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Inaction over HCFC’s could threaten continuity of lens production as ECF gas Regulation (EC 842/2006) takes effect

Category : Cooling

Much of the ophthalmic industry’s production lenses, and especially of anti-reflective coatings, is dependent on refrigerants fast approaching their sell-by date to help. Exposed companies must move decisively to tackle the problem now, or put their businesses at risk.

The primary issue for the optics manufacturing lab is that vacuum coating plants are dependent upon water vapour cryo-pumps, most commonly manufactured by Polycold and Telemark of the USA. Despite several years notice of the coming phase-out and often repeated warnings, HCFCs (R22 & R123) remain some of the most common refrigerants in use in industrial refrigeration systems.

Recent research revealed that the condemned HCFC refrigerant is present in all Polycold PFC 00 and 01 series systems and is also prevalent in water chillers and other cooling plants critical to the lens production process.

In a recent survey of 350 UK companies across industry sectors carried out by the UK Government’s Carbon Trust, it was shown that 70 % have at least one refrigeration system using HCFCS. It commented “in most cases, these refrigeration plants are of strategic importance, as they provide crucial process cooling. For many businesses, it is critical to their operations.”

While it is the HCFC R22 which is most often cited in relation to the coming phase-out, the EU regulation also covers HCFC-containing refrigerate ant blends such as R401A, R402A, R403B, R408A and R409A. This means that the impact of phase out goes further. Critically all Polycolds built before 2002/3 (designation PFCXX(X) 2) contain HCFCs and 00 series are worse, containing CFCs which are already banned. Polycold PFC systems containing HCFCs must be converted to run on nonozone depleting refrigerants or be taken out of service after the end of 2014. The same injunction applies to all other F- Gas containing plant.

The law covering the phase- out of HCFC-containing refrigerants across Europe is the EU Ozone Depleting Substances Regulation 2037/2000 and EC F Gas Regulation (EC 842/ 2006). Under this, the use of CFCs and HCFCs in a new plant is banned. Prohibition on use of ‘virgin’ or new HCFCs for topping up existing systems came into effect at the end of 2009.

Ft Refrigeration Ltd. 1

Total ban

A total ban on the operation of any plant containing HCFCs after the end of 2014 will come into place. HCFCs including R22 are a controlled waste and they must be safely recovered for onward reprocessing.

From the beginning of 2010, only recycled or reclaimed HCFCs have been permitted for topping up a plant. After the end of 2014, even ‘topping- up’ of Polycold / Telemark systems containing HCFCs will become illegal. There are suggestions that this date may be brought forward. However, so far, the European Commission has not put forward concrete proposals.

As a result of the phase-out, the cost of HCFCs is expected to rise significantly over the next 18 months. As manufacturers wind-down production in line with required supply quotas, supplies will get short and prices are expected to escalate rapidly. In the restricted market in the USA, for example, the cost of HCFCs has risen by a factor of five and is still increasing. Supplies of new HCFCs have now ceased and it is now not possible to top the affected systems using HCFCs.

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In terms of costs in the UK and Europe, we saw significant rises during 2012 in the cost of HCFCs and other HCFC-containing blends from all manufacturers. This probably equates to a 50 % rise in costs compared to this time last year. These increases are likely to continue over the coming year, possibly on a monthly basis through 2013-14, driven by basic supply and demand pressures.

It might not be a problem if refrigerant remained within a plant. However, the low-temperature water vapour cryopump systems are notoriously leaky. The mixed gases have to be held in strict proportion and weight for each system for it to function efficiently. This makes topping up problematic compared with traditional refrigeration plant. A UK Government study carried out a few years ago showed that as much as 75 % of all refrigerant sold went to top-up leaky plant. Since then, leakage rates have been reduced. However, experts estimate that annual loss from some plants is still between 25 to 50 %

Companies whose vacuum coating production equipment depends on HCFCs-based cooling plant have three options:

The first is to replace plant containing HCFCs with a new system. This is the most expensive and radical option, as it entails replacing what might be a perfectly good plant – possibly with several more years working life left – with a new system.

Depending on how efficient the old system is, it is possible that some of the capital cost could be offset by reduced energy consumption. Having said that, HCFCs are known to be a refrigeration plant. In most cases, minor system modification including a change of compressor oil is required.

However, in the case of water vapour cryo-pumps the OEM manufacturers have taken a policy decision not to develop alternative blends or support the existing installed base. One could speculate on who benefits from this approach. However, one effect of this is that the anticipated life expectancy of the plant has been significantly shortened against the user’s expectation and many efficient plants will be scrapped.

The benefit of retrofitting is that it enables existing plant to be kept running, ensuring business continuity. Replacement can, therefore, be delayed until perhaps many years in the future, and planned and budgeted for.

Finally, the third option is to take a managed approach. Under this, existing plant is retained and kept running on HCFCs. It must be topped-up with recycled or HCFC free top up, e.g. Cascade Universal. The law allows this until the beginning of 2015. This approach extends the use of a plant, avoiding the up-front capital costs as- sociated with replacement or retro- fitting.

The right option for any given situation depends on a number of factors which include:

  • Theremaininglifeexpectancy of existing HCFCs plant
  • Possible efficiency gains(or losses) as a result of replacing or retrofitting

Recognising the problem, we have developed Cascade Universal Top-Up. This enables customers to continue topping up PFC systems containing HCFCs with a tailored blend of compliant gases until the 2014 deadline. Working with leading refrigerant manufacturers and suppliers to provide a consultancy service to help companies manage the phase-out of HCFCs, and ensure the continuity of their businesses, is a key element of our approach to solving the issues arising from the F-Gas regulations.

From our experience helping major clients through this minefield, we know how important and pressing decisions on a plant are for vacuum coating businesses that rely on HCFCs. It is vital to address the problem now while there is time to weigh up the options, plan ahead to ensure continuity of production. The first thing people should do is check which refrigerants their systems use. If they don’t know, we can help them identify this.

Which option?

Next they must decide which option will be most cost-effective to ensure continuity of the business. This requires quite specialised knowledge, and technical support to evaluate the options and plan ahead on the following issues:

  • Refrigerant management of HCFCs
  • Review of compliance state for Polycold PFC and other systems to maintain production
  • Advice on the best option for a given plant or application
  • Removal / disposal of HCFCs, to enable retrofit or replacement of any F-Gas affected plant
  • Reclamation of HCFCs to ‘as new’ specification for later re- use in service top-up (until end 2014)
  • Availability of non-HCFC blends for topping up plant to the end of 2014, in line with legislation
  • Advice on the suitability of alternative replacement refrigerant for particular applications
  • Compliance advice and testing under the F-Gas regulations
  • Suitability for retrofitting of affected Polycold PFC plant, to extend installed plant

FT Refrigeration Ltd uses Cascade refrigerants, zero ozone depleting mixed gas refrigerants which have been in production since 2000. The fully F-Gas compliant Cascade refrigerants for the retrofit market were launched in 2006. There is a significant increase in demand for retrofit refrigerants because of the recognised benefits of compliance and cost reduction. Through 2012, the number of operators taking the conversion route following catastrophic refrigerant loss rose sharply. With there being no apparent end to financial constraints on the purchase of capital equipment the conversion / retrofit option is increasingly an attractive option.

A key benefit arising from retrofit is ensured continuity of refrigerant supplies, once converted non-compliant systems may be run using the OEM’s compliant refrigerant blends or those from other suppliers. This safeguards businesses against unscheduled interruptions of production. In addition, the company can help those with other cooling plants dependent on HCFCs to manage recovered refrigerant and keep systems running for several years after the ban on the use of new HCFCs comes into effect.

The cash-flow advantages, of not having to rip out existing plant before the end of its working life from retro-fitting where appropriate, are obvious. The key is to address the problem now, determine the best solution and have a plan in place. Those who do can rest easy, knowing their business is safe. Those choosing to ignore the deadline will pay a high price, and, in some cases, it could prove disastrous.

Author: William Thompson


FT Refrigeration Ltd.

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