The F-Gas Regulations have implications for all those with responsibility for purchasing and maintaining air conditioning systems, says Jon Skelding.
The EU F-Gas Regulation 517/2014, is designed to reduce the availability of - and ultimately eliminate - substances with high global warming potential (GWP) to control their environmental impact.
The F-Gas Regulations applied directly to the UK until Brexit in January, but the government has made it clear that the legal duties of equipment owners - to prevent, report and remedy leaks resulting in F-gas emissions - would continue for the foreseeable future.
One of the most important categories of fluorinated substances (F-gases) is hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) - widely used as refrigerants in air conditioning.
The aim is to cut emissions of the most harmful F-gases to reduce their effect on climate change. This is being achieved through a mandatory phased reduction in the quantity of the chemicals that suppliers can place on the market.
The regulation will reduce the availability of HFCs by 80 per cent between 2015, when the regulation was first introduced, and 2030. The clock is ticking towards the next cut in the F-gas quota next 1 January, when availability will be reduced by 45 per cent.
What FMs should know
Owners of equipment containing F-gas and those responsible for maintaining it must check to make sure that refrigerant is not leaking out. The frequency of checks required depends on the type and quantity of F-gas used.
Leaks must be reported, along with any refrigerant used to top up the system. The source of the leak must be investigated and remedied within a strict timescale. There are penalties for failure to carry out mandatory checks.
Implications of the HFC phase-down for existing air conditioning
Some common refrigerants used in air conditioning, chillers, heat pumps and refrigeration systems may no longer be available to top up existing systems. If equipment loses some or all of its refrigerant charge owing to breakdown or leakage, it could effectively become obsolete or require retrofitting to operate on a safer alternative refrigerant if this is technically possible.
In the case of very high-GWP refrigerants, it is illegal to use newly manufactured fluids known as virgin refrigerants to top up equipment. Service top-ups using virgin R-404A - mainly used in refrigeration systems - were banned from 1 January. Reclaimed R-404A, or R-404A that has been used and reprocessed to purity specifications could still be used for top-ups, although it is in short supply and expensive.
What about new systems?
Manufacturers are introducing new systems that operate on lower GWP refrigerants. One of the best known in the UK is R-32, a replacement for higher GWP R-410A in split systems and packaged chillers.
Some suppliers may continue to sell equipment that operates on high-GWP refrigerants. Selling high-GWP refrigerants is not illegal if suppliers have sufficient EU quotas to cover the F-gas refrigerant contained. However, reductions in the future availability of the refrigerant they run on could significantly reduce the working life of equipment. This could prove costly and disruptive for building owners.
Future-proofing buildings from changing F-gas laws
A new generation of very low GWP refrigerants is being more widely used - the hydrofluoro-olefins (HFOs).These fall outside the scope of current F-gas regulation and it is considered unlikely that they would be targeted by future legislation. Air conditioning chillers that run on HFO refrigerant are already available and other equipment is being developed. These could effectively future-proof buildings from F-gas laws.
Jon Skelding is specification manager at equipment manufacturer Toshiba Carrier