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US EPA proposal to tighten rules on DIY R134a cans misses the mark

THE United States Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a tightening of the rules governing small R134a refrigerant top-up cans sold to unlicensed DIYers, but they do not go far enough.

DIY R134a can
DIY R134a can

Unlike Australia, where such products can only be sold to ARCtick license holders, under US rules small R134a cans containing up to 907 grams of refrigerant can be legally sold to the public for DIY automotive air conditioning service.

The EPA proposal, part of a wider overhaul of refrigerant regulations designed to reduce emissions of ozone-depleting and synthetic greenhouse gases, stipulates that the small refrigerant cans must have a “self-sealing valve to reduce refrigerant releases”.

It is a small step toward reducing refrigerant emissions, but arguably lacks the teeth of regulations in California, where both self-sealing valves and a system of refundable deposits on cans are mandatory, or even better, requiring certification as is the case in Australia.

Ignoring the success of the Australian system, the EPA admits the DIY situation is unique to automotive but describes the scenario of mandatory certification for the purchase of any quantity of R134a for automotive applications as “unnecessarily burdensome”.

It cites data from the NPD Automotive Aftermarket Industry Monitor of 2008, which reports that around 14 million small refrigerant cans were sold annually and that if it extended refrigerant purchase restrictions to these products, resulting in DIYers having to go through the certification process or take their vehicles to an authorised workshop, the cost would be $1.5 billion per year.

VASA would argue that it is a small price to pay for a significant potential reduction in high global warming potential HFC refrigerant emissions.

The EPA estimates that a US-wide requirement for self-sealing valves on small refrigerant cans will reduce CO2-equivalent emissions by more than 677,000 tonnes per year because less refrigerant will be released to atmosphere during servicing and that it will be possible to use remaining refrigerant in the can to service other vehicles, rather than discarding the container and inevitably releasing any residual refrigerant.

Of course this blindly assumes DIYers will be fixing the refrigerant leaks in the systems they are servicing with these cans, to precent their contents from simply entering the atmosphere, and that they will be educated as to the fact the improved can design means they no longer have to discard them until completely empty.

In addition to R134a, the exception for small refrigerant cans will apply to R1234yf and R152a – both of which have been approved by the EPA as R134a alternatives for new equipment – while R744 (carbon dioxide) is allowed to be vented to atmosphere and therefore carries no sale restrictions.

However, the EPA does note that it “has not received a submission of a unique fitting for use on a small can of HFO-1234yf,” precluding small cans of that refrigerant from sale until further notice.

This news from the US closely follows British confusion over the legality of selling R134a refrigerant top-up cans to unlicensed DIYers for automotive use under European legislation, as reported in the November/December 2015 edition of SightGlass News.

In June the British Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) issued a notice to wholesalers, retailers and technicians in the automotive AC sector explaining that it was no longer legal to sell F-Gas (known in Australia and New Zealand as synthetic greenhouse gas) refrigerants to people who could not demonstrate that the person intending to install it had a qualification in refrigerant recovery.

But on September 30 another notice was issued retracting the notice after “UK industry stakeholders” question the interpretation of the legislation and following legal advice, DEFRA changed its position.

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