More than 100 contractors have participated in a research project to get factual data on charge sizes, leakage rates and refrigerant loss during the recovery process in split systems at end of life.

Findings from the project which was undertaken by Refrigerant Reclaim Australia are covered in a study released this week entitled Fugitive Emissions: The case for improving refrigerant recovery from split systems at end-of-life.

The study found that if the rate of recovery isn’t improved more than a million tonnes of CO2 e could be needlessly emitted annually.

Australia’s refrigerant bank is dominated by refrigerant in stationary air conditioning equipment with R410A, R32, R407C, and R22 making up more than 60 per cent of the installed bank.

Study author, Michael Bennett, said in the last 15 years R410A has replaced R22 in the marketplace and now R32 is making rapid inroads.

“A deeper dive into the data revels that split systems account for more than 80 per cent of total installed equipment,” he said.

“Despite the size of the domestic and light commercial air conditioning market factual data regarding charge sizes, leakage rates, and operational longevity were elusive, not just in Australia but globally.”

As part of the project an App was created for both Apple and Android devices.

Participating contractors downloaded the App and provided data during the deinstallation process.

They provided information on installation type, refrigerant details, initial refrigerant charge quantity and recovered refrigerant charge quantity. A total of 1,152 datasets were analysed.

Of the 1,152 systems with completed 600 contained R22 (52 per cent), 494 contained R410A (43 per cent), and 58 contained R32 (five per cent).

Breaking down loss and retention to the refrigerant level provided an unexpected result: the loss rate for R22 systems appears to be less than that for R410A systems.

The transition to R410A was not simply done by replacing the refrigerant in existing systems but involved a complete redesign of the equipment and components due to higher operating pressures. The redesign process resulted in more efficient systems, lesser charge sizes, and lower leakage rates.

The overall average loss during the operating life of the air conditioning equipment is 30 per cent leaving 70 per cent of the average charge of 1.93 kilograms remaining in the system; 1.35 kilograms.

Based on this information the study was able to quantity the amount of refrigerant available annually from end of-life split air conditioning systems.

The quantity available for recovery is 945.3 tonnes which is considerably more than what is currently being collected.

“When potential recovery from the mobile air conditioning and refrigeration sectors is included, the current annual recovery of approximately 500 tonnes, while laudable, falls short of ideal. However, the amount being reused is unknown,” the study said.

“The question of reuse is both critical and problematic. There is no data on the level of reuse by contractors in the marketplace although it is understood that demand for R22 remains strong.

“It is known that substantial quantities of R22 entering the recovered refrigerant stream are reclaimed to new specification by wholesalers then sold back into the market. Given the demand it is reasonable to expect that a substantial amount of recovered R22 is being reused and is thereby not available for collection/return.”

Over time, the percentage of retiring systems containing R22 will diminish with commensurate growth for the HFCs; R410A and R32.

Just as R410A has overtaken R22, so will R32 take over from R410A with the potential to make redundant the large bank of that refrigerant.

Without improved rates of recovery, most of that refrigerant will be emitted; with a global warming potential of 2088 more than a million tonnes of CO2 e could be needlessly emitted annually.

The study found that the RRA recovery program needs to provide incentives for higher levels of compliance in the split air conditioning sector. But to do this successfully it will require more than rebates.

RRA believes it is possible to increase collections to abate a further one million tonnes of CO2 e each year. In the coming months, RRA will consult directly with contractors and technicians to better understand the impediments to improving rates of recovery.

RRA will then work with industry through associations such as the Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Contractors Association, the Vehicle Air-conditioning Specialists of Australasia, and the Airconditioning and Refrigeration Manufacturers Association, along with licensing authority the Australian Refrigeration Council and the Department of Environment, to develop initiatives that will support and further assist the industry and lead to the collection of increased quantities of unwanted refrigerant from end-of-life equipment.

Key data points

Average charge size: 1.93 kilograms

Average retained charge at EOL:1.35 kilograms

Average operating life: 13.7 years

Average loss through operating life: 30 per cent

Average annual leakage rate: 2.2 per cent

Link to the report is here: RRA Split AC Recovery Report

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