The European Commission has released a report recommending the use of propane (R290) in small split-system air conditioners, with the future possibility of a maximum GWP of 150 for new equipment.

In a report entitled The availability of refrigerants for new split air conditioning systems that can replace fluorinated greenhouse gases or result in a lower climate impact, the European Commission called for the end of R410A in small split systems.

“It appears technically possible to avoid F-gases today in new single split air conditioning with a cooling capacity below 7kW by using the refrigerant R290 (propane), unless national legislation or codes prohibit its use,” the report said.

Labelling the current regulatory landscape as “unjustified” the report calls for barriers to be removed to allow the introduction of more climate-friendly refrigerants.

Europe has been quick to adopt the “mildly flammable” R32 in small splits with the European Commission claiming the refrigerant had achieved an 80 per cent market share in most countries by 2019.

Legislative amendments are still required in a number of countries but around 60 per cent of split systems put on the French market in 2019 were using R32. A roadmap has been established and manufacturers are said to be committed to using a refrigerant with GWP <750 in split systems with a refrigerant charge <3kg before 2022.

“A further significant reduction of the GWPs of alternatives to eg below 150 may be possible in small single split systems in the medium term,” the report said.

In 2019, the F-gases contained in split systems represented 74 per cent of all F-gases imported into the EU in pre-charged equipment (measured in CO2 equivalent) and small single-splits themselves made up 38 per cent of all F-gases imported in equipment.

Many of these systems are reversible air-to-air heat pumps.

The EU is aiming for climate neutrality by 2050. The most relevant European standards for refrigeration, air conditioning and heat pumps are EN 378, as well as the product standard IEC EN 60335-2-40 (for air-conditioning systems).

“They impose restrictions that do not appear justified for safety reasons (anymore). Thus they need further updating in line with technological development and based on empirical appreciations of the actual risks showing that acceptable safety levels can be maintained while using flammable refrigerants,” the report said.

“Until unjustified barriers are removed - there will remain some unnecessary obstacles for the introduction of climate-friendlier solutions."

To expedite matters, the Commission issued a mandate in 2017 to standardise the use of flammable refrigerants, in particular those classified as A3, in refrigeration, air conditioning and heat pump equipment by February 2021.

Work is currently being undertaken on the product standard IEC 60335-2-40 to expand the potential scope of applications within a boundary limit-value of 1kg for R290 (propane), and in working group 12 of standard EN 378.

Different precautionary measures will be required depending on charge and room size, the EC said.

The EU-funded project LIFE FRONT is compiling relevant data such as a leak size/concentration database to support evidence-based risk assessment for the use of flammable refrigerants.

Earlier this year, the project released a report with recommendations on how to safely raise the charge limits of A3 refrigerants.

The report points out that R290 has been used by Asian and European equipment producers for a number of years and is already widely available on the European market.

From 2020 onwards, R290 is expected to be the refrigerant of choice for the market uptake of hydrocarbon-based products.

Since 2012, R290 has also been used in commercially available split air conditioners (with cooling capacities up to 7 kW) by some major Chinese and Indian manufacturers.

The conversion of production capacities for split air conditioning units in China from R22 (an HCFC now prohibited in the EU) to R290 of approximately four million units per year was completed in 2014. The current theoretical production capacity for R290 split air conditioning units is estimated at about seven million units per year in 2019, so there is idle production capacity, the report said.

The actual globally installed base is over one million units today, mainly in India (800 000) and China (latest information is that 300 000 units have been surpassed).

Eight Chinese manufacturers have published a schedule for increased production numbers from 2018, and a production target of 330 000 R290 split units has been set according to the Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE)/Foreign Environment Cooperation Centre (FECO).

In India, the manufacturers for these units have their own network of certified installers to assure qualified personnel for installation and servicing of these units.

“Energy efficiency and cooling capacity of R290 split units compare favourably to conventional refrigerants, including the performance in warm climates, as demonstrated by e.g. the PRAHA project funded by the Montreal Protocol’s Multilateral Fund (MLF),” the report said.

“Certain models of the range of split air conditioners offered by a Chinese manufacturer (2.6/3.5 kW cooling capacity) were granted the German ecolabel “Blue Angel” in 2018.

“Given the technical readiness and available production capacity, the EU market entry seems to have been delayed mostly as a result of standards and codes restricting the use of A3 refrigerants unnecessarily, which underlines the urgency of updating standards.”

For 2020 a large Chinese manufacturer has declared its intention to start commercialization of a new single-split R290 split air conditioner system on the EU market.

The use of R290 in single split systems allows for a reduction of the charges by about 50 per cent compared to the conventionally used highly warming F-gas mixture R410A, which enables cost savings for units running on R410A.

“However, production costs are still somewhat higher than for HFC units (+6-10%) due to additional safety measures to address its flammability, and because economy of scale effects have not yet been exploited to the same degree as for R410A.

"The other non-fluorinated gas alternative that appears feasible is propylene (R1270), but no market-ready units are available at this moment in time.”

On the subject of HFC options, the report refers to a EU-based producer of air conditioning equipment that began to use reclaimed refrigerants (R410A and R134a) in the manufacture of new equipment in 2019 to limit the impact on the F-gas quota.

However, R410A still remains the dominant refrigerant for larger air conditioning systems placed on the market in the EU today.

The report also includes a chapter on research and development activities in and outside the EU which aim to replace R410A in air conditioning applications including split systems with more climate-friendly fluorinated gas refrigerants.

For example, R161 (GWP 12, an HFC) has been used in research on split AC to replace R22 in a demonstration project in China where a household air conditioner was developed but is not commercially available.

The safety classification of R161 is incomplete due to the lack of toxicity testing, but it has been established as a flammable substance.

R452B (“Opteon XL55”; GWP 698; safety class A2L, an HFC/HFO30 mixture) has been approved by one component manufacturer for use in their scroll compressors. It is contained in industrial equipment such as reversible heat pumps and chillers supplied by several distributors in the EU, but not in split air conditioning at this stage.

R454B (“Opteon XL41”; GWP 467; safety class A2L, an HFC/HFO mixture), has so far been approved by one component manufacturer for use in their scroll compressors. In Egypt, some split air conditioning manufacturers are considering to convert their production to this refrigerant within the HCFC phase-out under the Montreal Protocol and see it as an alternative to R32.

Meanwhile, R454C (GWP 148; safety class A2L, an HFC/HFO mixture) has been applied in Japan in air to air heat pumps for commercial use and in air to water heat pumps by a German manufacturer.

It is also considered as an option for room air conditioning applications but some stakeholders expressed doubts on the cost-efficiency of this solution due to the need for larger compressors and heat exchangers.

Further options that include R466A (an HFC mixture) and other mixtures with HCFOs31 or CF3I are at an early stage of refrigerant testing. Their suitability for split systems is not clear.

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