Ozone Depleting Substances, or ODS, which included HFC predecessors CFCs and HCFCs. The Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol amended the international treaty in 2016 to reduce greenhouse emissions from HFC refrigerants. The treaty allows each ratifying country to determine its own regulatory structure such as an outright ban, a quota system or an allocation. Thus far, the treaty has been ratified by 91 countries including the European Union, Japan, Australia, Mexico and Canada. The United States has not ratified the Kigali Amendment, but the amendment only needed 20 parties to ratify for it to be in force.

And while the U.S. does not have to comply with the HFC phasedown schedule until it ratifies the Kigali Amendment — and it is unlikely to do so under the current Administration, there are non-party trade provisions included that are now in force irrespective of a country’s ratification status. If the U.S. does not comply, American companies will not be allowed in 2033 to trade HFCs with companies in countries that have ratified the amendment. This would put American companies at a distinct disadvantage to their foreign competitors.

When the United States does ratify the Kigali Amendment or initiates a phasedown in compliance with the Kigali Amendment, it will need to begin its transition to low-GWP A2L refrigerants by 2026 to avoid a second transition to even lower-GWP refrigerants, such as A3s, shortly thereafter. Compliance with Kigali’s HFC phasedown schedule becomes increasingly more difficult the longer a country waits to begin, and for the U.S. it may become impossible to achieve using only A2Ls after 2026.

Updating building codes to include lower flammability A2L refrigerants is proving an uphill battle; convincing the model codes (or individual states and jurisdictions) to include codes and standards for higher flammability refrigerants like propane may be even more challenging. Furthermore, the industry has already spent billions of dollars on the current refrigerant transition without serious impact to consumers. A second and almost certainly more costly transition to A3s would likely have a substantial impact on consumer cost.

Understanding the state, federal and global regulations impacting the HVACR industry is incredibly challenging, especially considering the pace of change. Ironically, though, this multi-layered fabric of regulations is providing some certainty to an industry that was thrown into a bit of chaos when the federal courts struck down SNAP 20 and 21.

Assuming California continues to move forward with its 2023 enforcement date for AC, the window for a U.S. HFC phasedown is clear: it MUST begin no sooner than 2023 and no later than 2026.

The industry is beginning to understand this timeline and is making the proper preparations. This transition can be orderly should states swiftly adopt into their building codes ASHRAE 15 and UL-60335-2-40 as they are currently written and a federal framework to phase down HFCs be adopted. Otherwise, it could be a disorderly path of state legislation and regulatory action, with unprepared stakeholders and standards not adopted into building codes to meet a likely imminent regulatory compliance timeline. In the meantime, industry continues to work diligently with all stakeholders to make sure the transition to low-GWP refrigerants is safe and orderly.

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