Food processing - Natural Refrigerants are the alternative to R22

J & E Hall Engineering Director Dave Ball says the deadline to phase out this ozone depleting refrigerant is fast approaching and explains how this affects the food processing industry.

Changes to European law mean that a refrigerant widely used in the food processing industry will soon be phased out. From January next year it will be illegal to use R22 and time is running out for plant managers to make the change to alternative refrigerants.

In the past R22 was viewed as a safe refrigerant but it depletes the ozone layer and the cooling industry has known for some years that it is to be outlawed. Operators of food processing plants have been made aware of this and some have taken steps to find replacements but others have been slow to react.

All users of systems with R22 should have already been given advice by their refrigeration service provider but there is confusion surrounding the many new replacement HFC refrigerant blends designed to be a drop-in or replacement for R22.

This has been exaggerated by the latest approved changes to the F-Gas Regulations which will see a phase down of HFCs and a huge take-up of low Global Warming Potential refrigerants.

Until recently, the low cost option has been to replace R22 with one of the HFC blends or drop-ins – R417A, R422D, R434A or R442A – to name but four. These have appeared to be good value for money because they are fairly simple to introduce and there is very little interruption to production.

However, under the approved changes to the F-Gas Regulations, from 2020 new equipment using HFC refrigerants with a Global Warming Potential (GWP) of 2500 and higher will be banned unless used in systems below -50°C. The servicing of existing equipment using HFCs with a GWP of 2500 or more will also be banned unless the HFC is recovered or reclaimed.

It is therefore unwise for plant managers to invest in replacing R22 with one of the high GWP drop-in refrigerants, or buy new equipment operating with a refrigerant of more than 2500 GWP, such as R404A and R507A, only to find that it will be illegal to service six years later.

Those refrigeration plants using high GWP systems will have to change the refrigerant again. Of the four drop-in refrigerants mentioned only R417A and R442A have a GWP less that 2500. So the food processing industry must radically change its thinking on the use of refrigerants.
With all this confusion surrounding the drop-ins, new systems will seem more and more attractive. Systems running on natural refrigerants CO2, ammonia or hydrocarbons have little or no global warming potential if the refrigerant is released into the atmosphere.

Natural refrigerants have been used for more than 130 years and are exempt from the environmental drive to phase out all man-made refrigerants.

The equipment usually has a longer life – all ammonia piping is steel or stainless steel with stainless steel heat exchangers – and new systems can often be designed so that energy costs are much lower.

Compared to air-cooled R22 systems the savings made can be considerable and the cost of installing a natural refrigeration system can often be recouped within ten years. There are some excellent examples of natural refrigerant systems – designed and built by J & E Hall – running successfully in the food processing industry.

Recently, a food distribution and storage company in the West Midlands announced that it had cut its energy bills by more than 20 per cent and reduced its carbon footprint considerably after introducing a new ammonia-based refrigerant system, designed and built by J & E Hall, to replace its outdated R22 based system.

The industry will also need to cut running costs further. The Eco-design Directive sets out to improve the performance of many energy-related products in order to reduce the environmental impact through better design. Refrigeration equipment is included with minimum efficiency levels being introduced for a range of different products. Variable speed drives on compressors, pumps and fans, with more efficient heat exchangers, will become the norm to help reduce electricity bills.

However the phase out of R22 and the introduction of changes to the F-Gas regulations will continue to dominate the thinking of refrigeration engineers at food processing plants. If plant managers have not made the switch to more energy-efficient, ozone-benign, low GWP refrigerants they should begin to do so now. Otherwise failing to act will have a far-reaching effect on production in the future.