Reducing The Environmental Impact In HVAC Systems

With the demand for efficient cooling systems in our buildings on the rise, Nuaire NPD Heat Pump Manager, John Hammond, look at the types of refrigerants commonly used in cooling systems, along with the benefits and downsides to low-GWP refrigerants.

Cooling technology is essential to modern living, whether in the form of air conditioning in offices, shops, cars and even now our homes with heatwaves becoming more and more prevalent in recent times, to the fridges that keep our food cold – but the effect they have on the planet is considerable.

In fact, the cooling industry accounts for 10% of all global CO2 emissions through the cooling system technologies that we deploy. These systems use a considerable amount of energy and present a concern amid the escalating energy crisis as more and more turn to increased cooling methods in their lives. As they do so, more strain is put on the national grid and the infrastructure can’t cope. 

However, the need for efficient cooling systems in our lives is becoming ever more prevalent. A cool temperature helps to prevent illness and keep bacteria from multiplying – protecting the vulnerable in high ambient weather. It preserves our food supplies on a domestic and mass scale and with the forecasted, unprecedented heatwaves set to sweep the country over the next few years, it will play a massive role in keeping us cool inside too. The HVAC industry is focussing on designing and manufacturing cooling technologies and the components within them to be more energy efficient and is pioneering the move to significant positive environmental impacts

The first step in this process is addressing the type of refrigerants used in cooling systems. Each type of refrigerant has a Global Warming Potential (GWP) – a figure that allows us to compare the global warming impacts of different gases. CO2 acts as the base, with a GWP of 1. Currently, R-410A is the refrigerant most frequently used in the UK, and is more than likely to be found in your own system. However, R-410A has a GWP of 2088, which translates into an equivalent of 2088 metric tons of CO2. If all R-410A were converted to R-32 – which has a GWP of 675 – the impact to global warming from HFCs in 2030 would be reduced by the CO2 equivalent of approximately 800 million tons (19%) compared to the continued use of R-410A!  It’s for this reason that effort is being made to move away from high-GWP refrigerants to using lower-GWP refrigerants. 

Moving to a cooling system based on R32 refrigerant has other benefits, including an ozone depletion potential (ODP) of zero, plus it’s more energy efficient.  Our new Nuaire BPS-ECO-HP Air Handling Unit (AHU) with integrated heat pump is charged with R32 refrigerant and uses 20% less refrigerant than equivalent AHUs using R410a.

The use of these low-GWP refrigerants, although more energy efficient and better for the environment, do come with some safety concerns. Often, low-GWP refrigerants are more flammable and require a smaller charge and it would be foolish to ignore the added safety concerns and requirements that come with using these newer refrigerants. It is important to remember though, that a lower-GWP refrigerant such as propane, is a natural product and already found in fridges and freezers across the world being used safely – but as a flammable substance, safety needs to remain a key concern. 

When working with A2L and A3 flammable gases, workers need to be aware of the added danger and the differences and nuances when working with different refrigerant types. An understanding of what constitutes as safe working for each refrigerant, as well as a general understanding of how to safely work with pressure equipment and explosive substances is vital. An industry-wide commitment to upskilling F-gas engineers to a higher understanding of PE(S)R and safe working practices (DSEAR) will address this and ensure the low-GWP refrigerant cooling system you use is correctly designed, installed, commissioned and maintained.

With the impact of climate change, refrigerants are becoming a larger part of our daily lives and, as we start placing more reliance on these gases, it’s important to consider the serious effect they have on the climate.

As pioneers in the HVAC industry, Nuaire has made significant investment in future-proofing the designs of our new products. Yes, they are more expensive to create as components are not as readily available and therefore more costly, but we believe this is worth the output to champion the change. Legislation and standards are driving the move to lower-GWP gases and manufacturers are beginning to move over but we need builders, specifiers, and building and facilities managers to play their part in demanding cooling systems with low GWP gases, requesting better quality products that will stand the test of time and not accepting less. Cost is not always king when it comes to driving change.