Good Climate News: USEPA OK's Hydrocarbon Refrigerants For Non-Vehicle Applications

© General Electric Consumer Products
One of GE's refigerators using isobutane hydrocarbon refrigerant - Monogram® 30-inch with fully integrated glass-door and convertible drawer.

For decades, EPA's Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) has helped promote use of progressively improved versions of chlorofluorocarbon and per-flourocarbon refrigerants. The SNAP rule remains good way to ensuring safe and more efficient refrigerant alternatives. Until now, however, if an entrepreneur proposed a hydrocarbon containing product be permitted as refrigerant, competing manufacturers would point out that it might lead to an explosion or fire, should there be a vehicle crash or a slow leak in a refrigerator. And, EPA would back off the approval.

Miraculously, 30 gallons of high test gasoline lugged at 65 mph was seen as acceptable while the extremely small amount of butane needed to charge a vehicle air conditioner was not. Fortunately, design rationalism is showing a strong new heartbeat over at EPA headquarters. Hydrocarbon refrigerants are finally allowed in US-sold refrigerators. The decision is good for climate and will save consumers money.

Look at the GE refrigerators pictured: they run with iso-butane refrigerant. Similar to what's in a Bic lighter. Volume close to what's in 3 or 4 of them.

There is plenty of credit to go around for this pro-hydrocarbon decision and much of it lies outside EPA.

Environment News service presents a nice overview of EPA's decision in their coverage:

WASHINGTON, DC, December 14, 2011 (ENS) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today issued a rule making greener refrigeration gases legal in household refrigerators and some commercial freezers.

The agency added three hydrocarbons as acceptable alternatives in household and small commercial refrigerators and freezers through EPA's Significant New Alternatives Policy program, SNAP, which evaluates substitute chemicals and technologies for ozone-depleting substances under the Clean Air Act.

The new rule legalizes the hydrocarbons propane, isobutane, and a chemical known as R-441A as refrigerants.


Hidden benefits.
Iso-butane and propane (byproducts of oil refining) individually or in blends have a far greater heat exchange capacity than than any halogenated refrigerant. Hence, appliance designers specifying hydrocarbon refrigerants can utilize smaller compressors and heat exchangers, a lower volume of refrigerant, and thus achieve lower energy consumption, shaving weight, space, and cost. With less energy needed to get the compressor chugging, consumer electric bills go down.

Hydrocarbon refrigerants also take less energy to make and have no toxic inputs during manufacture, are dirt cheap (pennies instead of dollars per pound) and do not require expensive and tricky recovery operations at end of product life.

Overcoming absurdities in the kitchen.
My all time favorite anti-hydrocarbon refrigerant argument went something like this. 'You can't allow refrigerators to run on hydrocarbon refrigerants because of the fire hazard.' Meanwhile, directly across the kitchen from the refrigerator sits a natural gas or propane stove with what is effectively an infinite leak capacity - but that's OK. Hmmm.

By that logic, If Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer passes wind on the roof while Santa makes his Christmas deliveries next week, we'd better evacuate.

In summary, it's really good news that the Obama Administration decided to let product designers do what they do best: make a better home refrigerator that meets fire code, is good for the environment, and saves money for consumers. Applause!

Onward to hydrocarbon refrigerant use in vehicles, please! That decision would increase the mileage of new vehicles and make compressor loads more compatible with electronic propulsion systems.

More credits.
I've been cynical about recent Greenpeace campaigns because they seemed to me to be clueless to key product design issues. With regard to enabling EPA's hydrocarbon refrigerant approval, however, that organization now deserves a lion's share of the credit, having stuck with their GreenFreeze campaign for almost two decades.

I remember reading about Greenpeace's early work on the GreenFreeze back in the late 80's and early 90's, which, as I recall, was under the leadership of M. Braungart,, of Cradel to Cradle fame. By Greenpeace's published claims:

Greenpeace has been working to eliminate the use of F-gases since their introduction to the market in 1992. We have transformed the residential refrigerator industry on two continents (we're working on the others now) and are catalyzing the entire refrigeration and cooling industry toward natural refrigeration in all of its uses. In order to change these industries, we are working the problem from three perspectives:

Credit is also due to the oft maligned USEPA for having the guts to use the SNAP rule to enhance environmental performance and drive positive design innovation instead of simply buckling to the pressure of established interests which could use fire code requirements as a market protection.

Saved by the free market.
Tip of the hat also goes to General Electric, for lobbying EPA to allow marketing of GE's isobutane-charged Mongram refrigerator (as pictured above). According to Design News, GE Requests EPA Approve Isobutane for Monogram® Refrigerators with Double Benefits:

In a recent press release, “GE Opening a Door to a Future of Cleaner Home Refrigeration,” GE Appliances announced a petition to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requesting approval to use the hydrocarbon isobutane (R-600a) as the refrigerant in GE’s new Monogram® brand refrigerator, which is slated for introduction in the U.S. in early 2010. According to the press release, the new refrigerant not only reduces appliance greenhouse emissions caused by off-gassing, but it also improves efficiency, making the technology a double bonus for U.S. consumers.

Another sad countdown.
Counting the days before Rush Limbaugh and Fox news announces that EPA want's your kitchen to blow up ... 1...2...3....

Tags: Carbon Footprint | Designers

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