With the HVAC industry undergoing changes and becoming more innovative, once-commonplace HFC (hydrofluorocarbon) refrigerants such as R-410A are beginning to phase out in new equipment. Lower-GWP (global warming potential) refrigerants are in the process of replacing legacy HFC refrigerants. Most of these new refrigerants are classified by ASHRAE as A2L, which means that they are classified as mildly flammable but show promise for energy efficiency and positive environmental impact.
For the past few years, regulations around the use of HFCs have been unstable at the federal level, passing through several legal proceedings and strategies. Lacking federal certainty California took the lead, passing the California Cooling Act in 2018 adopting refrigerant restrictions for specific commercial refrigeration end uses. This was further expanded through additional regulatory action to propose the use of lower GWP in air conditioning end uses. The proposal would limit the GWP to 750, therefore phasing out of R-410, for new central air conditioning and heat pump systems beginning January 1, 2025.
In 2020, the AIM (American Innovation & Manufacturing) Act was passed, allowing the phase-down of HFCs on the federal level and restricting HFCs in specific appliances over the 15-year transition period. The AIM Act also gave the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) authorization to set standards for HFC management and to implement restrictions for expedited transitions in each sector. AHRI and several other stakeholders have petitioned EPA to align the transition to 750 GWP for new central air conditioning and heat pump systems on January 1, 2025.
Building Code Challenges
Historically, refrigerants used in direct systems have been classified as A1 or non-flammable. Building codes and safety standards were structured around the use of these A1 refrigerants such as R-22 and R-410A. However, many of the lower GWP refrigerants are classified as mildly flammable or A2L, meaning updates are needed to codes and standards. Much work has gone into updating UL equipment and ASHRAE application safety standards, which now recognize A2L refrigerants and define how to safely design and install a system using A2L refrigerant. Now the focus is on making sure building codes are updated to reflect the latest safety and application standard. This process typically takes years, but the industry is working to educate states and localities on the need to update building codes in a more timely manner to support a 2025 transition to lower GWP, A2L refrigerants.
Preparation for A2L Refrigerants
Leading up to the transition, OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) are redesigning and testing HVAC platforms needed to support the new A2L low-GWP refrigerants. With A2L systems potentially filtering into the market as early as 2023, tracking the status of building code updates is critical.
Impact on Contractors
With the requirement to transition to lower GWP, mildly flammable refrigerants, contractors need to be aware of how to safely handle these systems. Some current training opportunities include the ESCO 2022 Low GWP Refrigerant program manual, ACCA A2L Flammable Refrigerant Training, or NATE certifications. Resources such as these will help ensure that each contractor is prepared to keep pace with industry changes.
In addition, understanding which states/localities have updated building codes to allow for installation of an A2L system is also important. As these new systems begin filtering into the market it is likely that a situation exists where one state/locality allows for use of these systems, but a neighboring state has not yet updated building codes to make A2L legal. Contractors will need to stay aware of situations like these, especially when crossing state lines for their industry.