EPA opens window to air conditioning’s next generation

Good news came out of EPA last week in the effort to replace climate-polluting hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) with safer alternatives.

In the refrigerant business, there’s life before and after “SNAP approval,” when EPA deems better replacement chemicals safe and ready to sell. EPA proposed a handful of them last week, including for six HFC alternatives in air conditioners (ACs) and heat pumps for use in homes and light commercial buildings. EPA also proposed a few separate approvals that raise potential concerns.

EPA’s “Significant New Alternatives Policy” Program office, or SNAP for short, approves and prohibits chemicals used in a variety of consumer and industrial applications. It’s a reliable “safety check” on new substances for potential impacts on the atmosphere, direct exposure and toxicity impacts on users and workers, flammability, and other environmental impacts such as ecotoxicity and air quality. Governments around the world look for the SNAP seal of approval before allowing new chemicals onto the market.

When EPA finalizes this rule, consumers shopping for a new AC or heat pump will be able to ask their local suppliers for a next-generation model that doesn’t contain “R-410A,” the gas used for the last 15-20 years. The rub: local building codes might not yet allow the alternatives, so a permit for installation may require specific approval from a local code official. More on that, and what to do about it, later.

R-410A is an HFC and a big threat to our climate—it has a global warming potential of about 2,000. Each pound that leaks is equivalent to one ton of carbon dioxide emissions, or what comes from burning 100 gallons of gasoline. And that’s roughly the quantity that leaks from every central AC in the U.S. annually.

Those emissions add up. In 2018, U.S. HFC emissions from ACs and heat pumps equaled the carbon pollution from 8-10 coal-fired powerplants.

ACs and heat pumps using the new refrigerants will see the climate impact of those emissions fall by 75% or more. The six gases slated for approval—including R-32 and five other refrigerant blends that aren’t exactly household names—have global warming potentials between 140 and 700. Although these numbers aren’t 0, and so there’s more work to be done, the new alternatives present a market-ready way to dramatically cut back these products’ emissions.

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