Full-phase ahead

Air-conditioning and the implications of the US refrigerant phase-out.

Mike Thompson at the Trane Dubai head office.
Mike Thompson at the Trane Dubai head office.

Mike Thompson, environmental affairs director at Trane in the US, talks to MEP Middle East about air-conditioning and the implications of the US refrigerant phase-out for the Middle East.

With the global air-con industry focusing on resource optimisation and energy efficiency at present, especially in the UAE, being environmental affairs director at a major player like Trane must be a ‘hot-seat’ position. Thompson laughs good-naturedly at the suggestion. “Environmental issues are nothing new,” he points out. “It started with the discovery that the fluorocarbons were one of the main causes of ozone depletion in the 1970s, and of course the Montreal Protocol in the 1980s. It has gone through many facets, and I think we are being far more responsible about it today than we have ever been.”

He says public perception plays a major role in the issues of the day. “However, public perception and reality are quite divergent. In the air-con industry, people think that using carbon dioxide as a refrigerant is a really good thing, as it means getting rid of these terrible fluorocarbons – but the reality is that fluorocarbons have been of tremendous benefit to the industry. If used responsibly, they can have a very minimal impact on the environment. You always have to be careful of the unintended consequences of moving to different chemicals. That is really the big thing: the long-term impact,” says Thompson.


“You have many touting carbon dioxide as the refrigerant of the future, but it is certainly not useful for all applications. On our equipment, you would consume about twice the amount of energy to get the same tonnage of cooling than you would with fluorocarbons, and so the side-effect of that would be devastating.”

 Thompson adds that the chemicals available today have a much smaller environmental impact than the chemicals used 20 to 30 years ago. “Our goal is to never leak any refrigerant. If it stays contained inside the machine, it will never have an opportunity to damage the environment.”

If the refrigerant issue is removed from the equation, then the air-con industry’s biggest impact on the environment today is through energy consumption. “There is no more energy-efficient way to cool a building than using fluorocarbon refrigerants,” argues Thompson.

“Thus we need the public and also the legislators to look at all the aspects – the global warming impact, the ozone depletion potential and the energy efficiency. We need to find the best balanced approach in order to have a minimal impact on the environment. Sometimes people get very emotional about one facet of that, and completely ignore the other aspects. Most equipment manufacturers design around current criteria. But you have to understand the implications – cost is extremely important. Therefore the best-cost, highest-efficiency products today use fluorocarbons. That is the refrigerant of choice.”


What other factors have to be taken into account with such an important choice? “It takes several years to design a new product or to use a new refrigerant, because of the different compressors and the characteristics of the chemicals and so forth.

“The industry sees trends down the line, and the manufacturers need to know what is going on several years ahead. It is a little bit nerve-wracking, because it costs millions of investment dollars. Therefore we need to make good solid decisions that do not change every couple of years,” says Thompson.

But is there such a thing as a ‘perfect refrigerant’ that the industry is striving for? Thompson’s emphatic answer is no. “In the 1980s we phased out CFCs, the major ozone-depleting substances. They were replaced by HCFCs, which had a much lower impact on the ozone layer. Then you have HFCs, which have zero ozone-depletion potential, but in many cases they are contributors to global warming.

“The Montreal Protocol, the international treaty dealing with ozone depletion, addresses these substances, but now legislation stemming from the Kyoto Protocol is addressing global-warming chemicals, and one of those six categories of chemicals is HFCs. So we are seeing a tremendous pressure in the industry right now to move to a new generation of chemicals with a very low contribution to global warming. We do not know what these new chemicals will be.

“In the US, we are phasing out R22 at the end of this year for use in new equipment. In the Middle East, it is not quite that quick, as you have 20 more years before you really have to phase out that particular refrigerant.

“At Trane, we have been slowly transitioning our products to R410a over the last number of years. If they can develop new chemicals with good end-use properties, together with good energy efficiency, it will be a very good thing for the industry and the environment.

“It will be an exciting few years ahead, as the expectation in the industry is that changes are imminent in terms of the current crop of HFCs,” comments Thompson.


Isn’t this ‘musical chair’ version of refrigerant replacement something of a knee-jerk reaction in the face of growing environmental pressure? “We need to ensure we are not changing these phase-out dates constantly. The Montreal Protocol is a good example. They have adjusted the caps and the volume that can be sold slightly over time.

“But the dates you can use these refrigerants up to have not changed significantly over 15 years – and that is good, because we are selling equipment that lasts from 15 to 30 years, and customers have to be confident there will be future availability of these refrigerants over the life of the equipment. We have to be very rational and calm in how we look at these things,” urges Thompson.

“In the end, when I am looking at a piece of air-conditioning equipment, the refrigerant that is inside should be of relatively low concern to the end user.

“People would like to use a refrigerant that will be available forever and never be phased out, but I know of no refrigerants like that today. So these are all under constant risk and evaluation. However, the Montreal and Kyoto Protocols have set out dates to ensure long-term availability,” explains Thompson.


What about the industry’s concern at the potential future shortage of R22 in the future? “Trane does not believe it will be a tremendous problem,” asserts Thompson. “We believe the price of this refrigerant will go up some. It will not go up to any dramatic level, and at some point there will be a balance, and it will come out at a price that will encourage more recycling and recovery. The biggest challenge at the moment is to encourage the industry to recycle and recover refrigerants properly, and to watch their leakage rates.”

Thompson points out that even though the Montreal Protocol phases out certain chemicals, it does not mean you have to stop using such equipment.

“There are still many end users of R11 and R12, which are CFCs phased out in 1996 by the developed countries. These refrigerants are readily available, and in some cases the price has even gone down over the last 13 years, as is the case with R11. This is good news, as it means more people are concerned about recycling and recovery. It pushes volume into the marketplace, and that stabilises prices. Recycling and recovery is an important part of the industry that is not practiced well enough in many parts of the world,” argues Thompson.

Unique market

The district cooling sector in the Middle East is “a unique market in the world,” says Mike Thompson, environmental director at Trane US. “On the large-tonnage chiller side, this market is certainly the largest in the world by far. I think it has really changed the perceptions of most manufacturers.”

Thompson says that large-tonnage chillers “were pretty much a novelty ten to fifteen years ago, and were only used in very unique applications. The Middle East sector has really justified a lot of investment and effort in the large-tonnage chiller market. When you have a bigger market, you have more opportunities for investment and more rewards stemming from such investment,” says Thompson. “Now the Middle East has a very competitive market, and it is exciting to see that.”

Thompson argues that large-tonnage chillers are ideal for district cooling applications. “Combining the cooling of multiple buildings gives us the opportunity to focus on what is really important, namely system efficiency, in terms of which we look at the chillers, the pumps and the cooling towers all together. Thus we are able to focus on the overall efficiency of the system, and really put in the best package possible.”

The larger end of the chiller market tends to focus on custom-made equipment. “We rarely make the same large chiller twice, as everything is customised for specific design conditions. We are always looking at certain things that are new – and in a market like this, which is large enough to dictate its own requirements – you often need unique solutions.”

In terms of field-testing new or experimental products, Thompson says “there are certainly some unique things here you cannot get in any other part of the world, specifically operating temperatures. Sometimes you need to bring those new products out here just to remain competitive in the marketplace. A competitor will come up with something unique that promotes itself, and then everyone else will scramble to come up with the next wonderful thing to save money or make installation easier. There have been a number of such innovations in the Middle East.”

District cooling differs from conventional air-con in terms of the scale of the challenges posed. “When you have a large-scale cooling plant, the dollars are hard to ignore in terms of energy efficiency, and the payback is relatively quick. It is a much bigger challenge the smaller you go to get people to invest, such as convincing homeowners to change out their complete air-con systems for a few points in energy efficiency,” explains Thompson.

However, the lower-tonnage market is becoming increasingly important in terms of energy efficiency. “That is good news. I think there are a few drivers for that – one is green buildings, but probably the most important is the rising cost of electricity. People are looking to save cost wherever they can.”

Commenting on the latest trends in the district cooling market, Thompson says the energy-efficiency drive is moving away from individual components like chillers to a more holistic system overview. “The trend now is you can put in a component like a high-efficiency chiller, but that does not necessarily give you a high-efficiency system. You also want to ensure that the pumps, towers and controls are all working together to minimise the energy consumption of the entire system.” Thompson refers to this as the ‘system’ kW per ton.

“A chiller appears very efficient if I am pumping a lot of cooling tower water through it. However, it is consuming a dramatic amount of energy on the cooling tower side.” Thompson says Trane has developed chiller optimisation software in order to help customers resolve such problems. “You simply input the profile of your chiller and cooling tower, and the program will determine all the settings necessary to minimise the system kW per ton. That may mean operating a chiller in a condition where it consumes a bit more energy in order to save a lot on other items on the system.

“That is really where the future lies. You can save significant amounts of energy – as much as 6% of the annual energy consumption of a chiller plant, versus the way chillers are operated normally, by simply putting a control scheme in place,” says Thompson. He adds that the global economic downturn has not impacted much on the demand for high-efficiency chillers.

“That is still very important. People understand they are buying such a product with a 20 to 30 year lifespan, and therefore they are keen on high efficiency. “In many parts of the world, high efficiency is dictated. Green buildings are still very popular. That may sound a bit surprising given the downturn, but the success of green buildings is partially due to people simply wanting to be environmentally friendly. Green buildings are also at such a point where they are not as expensive as they used to be. This means they not only turn out to be a good investment, but the higher the LEED rating, the higher the resale value.

“This shows customers that a certain minimum standard has been applied in terms of the building, which translates into not just using the cheapest possible materials. That is exactly where we need the industry to go – we need customers to see there is value in putting up better buildings,” says Thompson.

A key aspect of this ‘green’ mindset is refurbishment versus replacement. “For example, a large chiller can theoretically last forever, apart from such necessary maintenance like bearing changes. A lot of equipment replacement is not driven by the fact that the equipment has exceeded its useful life; the driver is efficiency. I can spend my money two ways: spending a little on rebuilding a chiller to last another ten to fifteen years, or spending a lot upfront on putting in a new chiller, but with a quick payback due to its improved energy efficiency.”

Thompson says that, in the US, the market is about two-thirds retrofit and one-third new equipment at present. “The refurbishment market is huge in other parts of the world. Of course, here in Dubai a lot of the existing equipment is still relatively new, so it is commensurately smaller. As you see markets mature and get older, you end up with a lot of older equipment that eventually has to be replaced.

“Trane has been very much involved in that retrofit market, even working on equipment installation, because that is where a large segment of the market is at present. We always look for ways in which we can stabilise our business if there is an economic downturn, so that the total business is not affected dramatically. In markets like the Middle East, air-con has to be functional and reliant, which means top-quality and fast service,” says Thompson.

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