The home appliance industry has a long history of transitioning to refrigerants to improve energy efficiency, cost-effectiveness, safety and reduce environmental impacts. The industry is currently exploring alternatives to hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants in refrigerators and freezers, room air conditioners, portable air conditioners and dehumidifiers. HFC refrigerants have been judged by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to have a higher global warming potential (GWP) than some of the available alternatives.
The industry's exploration of alternatives to HFCs comes at a time when home appliance manufacturers are already working to transition from the use of HFCs in foam insulation by 2020, a deadline set by the EPA. The transition is progressing, but it is very costly and is requiring manufacturers to divert resources from other areas to meet the EPA's time frame.
Home appliance manufacturers have voluntarily committed to transition to non-HFC refrigerants in household refrigerators and freezers by 2024. The industry is committed to reducing its environmental footprint, and this transition is an achievable goal. But it will require time and effort, and it’s essential that any regulatory mandates allow manufacturers the necessary time to make the transition to non-HFC refrigerants while preserving the safety of both their products and manufacturing operations and the high levels of quality and convenience their customers expect.
A challenging transition
The leading alternative to HFCs, isobutane, was approved for use in home appliances in 2011. Isobutane is not classified as an ozone-depleting substance and has a low GWP. But transitioning to this hydrocarbon alternative carries with it a number of challenges, including
- Product design: Hydrocarbon refrigerants such as isobutane are flammable and require careful controls. Current safety standards limit the refrigerant charge size for isobutane to 57 grams. That limit puts manufacturers in a difficult position, as it requires them to choose from a limited number of challenging redesign options to ensure the refrigerator can continue to cool its contents. Those include installing a second compressor and refrigerant loop or microtubes. This option is expensive and could drive up the cost of the vast majority of refrigerators, hitting low and fixed-income consumers the hardest. It also could result in a loss of desirable features, which would be removed to meet efficiency targets.
- Market dynamics: The voluntary transition away from HFCs as refrigerants will add costs to an industry already addressing the challenges of transitioning from HFCs as foam-blowing agents. Each of these transitions requires manufacturers to address issues of material compatibility and worker procedures that come with the use of new chemicals, as well as changes to their supply chain and internal manufacturing processes.
Keeping the Voluntary Commitment
Home appliance manufacturers take their responsibility to protect the environment and are moving forward with their voluntary plan to begin phasing out HFCs as refrigerants by 2024 for household refrigerators and freezers. AHAM and its member companies are asking the EPA to support those voluntary efforts and avoid implementing a shorter time frame for the transition. A shorter timeframe would almost certainly increase costs and leave manufacturers with fewer options to accommodate the changes.