Impending environmental regulations will push the Canadian and American real estate industries toward cooling and insulation options with lower global warming potential (GWP). This effort to mitigate a climate threat will also require heightened vigilance as flammable and/or more toxic replacements are introduced into buildings.
Proposed Canadian regulations now nearing the end of a two-year consultation process will impose a phased schedule for an 85 per cent reduction in the production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) over the next 20 years. Proponents of enshrining a similar commitment in the Montreal Protocol calculate that up to 0.5° Celsius in rising global temperature could be offset if the 197 parties to the international treaty agree to restrict the availability of a range of HFC formulations commonly used in refrigerants, aerosols and foam products.
“Canada played a key role in helping the international community achieve the Montreal Protocol in 1987. An ambitious HFC amendment would greatly help fulfill the goals of the recent Paris Agreement and would put humanity one great step forward in the fight on climate change,” asserts Catherine McKenna, Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change.
Regulatory initiatives — recently reiterated in the North American Climate, Clean Energy and Environment Partnership — are not surprising given that Canada, the United States and Mexico first tabled a joint proposal for an HFC phase-down under the Montreal Protocol in 2009, and the European Union has already committed to reduction targets. Industry associations such as the U.S. based Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI) have also been proactively focused on finding low-GWP alternatives.
“Our industry has made substantial progress toward transitioning,” concurs Justin Koscher, director of the Center for the Polyurethanes Industry, an offshoot of the American Chemistry Council.
Perhaps ironically, HFCs have gained market share due to the Montreal Protocol and the resulting ongoing global phase-out of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs). Environment and Climate Change Canada reports that total sales of bulk HFCs doubled in the years between 2008 and 2012, while annual consumption in the foams sector alone jumped more than fivefold, from 800 tonnes to 4,400 tonnes, during the same period.
In the hierarchy of environmental malfeasance, HFCs do not damage the ozone layer and are generally classified as short-lived climate pollutants, meaning their destructive force dissipates relatively quickly. Yet, while they are potent, they are significantly more detrimental than carbon dioxide (CO2), which is the baseline measurement for GWP at 1. For example, HFC-134a, commonly used as a refrigerant in chillers and for foam blowing, has a GWP of 1,430 or 1,430 times greater than CO2; HFC-227ea used for cold storage and food refrigeration has a GWP of 3,220.
New Canadian regulations will set limits for allowable levels of GWP and deadlines for compliance. A somewhat different regulatory approach in the United States, to prohibit the manufacture, import and first-time sale of specific products, will largely follow the same schedule for a comparable outcome.
Manufacturers and suppliers/distributors of targeted products will bear the responsibility for complying, but there will be flow-through implications for some notable economic sectors that employ HFC-based technologies. Along with real estate, which uses refrigerants and foam-based insulation and sealants, food-related production and services are highly dependent on refrigeration and almost all vehicles coming off automotive production lines contain mobile air-conditioning units.
A new category of chemical formulations known as hydrofluoro-olefins (HFOs) and some longstanding options that have more recently fallen out of favour — propane, butane, isobutane and ammonia — are now emerging as plausible alternatives. Canadian industry advocates commend the government’s flexibility in establishing allowable limits rather than outright prescribing a course of action, but call for other regulatory amendments to make a low-GWP switchover truly feasible.
“They’ve left it open for market forces to meet the new requirements,” observes Warren Heeley, president of the Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Institute of Canada (HRAI). “However, many of these refrigerants are slightly flammable so the building codes and the standards are going to have to come around to recognizing that slightly flammable is acceptable. Before these alternatives can be used, particularly in commercial and industrial applications, the codes will have to be changed, or they can’t be used at all.”
After two rounds of consultation, the regulation is expected to be posted in the Canada Gazette later this year or early in 2017. Based on the final draft, released for comment in the spring of 2016, producers of spray and rigid foam insulation will have until January 1, 2021 to deliver products with a GWP no greater than 150. The HVAC and refrigeration industry has a later deadline of January 1, 2025 for ensuring chillers (excluding absorption chillers) operate using refrigerants with a maximum GWP of 700.
Differing timelines and thresholds account for industry-specific factors such as viability of low-GWP alternatives, requirements for other complementary regulatory changes, the cost and lifespan of equipment that will need to be retrofitted or replaced and the degree of environmental risk. Accordingly, the seemingly more relaxed limit for chillers applies to a system that is designed to contain refrigerants, whereas HFCs are the expansion agent within foam insulation’s highly permeable cell structure.
“Foam products do give off more HFCs and they off-gas constantly,” says Manasi Koushik, manager, environmental health and safety compliance, with the environmental consulting firm, Pinchin Environmental.
That said, building owners/managers typically choose spray foam insulation with honourable intentions based on its proven energy performance. “Closed-cell foam can give the best R-value per inch of any insulation technology,” Koscher notes.
Industry R&D is now mostly centred on HFOs, including some formulations with an ASHRAE 2L classification to denote low flammability with a maximum burning velocity of 10 centimetres per second. Hydrocarbon options with high flammability are not viable for foam insulation due to the risks of transporting it to and storing it in drums on a worksite and possible exposure to ignition triggers during installation.
“Flammable blowing agents are not appropriate for on-site installation, which is one of the reasons the industry has continued to use HFCs to the extent that it has,” Koscher says.
Similarly, hydrocarbon refrigerants such as butane or isobutane are currently allowed only in small systems like reach-in food/beverage coolers that have a charge no greater than 350 grams. For the broader sweep of products with low flammability, safety experts maintain elevated risks can be managed with standards, training and ongoing vigilance.
“It’s a trade-off between the global warming concern and the risk associated with flammables. One is long-term and one is immediate. Any time you make a switch, you are going to have this balancing of risks,” reflects Susan Bershad, a senior chemical engineer with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). “There are standards in place to handle flammable materials and flammables can be handled safely because, of course, we use flammables all the time.”
The U.S. Department of Energy, AHRI and ASHRAE have recently launched a $5.2-million project to consider how flammable refrigerants can be addressed in updated versions of ANSI/ASHRAE standards, with a pledge from the U.S. International Code Council that revised standards will be fast-tracked into the building code. (Canada has its own, different model national code, but ASHRAE standards are referenced globally.) Meanwhile, on the toxicity grid of the safety risk chart, more building owners/managers may be prompted to consider ammonia, especially if they have on-site space to accommodate a secondary loop system.
“It’s not a bad refrigerant at all. You just have to have other controls in place if you have ammonia systems,” Koushik says.
Heeley also emphasizes the importance of clear communication about the existence of hazards and heightened monitoring and/or supervision where necessary.
“Prior to this, flammability and toxicity, for the main part, weren’t a concern with HFCs,” he says. “We have to ensure that technicians know what they’re dealing with and have the ability to do so safely.”
As with earlier launched phase-outs of CFCs and HCFCs, the first HFC compliance dates would apply only to the manufacture and import of new products. Consumers could still purchase chillers in a vendor’s existing unsold inventory that rely on high-GWP refrigerants and refrigerant will still be available to supply existing equipment, albeit that supply will diminish to 15 per cent of today’s quantity by 2036.
“Chillers are large investments with long life expectations — anywhere from 20 to 40 years — so older models aren’t going to be tossed aside lightly,” Heeley advises.
Nevertheless, based on the evidence of the CFC and HCFC phase-outs, it could be costly to be among the final holdouts. “The price of the refrigerants that are going to be prohibited is tripling and quadrupling. The business case for switching refrigerant types is definitely becoming a lot stronger,” Koushik says.
With insulation, the typical arguments for building to a higher environmental standard are now apparent in new construction. Among the advantages, the products align better with building owners/managers’ environmental certification goals.
“You need to look at the full lifecycle benefit of switching to the product,” Koscher maintains. “I think this is really going to be an advantage for the spray foam industry as more and more low-GWP products come into the marketplace.”
Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management.