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Retailers Grapple With Refrigerant Conversions

"If a viable alternative that didn’t create an energy penalty existed today, I think every one of us in this room would jump on it. We haven’t seen it yet." — Jon Scanlan, director-refrigeration and energy management, Hy-Vee

On Jan. 1, 2010, food retailers reached a significant milestone for the phaseout of ozone-depleting R-22, their primary refrigerant over the past 20 years: the date manufacturers could only produce or import R-22 to service existing equipment — not new equipment, per the Environmental Protection Agency (following the Montreal Protocol treaty). That was intended to reduce consumption of R-22 and other HCFC gases by 75% below the U.S. baseline.

The next milestone comes in January 2015, when the Montreal Protocol will require the U.S. to reduce its consumption of HCFCs by 90% below the U.S. baseline. Finally, in 2020, the Montreal Protocol will require the U.S. to reduce its consumption of HCFCs by 99.5% below the U.S. baseline. Chemical manufacturers will no longer be able to produce R-22 to service existing equipment; only R-22 that has been recovered and recycled/reclaimed will be allowed to service existing systems.

In effect, retailers are facing a dwindling supply and an escalating price (around $12 per pound) of the R-22 refrigerant, which means they need alternatives.

The primary alternative to date has been HFC refrigerants. Unlike HCFCs, HFCs do not contain chlorine and do not deplete the ozone layer but still contribute significantly to global warming, setting the stage for their mandated replacement at some point in the future.

Alternatives to HFCs, such as carbon dioxide and ammonia — which are environmentally benign as refrigerants — are in the early stages of testing in the U.S., though they have been adopted in other parts of the world, notably Europe.

The transition from R-22 to alternative refrigerants — what has become a “moving target” for retailers — was one of the topics addressed at the third annual Refrigeration Roundtable, held Sept. 20-21 at the Schaumburg Convention Center, Schaumburg, Ill. Hosted by SN and, a sister publications at Penton Media, the roundtable brought together refrigeration executives from food retailers and the contracting firms that install and service commercial refrigeration. The event was sponsored by Hill Phoenix, Danfoss and Emerson Climate Technologies.

Hy-Vee, West Des Moines, Iowa, decided in 2005 that it would replace R-22 via “attrition” with R-404A, an HFC refrigerant with a relatively high GWP (global warming potential) of 3,922, said Jon Scanlan, the chain’s director-refrigeration and energy management. R-22 replacement occurs during major remodels or every six or seven years when the chain re-evaluates a store. The chain is “very diligent” in reusing R-22 pulled out in existing stores, he said.

Hy-Vee is “evaluating if 404A is the answer right now — and we’re likely getting away from that,” said Scanlan, adding that a potential alternative is R-407A, which has a GWP of 2,000. “The industry really hasn’t collectively landed in one spot,” he said. “So, like many, we’re still evaluating.”

Read more: Refrigeration Roundup: Energy Mavens

Scanlan acknowledged that Hy-Vee may eventually need to transition away from HFCs should they become regulated like R-22. “That’s a legitimate fear. If a viable alternative that didn’t create an energy penalty existed today, I think every one of us in this room would jump on it. We haven’t seen it yet.”

Scanlan pointed out that if refrigerant systems were leak-tight, the environment impact of refrigerants would be nullified. “Tight systems are still the best approach and it doesn’t matter if you’ve got R-12, 502, 22 or 404A,” he said. “We can’t stress enough to our contractors that we need tight systems.”

Target, BJ's Plans

Target, Minneapolis, is also looking at R-22 replacements, said Paul Anderson, its group manager, refrigeration/engineering. The retailer has so far replaced R-22 in seven stores with R-407A, and is evaluating its performance. Target asks its contractors to go in two weeks before the conversion and change gaskets that need to be changed, and leak-check the store.

Target has also begun testing carbon dioxide in secondary and cascade refrigeration systems, and has found those systems to be more energy intensive than conventional systems.

Meanwhile, Target is still “not sure exactly where to go in the future,” he said. “We have developed different plans regarding working with reclaimers’ reuse of that refrigerant [R-22] vs. just complete change out.”

BJ’s Wholesale Club, Westborough, Mass., decided in 2009 that R-407A was its choice for new clubs and retrofits. For the latter, the chain has improved its process to where it can now remove 800 pounds of R-22 within 45 minutes and “never have to remove product,” said Joe Gallego, BJ’s manager of refrigeration and HVAC services. In its retrofits BJ’s uses a stationary leak-detection system that finds leaks at two or three parts per million that “never would have been found before,” he said.

BJ’s is now converting 25 clubs a year, and in another year or two, “we’ll be a company that has transitioned from 100% R-22 dependency to none,” said Gallego. BJ’s has accumulated 25,000 pounds of used R-22 in storage.

Asked what is driving BJ’s away from R-22, Gallego responded, “The same thing that drove the [removal of] R-12, R-502. The gas eventually has to be gone, so why not be proactive? Get it out of there.”

A potential new alternative to R-22 that could be used in retrofits are HFO blends with GWPs that are 50% to 99% lower than those of existing refrigerants, reported Some retailers have been ready for more than a year to do a retrofit with HFO blends, “but the manufacturers are not ready to release the gas for testing,” said Scott Martin, director of sustainable technologies, Hill Phoenix, Conyers, Ga.

According to Kurt Knapke, director of compressor electronics at Emerson Climate Technologies, Sidney, Ohio, it will probably be another year or two before refrigerant manufacturers are willing to do field tests with HFO blends, and three to five years before they are ready to go into production with them.

“That puts the end users in a tough situation because they’ve got existing systems out there where they’re looking for a drop-in replacement and they’re probably only looking at HFCs such as R-407A and others.”

SN Refrigeration Survey: R-22 Still Widely Used

Moreover, Knapke said he expects HFCs are going to be regulated and more than likely phased out. “So [end users] are going to retrofit systems today using the R-407A, and then five, seven, 10 years down the road have to change the refrigerant to something else,” he said. “It’s like a Catch-22.”

The other alternative system options, he noted, “are not good retrofits and are basically a ground-up design.” These include CO2 as a refrigerant in cascade or transcritical systems, secondary systems, or distributed systems. “So now you’re talking a lot differently, from just changing refrigerants to changing the entire refrigeration system in the store.”

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