Last Friday the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) voted against increasing the charge limits on flammable hydrocarbon refrigerants such as propane (R-290) and isobutene (R-600a). The proposed changes aimed at increasing the global standard charge limit to five-hundred grams. Today, the International Standard known as IEC 60335-2-89 limits hydrocarbon A3 refrigerants at a charge of one-hundred and fifty. In order for it to pass the amendment needed a three quarters approval. It failed by one vote.
The International Electrotechnical Commission is an international standards organization that reviews, prepares, and publishes worldwide standards for electrical and other technologies. The group is made of nearly twenty-thousand experts from various industries. Their goal is to provide the companies, governments, and industries standards to follow when working with specific equipment.
Over the past decade or so there has been a large push to get back to the basics when it comes to refrigerants. Hydrocarbons were one of the very first refrigerants used way back in the 1800s. Back then, they were used because they were naturally found within the environment, were easily accessible, and performed efficiently. The problem with them back then, and in today’s world, is that they are highly flammable. Their flammability posed a potential risk and as soon as CFCs and HCFCs were synthesized we began to see a decline in hydrocarbon usage.
The push for hydrocarbons today comes from them being so environmentally friendly. Hydrocarbons have no Ozone Depletion Potential and they have very low, sometimes non-existent, Global Warming Potential. In order to use these climate friendly refrigerants while being conscious of their flammability many governments and organizations have imposed charge limits. By limiting the charge the risk of explosion is much lessened.
As a global standard IEC had a maximum charge of one-hundred and fifty grams as we mentioned above. Other governments have their own specific regulations, but they more or less follow the standard which is one-hundred and fifty grams. Here in the United States we were a bit behind the times. Up until a few years ago the maximum charge allowed by the EPA was fifty-seven grams. Most applications today have been approved by the EPA’s SNAP up to one-hundred and fifty grams. But, this was a recent development and you will still certain applications only allowing up to fifty-seven grams.
The hope from Friday’s decision was that the IEC would rule in favor of the five-hundred gram charge. This ruling would then inspire other governments and regulatory agencies to move forward with higher charged systems. It would be a cumulative effect across the world that would allow us to see hydrocarbons used in larger applications.
IEC’s ruling is disappointing to many. All is not lost though. The amendment will go back to a sub-committee where they will revisit the issue. They may end up making revisions so that it is not as such an aggressive change. In the meantime, we may see other countries move forward with their own increase in charge.
It is a delicate decision. Yes, there is a lot of pressure on having climate friendly refrigerants, but that doesn’t mean we should dive into flammable refrigerants. There has to be a balance between safety and climate. This balance may mean we need steer more towards less flammable refrigerants such as HFOs. Hydrocarbons will always have their place in their world but their growth into newer applications will be limited this latest ruling.