Continued use of refrigerants containing hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), super greenhouse gases thousands of times more potent than CO2, is fueling the climate crisis. With the global stock of household air conditioners expected to triple by 2050, it is critical for this sector to be HFC-free and energy efficient.
A crucial milestone was reached this week for this sector to transition away from HFCs, when an international committee of technical experts representing 24 countries voted to unanimously approve an updated safety standard. This update will help usher in a new generation of climate-friendly and energy efficient air conditioners (ACs) and heat pumps. By removing barriers for alternative refrigerants using hydrocarbons, the updated standard opens up a pathway for accelerating the transition to alternative refrigerants that would save billions of tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions by 2050.
Removing Barriers to Climate-friendly Hydrocarbon Refrigerants
After about five years of discussion and refinement, the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) sub-committee 61D representing 24 countries, gave its final approval to the proposed update to the international standard covering air conditioners and heat pumps: IEC 60335-2-40. This update will allow the adoption of next generation hydrocarbon refrigerants to replace HFCs.
Hydrocarbons such as propane (R-290) have ultra-low global warming potentials (GWPs) of less than 5. This is a dramatic improvement over the commonly used refrigerant today, HFC-410A, which has a GWP over 2,000, and other options available under current standards such as HFC-32, with a GWP of over 600. In addition to being ultra-low GWP, hydrocarbons are also more energy efficient than HFCs, further increasing their climate (and economic) benefits.
Previous standards updates in the refrigeration sector have proven transformational to allowing hydrocarbons, which are already replacing HFCs in household fridges and some types of refrigeration in supermarkets. Highly energy efficient commercially available hydrocarbon ACs have been developed in India by Godrej & Boyce because of a lack of restrictive national standards and have had some limited introduction in China by Midea and others. Overall, however, the use of hydrocarbons has been very restricted in the HVAC sector in most of the world due to obsolete safety standards.
The proposal, to be published in June as Edition 7 of IEC 60335-2-40, will introduce a new set of requirements to allow the use of hydrocarbons, which like other lower-GWP refrigerants are flammable. This includes requiring certain safety features and revised limits on the quantities that can be used in a given application. In summary, equipment designed with additional features such as leak sensors and airflow to disperse any leak will ensure there is no increased safety risk compared with existing equipment. More information on details in the proposal is available in this EIA briefing.
Spearheading a Global Effort to Adopt the IEC Standard
The updated IEC standard is not the end of the journey, but a significant first step that makes increasing adoption of hydrocarbons feasible in various markets within a few years. A concerted global effort is still needed to ensure these updates are carried forward in countries that are major consumers of new air conditioners. The U.S., China, and Japan alone account for 67% of the world’s installed air conditioners, with China being the fastest growing market for both manufacturing and new sales. In key markets such as the United States, European Union, China, and Japan, the updated IEC standard will first need to be adopted by national or regional safety standards bodies. In some cases, updates may also need to flow into additional building codes and other regulations before adoption occurs.
A Way Forward in North America
The United States is the largest importer of air conditioners in the world. Countries that produce a significant portion of their ACs for the North American market may delay a transition if the US standards are not updated speedily.
U.S. regulations and building codes follow two key national standards: Underwriters Laboratories (UL), which publishes a corresponding standard for ACs and heat pumps: UL 60335-2-40, and ASHRAE-15, a standard that feeds into model building codes adopted in US states. Updating the UL standard is a pre-requisite for updating EPA regulations and state building codes.
Here are the key next steps for the North American market to adopt revised safety standards for hydrocarbons in ACs and heat pumps:
- A CANENA Technical Harmonization Committee (THC) must be formed to develop a common proposal for consideration by North American standards bodies;
- Stakeholders in the CANENA THC will develop and discuss proposals for incorporating the IEC 60335-2-40 Edition 7 updates, or other national deviations for safe use of hydrocarbons;
- A proposal finalized by the CANENA THC is submitted to UL for a vote by the standards technical panel of UL 60335-2-40;
- ASHRAE-15 and ICC model building codes could be updated for the 2027 code cycle, allowing broad market adoption;
- Public funding can be leveraged to support additional research and testing by a nationally recognized safety organization.
Achieving Market Transformation this Decade
In this critical decade for climate action, we must ensure that the increasing number of air conditioners and heat pumps we produce transition to a readily available technology that is HFC-free and energy efficient.
Experience in other cooling sectors shows that safety standards updates have the power to rapidly transform the refrigerant market. For decades, the U.S. lagged behind in adopting hydrocarbons in household fridges when billions had already been installed around the world. Following a 2017 update to the UL standard, practically the entire U.S. fridge market has transitioned to a hydrocarbon (R-600a) in a few short years.
We can’t afford the same delay in U.S. adoption for the much larger and much more impactful HVAC sector. ACs and heat pumps include a much greater variety of equipment and applications, which means the process may be more complex. There’s no time to waste. The potential costs of inaction are too great to ignore for the industry, their customers and our climate.