R22 is one of the most widely used refrigerants in the United Kingdom. R22 is an HCFC (hydro chlorofluorocarbon). Examples of where R22 might be used as a refrigerant are supermarkets, blast chillers, process coolers, air conditioning systems in offices and other commercial buildings and transport refrigeration.
Hydro chlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) are a large group of compounds, whose structure is very close to that of Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), but including one or more hydrogen atoms. Under normal conditions, HCFCs are gases or liquids which evaporate easily. They are generally fairly stable and unreactive. HCFCs do not usually dissolve in water, but do dissolve in organic (carbon-containing) solvents. HCFCs are chemically similar to Hydrobromofluorocarbons (HBFCs), Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and Halons and therefore display some similar properties, though they are much less stable and persistent. HCFCs are also part of a group of chemicals known as the volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
HCFCs are unlikely to have any impact on the environment in the immediate vicinity of their release. As VOCs, they may be slightly involved in reactions to produce ozone, which can cause damage to plants and materials on a local scale. At a global level however, releases of HCFCs have serious environmental consequences. Although not as stable and therefore not as persistent in the atmosphere as CFCs, HBFCs or Halons, they can still end up in the higher atmosphere (stratosphere) where they can destroy the ozone layer, thus reducing the protection it offers the earth from the sun’s harmful UV rays. HCFCs also contribute to Global Warming (through “the Greenhouse Effect”). Although the amounts emitted are relatively small, they have a powerful warming effect (a very high “Global Warming Potential”).
Hydro chlorofluorocarbons enter the body primarily by inhalation of air containing hydro chlorofluorocarbons, but can also enter the body by accidental ingestion of hydro chlorofluorocarbons, or by dermal contact with hydro chlorofluorocarbons. Inhalation of air containing high levels of some hydro chlorofluorocarbons may lead to health effects including chest tightness, irritation of the respiratory tract, and breathing difficulties. Exposure to high levels of some hydro chlorofluorocarbons may also affect the nervous system, heart, liver, kidney and reproductive system. Ingestion of some hydro chlorofluorocarbons may cause nausea, headache, dizziness and disorientation. Dermal contact with some hydro chlorofluorocarbons may cause skin irritation, dermatitis and frostbite. Hydro chlorofluorocarbons are involved in the destruction of the stratospheric ozone layer resulting in increased exposure to UV radiation which is known to cause skin cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has not designated hydro chlorofluorocarbons as a group in terms of their carcinogenicity. However, exposure to hydro chlorofluorocarbons at normal background levels is unlikely to have any adverse effect on human health.
It is for these reasons that the European Union opted to phase out the use of HCFC’s such as R22 in 2000. From January 1st 2015, EC regulation EC/1005/2009, which relates to substances that deplete the ozone layer, will prohibit the use of R22 and other HCFC’s in any form, even for maintenance, in order to protect the ozone layer.
New equipment using HCFC’s was banned in 2001 (2004 for small air-conditioning systems), and the use of virgin HCFC’s was banned in 2010, when it also became illegal to manufacture HCFC refrigerants or for suppliers to keep them in stock.
From January 1st 2015, a new restriction will prevent the use of re-cycled and reclaimed HCFC. The new regulations will not prohibit continued operation of plant using existing quantities of HCFC refrigerant, but it will prevent invasive maintenance, replacement or topping up.
More modern refrigeration and air-conditioning systems should already comply with regulations. However, older systems may use HCFC’s, and as most refrigeration systems leak to a certain extent, ‘doing nothing’ will cease to be an option. Many of the better maintained systems will accept ‘drop-in’ non-ODS refrigerants, such as EC F Gas Regulations compliant HFC’s (hydro fluorocarbons, including 417A, 422A, 422D, 424A, 427A, 428A and 434A). However these substitutes generally lead to a drop in efficiency and so the system may need to be supplemented with additional compressor and/or heat exchanger capacity.
Badly maintained equipment or old HCFC systems may not lend themselves to conversion and could need complete replacement with a compliant HFC, hydrocarbon, ammonia or carbon dioxide system. Such an upgrade on a 10,000 sq. ft. office building could cost the tenant or landlord the equivalent of 30% of the annual rent as well as causing considerable disruption. It is likely therefore that landlords and tenants will be looking at the small print of their leases to establish where liability lies for such costs. In some cases the courts may have to determine who pays. Since we’re nearing the end of 2014, if you have an r22 air conditioning system in place and haven’t yet taken steps to convert or replace it . . . you’d better! You will likely need to seek advice from qualified professionals.