What refrigerant roadmap should engineering directors in hospitality, healthcare and other sectors in the region consider for the near and distant future?

The agreement reached at in Kigali in October 2016 for the amendment to the Montreal Protocol to bring HFCs under its purview is a landmark one. A key question that is often posed is what does Kigali mean for engineering directors in the hospitality, healthcare, education, aviation and other sectors in the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) region? What are the implications, if any, with regard to chiller retrofits or replacements?

In that context, it is pertinent to note that in the case of HFCs, the call is for a phase-down and not a phase-out of the refrigerants. In other words, unlike in the case of CFCs and HCFCs, Kigali does not call for eliminating HFCs – it calls for a reduction to a certain base amount over the next few decades.

As expressed by industry experts, the phase-down for the GCC region starts in 2032 and is 10% of the baseline value, calculated as the Average HFC Consumption (2024-2026) + 65% HCFC Baseline (2009-2010). The phase-down, then, progresses by 10% every five years to reach a base amount in 2047.

The first stop for regulations is to phase-down HFCs for the foam, automotive and commercial refrigeration industries, which by far constitute the large market and, worryingly, also are characterised by very high leakage rates.

A transition to low-GWP (global warming refrigerants)

In short, there is time for all sectors in the GCC region to respond to Kigali. That said, a decision based on conscience, with the environment in view, would be a commendable one for the region, especially as it seeks to accelerate its drive towards being counted as a mature market. A head-start would not be just about conscience, though, but also a matter of properly easing into a regime of global compliance, instead of leaving it till too late in the hour and triggering a chaotic transition. A systematic transition to low-GWP (global warming refrigerants), which is at the core of the aspiration among the parties to the Montreal Protocol, requires research and development and also rigorous testing for the GCC region, which is characterised by more severe operating conditions than seen in temperate zones and also relatively higher running hours.

The use of HFOs (hydro-fluoro-olefins)

A solution that is being broadly discussed is the use of HFOs (hydro-fluoro-olefins), which are seen as possible alternatives to the current preferred choice of refrigerants, including the widely used R-410A. HFOs are being talked about as being the set of go-to refrigerants that can leapfrog the transition from R-134A to R-410A. In other words, the call is for straightway replacing R-134A with HFOs, which purportedly have better performance in high-ambient conditions. Some HFOs reportedly have no ozone-depleting potential (ODP), a GWP of nearly one, and enable the chillers to have increased capacity to give a cost-effective solution through reducing the kilo-watt per square metre. In other words, they tick the box when it comes to total cost of ownership. Only, there is concern over their being classified as A2L, or of being mildly flammable. The question is over safety – on how they can be applied in commercial applications without endangering human lives.

It is the same concern over safety that has so far prevented the popular use of the climate-friendly ammonia, which is regarded as hazardous or propane, which is considered combustible, in air conditioning systems in the region. In the case of ammonia, a case can be made that it has been successfully used for more than a decade in the Ski Dubai facility in the Mall of the Emirates, which is in a densely populated residential neighbourhood. The facility reportedly follows a stringently vigilant operation and maintenance protocol, which has prevented any health-related incident from occurring. In short, the facility is a case-study of how ammonia can safely be used, albeit in the primary loop – the secondary loop runs on liquid glycol – and opens up the possibilities for the much-maligned refrigerant to be used in more varied applications.