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European report prompts propane puzzlement

The European Commission (EC) has reputedly caused some confusion following the publication of a report that explores the adoption of hydrocarbon refrigerants in split air-conditioning systems as part of the European Union’s (EU) efforts to become climate-neutral by 2050. 

The EC concludes that, in sub-7kW split air conditioning systems, refrigerant-grade propane (R290) could be employed to avoid the use of fluorinated gas (F-gas) refrigerants where legal and safe to do so.

R290 has a global warming potential (GWP) of just three, and zero ozone depletion potential, making it far more environmentally friendly than higher-GWP alternatives including the widely adopted R32 that has a GWP of 677, which in turn replaces R410A (GWP 2088) and R407C (GWP 1774).

However, while R290 is an A3-rated highly flammable substance, R32 is deemed A2L (mild flammability) and therefore seen as a safer option.

The report also mentions that, in the medium term, the GWP rating for refrigerants in small single-split systems with a charge of less than 3kg could be reduced to 150 – potentially down from the earmarked 2022 limit of 750 for small systems that many are working towards. 

This, according to the European Partnership for Energy and Environment (EPEE), has been perceived by the industry as being indicative of an as-yet-unannounced EC decision made as part of the ongoing and overarching F-gas regulation review process. 

Another concern raised is that propane is also not a viable refrigerant option for all installations, due to energy efficiency issues and aforementioned safety requirements – yet the EC’s document does not appear to indicate that any assessment or feasibility reports have been carried out.

In a story published on specialist outlet Cooling Post, however, the EPEE has stressed that the report is just one of many required before existing provisions and regulations are altered – and consensus across the board, following public consultation and feedback, is required before revised F-gas regulations are developed. 

For comparison, under the current United States Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP), A3 refrigerants such as R290 and R441A are “only acceptable in new self-contained room air conditioning equipment, subject to use conditions”.

SNAP stipulates that for new domestic refrigerators and freezers, hydrocarbon refrigerants are acceptable for charge sizes of up to 150g provided the equipment meets safety requirements.

Back in Europe, engineering safeguards for split systems using as much as 3kg of hydrocarbon refrigerant will have to be robust, as will the training of technicians.