Contractors: training the craftsman in the safe use of low GWP energy efficient refrigeration, air conditioning and heat pump systems

AREA article for the International Special Issue

July 2012

Contractors: training the craftsman in the safe use of low GWP energy efficient refrigeration, air conditioning and heat pump systems

AREA (www.area-eur.be) is the European organisation of refrigeration, air-conditioning and heat pumps (RACHP) contractors. Established in 1988, AREA voices the interests of 21 national members from 17 European countries, representing more than 9,000 companies across Europe (mainly small to medium sized enterprises), employing around 125,000 people and with an annual turnover in the region of € 20 billion.

The associations, which are members of AREA, represent the enterprises responsible for the design, installation, maintenance, repair and dismantling of refrigeration, air conditioning and heat pump equipment. These companies are the indispensable competent intermediaries between component manufacturers and end users.

AREA’s core mission lies in the representation, defence and promotion of the industry and its high standards of quality, with the aim of ensuring the safe and uninterrupted usage of efficient refrigeration, air conditioning and heat pump equipment for users. To achieve its mission, AREA has thus been involved in a variety of initiatives in the fields of training & education (Refrigeration Craftsman[1] project in the past, Real Skills Europe[2] and QualiCert[3] at present) or standardisation (e.g. standard EN13313 on competence of personnel for refrigerating systems and heat pumps).

AREA also monitors regulatory developments at EU level and ensures the safeguard of its members’ interests on issues that directly impact on their activities. Indeed, in view of their sphere of business, RACHP contractors are affected by a wide range of specific EU legislative acts: F-Gas Regulation, Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, Renewable Energy Sources Directive, Pressure Equipment Directive, Ozone Depleting Substances Regulation, Waste of Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, Restriction on Hazardous Substances Directive...). AREA is also involved in discussions on more general themes, such as energy efficiency and climate change from the point of view of RACHP systems.

To achieve its mission, AREA has adopted an adapted structure. Aside from the General Assembly and the Board, chaired by Mr. Graeme Fox (RACHP Group/B&ES, United Kingdom), the Information Group is in charge of assessing any regulatory, legislative, vocational or technical issue relevant to the refrigeration, air-conditioning and heat pumps contracting sector, and devising strategies and work plans. The Task Group is then responsible for streamlining and coordinating the activities and priorities of ad hoc Task Forces, who deal with specific issues and formulate draft positions. Task Forces are currently active to tackle various topics, such as the review of the F-Gas Regulation, heat pumps, CO2 and other low GWP refrigerants, and training requirements for low GWP refrigerants.

As designers of RACHP installations, contractors have a thorough and unbiased expertise in the properties and manipulations of all refrigerants, be they fluorinated gases or so called “natural” refrigerants. On the basis of users’ requirements, contractors choose among available solutions in the sole aim of ensuring the highest level of reliability, energy efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Over the years, this objectivity has given AREA a unique position in the “cold” sector and accrued legitimacy when addressing RACHP issues in the context of pressing needs for energy efficiency and fight against climate change and the role that green energies can play thereon.

Energy efficiency & RAC equipment

Europe wastes at least 20% of its energy due to inefficiency[4]. According to the European Commission, “[r]ealising the 20% potential 2020, equivalent to some 390 Mtoe, will result in large energy and environmental benefits. CO2 emissions should be reduced by 780 Mt CO2 with respect to the baseline scenario, more than twice the EU reductions needed under the Kyoto Protocol by 2012”.

Energy efficiency has thus become one of the highest political priorities, not only because of its financial impact but also because of its close connection with climate change. Mindful of the fact that RAC applications are responsible for a sizeable part of the energy consumed globally AREA is fully aware of the significant energy savings achievable through the raising of energy efficiency in the RAC sector. Some of these savings could be achieved without major investment in capital equipment and plant refurbishment but with education, good maintenance, implementation of good energy using practices and enforcement of relevant regulations. The other share of savings depends on the increased use of more efficient RAC systems, such as heat pumps.

For existing RAC systems, the vast majority of energy efficiency losses stem from a lack of regular and qualified preventative maintenance. Frequent checking performed by properly qualified professionals is therefore a prerequisite to maximum efficiency of the system. In the EU, the F-Gas Regulation provides for such requirements for systems running on certain fluorinated gases. Although the original objective is to prevent leakages, the combination of enhanced qualification of professionals and regular checks positively impacts on the energy efficiency of the systems.

Refurbishment or new building projects give another opportunity of looking at the energy efficiency of the air conditioning system to be used.  For instance, in large buildings, VRF[5] technology now offers substantial benefits, in particular when heat recovery[6] is possible. In addition, manufacturers of split air-conditioners have been producing reverse cycle heat pumps for many years based on a normal packaged air-conditioning system and incorporating a reverse cycle valve that reverses the flow of refrigerant to turn a cooling system into a heating one. Finally, RACHP systems use less and less refrigerant charge to achieve the same cooling duty. All these technological evolutions contribute to increasing energy efficiency.

Choosing the right refrigerant

Designing a RACHP system involves a key element: the choice of the “right” refrigerant, i.e. the correct heat exchange media for the cooling or heating application. In the past few years there has been an increased interest in the promotion of non fluorinated refrigerants. Whilst AREA sees the development and promotion of new alternative refrigerants as a natural evolution, it must be pointed out that the energy efficiency level of the “new” refrigerant can only be assessed by comparing it to the existing HFC energy usage on a like for like basis.

When assessing the environmental performance of a RAC system, contractors tend to refer to the Total Equivalent Warming Impact (TEWI) rather than the sole Global Warming Potential (GWP) of the refrigerant used. The reason is very simple. The GWP of a refrigerant can only be achieved when the gas is released into the atmosphere through leakage. By limiting themselves to GWP, contractors would only take for granted that the system will leak. Moreover, GWP does not take into account that certain RACHP systems are at their most efficient with fluorinated gases rather than natural refrigerants. Finally, the impact of the F-Gas Regulation in Europe should not be ignored.  F-Gas aims at reducing leakages through more regular and qualified maintenance. The experience of some AREA members (e.g. Netherlands, Sweden, Austria) has shown that thanks to high training and certification standards for RAC contractors combined with regular leak checking requirements, leakage was decreased up to fivefold. TEWI, on the other hand, takes into account the CO2 emissions from fossil fuels to generate power to run the refrigeration and air-conditioning systems. In other words, TEWI incorporates the energy efficiency of the system in which the refrigerant is contained. GWP does not.

Daily experience of European contractors shows very clearly that when it comes to refrigerants, there is no panacea. Each refrigerant has its own merits depending on the characteristics of the RACHP system. In small systems, such as domestic refrigerators and freezers and point of sale display fridges, it has been demonstrated that hydrocarbon refrigerants (HCs) are very good in terms of energy efficiency compared with the old HCFCs, according to reports by the hydrocarbon industry. On large systems, such as central plant systems serving an office block or a shopping mall, it is normal practice to have a remote plant area either on the roof or besides the building. In these cases again the flammability or toxicological issues are less of a risk to the occupants of the building. However, it is generally accepted that in these cases it is preferable to use either CO2 or ammonia as the primary heat exchange refrigerant depending on geographical location and ambient conditions. There are also, however, certain applications where it is beneficial to retain the use of fluorinated gases. In small to medium cooling duty applications, such as room air conditioners and localised process or comfort cooling applications, it has been demonstrated that HFCs are often the most energy efficient refrigerants to use compared with the alternatives[7].

These aspects are extremely important for heat pumps. Whereas their use is being promoted, it must be stressed that many heat pumps are reliant on HFCs to achieve their low carbon potential. This is what one could call the duality of HFCs. Whereas they intrinsically show a high GWP, when leakages are limited their TEWI is unequalled on the aforementioned applications.

So each refrigerant has its downsides. HFCs have a high GWP. Alternatives show toxicity, flammability or very high working pressure depending on which refrigerant you are looking at. In addition, each RACHP system will show different levels of energy efficiency depending on its characteristics and the refrigerant it runs with. This is where contractors’ added value lies: in guiding users to make the most efficient choice.

Low GWP Refrigerant handling issues

The AREA position paper “Low GWP Refrigerants”[8] sets out a general guidance in identifying which refrigerant is best for which application. The work that went into producing this guidance paper raised concerns about the lack of field technicians properly trained in the safe handling of low GWP refrigerants. In particular, there was a general concern about the safety aspects of non specifically trained technicians when handling highly flammable hydrocarbons and high pressure CO2 gases.

A survey carried out internally amongst AREA members highlighted some major differences across the European Community:

The real danger in the current political moves to rapidly phase down HFC use, or indeed the sometimes suggested phase out, is that there is clearly a large shortfall in technicians properly and safely trained in the use of low GWP alternatives. A sectoral phase out or product ban has been proposed by some NGOs as a means of rapidly cutting HFC use. These calls do not seem to take into account the real dangers in promoting a rapid widespread use of hydrocarbons, ammonia or CO2.

It is generally accepted that poorly installed and maintained systems lead inevitably to increased leakage rates. Where the refrigerant in use is an HFC there are few safety concerns for people in the surrounding area other than through the displacement of oxygen causing respitory problems or, in the worst case, asphyxiation. Where the refrigerant is a hydrocarbon, however, the hazard this poses could quite clearly result in catastrophic explosion. Similarly, CO2 works at very high pressure and the potential for human injury or damage to property is high as was demonstrated in 2011 when a series of incidents on CO2 systems caused a rethink of refrigerant policy by a large supermarket chain in the UK.

A rapid roll out of training schemes is starting throughout the EU to try and address this anomaly but it will clearly take some time before a significant percentage of the workforce is anywhere near competent enough to cope with the inherent dangers in using the current crop of low GWP refrigerants. At a cost per craftsman of between 700 and 3000 it is difficult for contracting businesses to afford sending their craftsmen away on training courses. Especially so during a time of economic turmoil across most of the continent.

A lack of training centres is also a major issue in many countries. At a cost of setting up a training centre to deal with low GWP refrigerants in the region of 300,000 – an example of the cost of setting up an ammonia centre in the Netherlands – there are few organisations with the spare capital to invest in such a thing.

An increased use of online and so called “e-learning” training has enabled many existing technicians to cover the necessary theoretical aspects of new and refresher training requirements in a way that does not impact on the daily workload as it can be carried out during evenings and weekends. Many aspects of the training, however, must be carried out in practical environs due to the nature of the qualification. This necessitates quality training centres where practical abilities can be assessed and improved upon prior to demonstration testing for certification. Much of the current training at present consists of written or online examination of theoretical, environmental and regulatory knowledge followed by a practical test consisting of demonstration of a candidate’s ability to properly and safely cut, prepare and join by brazing of sections of a refrigeration circuit, followed by correct leak tightness and strength pressure testing, evacuation, charging and putting into work a small refrigeration system; their ability to correctly identify and repair faults in a working system; and their ability to identify refrigerants by using comparator charts, etc.

It is essential that sufficient quantity and quality of training centres are open and available across Europe, and indeed globally, if the growth in use of lower GWP refrigerants is to be realised without detriment to the industry sector as a whole and the technology in general, in terms of poor image of RACHP systems. It is also essential in terms of preventing safety concerns being realised and to ensure the high efficiency potential of the technology is not only realised at the time of installation but is maintained throughout the life cycle of the systems.

Through all these initiatives AREA and the entire European contractors community contribute to fostering the energy efficiency of RACHP equipment installed in Europe, thereby decreasing its environmental impact. Whereas forecasts anticipate steady growth of cooling needs and a widespread use of commercial and residential heat pumps in the coming years, the contractors’ role is therefore essential.



[1] More info on the project’s results available on AREA website: www.area-eur.be

[4] European Commission’s Communication Action Plan for Energy Efficiency: Realising the PotentialCOM(2006)545 final

[5] Variable Refrigerant Flow: type of air conditioning system where the indoor units all connect to the outdoor unit through a common set of pipes rather than each indoor unit having a set running back to the outdoor unit

[6] System enabling to recover the heat being extracted in a building area needing cooling and to transfer this heat to the indoor units serving those areas needing heating

[8] See  AREA Guidance Paper "Low GWP Refrigerants" , June 2011

 

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