We Need a Defense Production Act Memo for Refrigerants

The president has called for more heat pumps. Now he has to fix what's inside them.

Wolf heat pump
A heat pump charged with propane as refrigerant.

Wolf Heat Pump

Recently the U.S. president Joe Biden issued a memorandum on electric heat pumps, calling for their increased production, perhaps after reading Bill McKibben's call for heat pumps for peace and freedom or Treehugger's call to electrify, heatpumpify, and insulate our way out the current crises.

But there is a critical part of a heat pump that needs urgent regulatory action: the refrigerant. Most heat pumps and air conditioners are charged filled with hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) but even the most climate-friendly HFC refrigerant, R-32, has a global warming potential (GWP) of 675 times that of carbon dioxide. If the heat pump industry takes off in North America, it is going mean a lot more of this is going to leak into the atmosphere. Most modern American units run on R-410a, which has a GWP of 2,088 times that of CO2.

The global warming potential of refrigerants.


Back in 2019, we noted heat pumps could be charged with propane, known also as refrigerant R-290, and that many European manufacturers were switching over. It's far cheaper, it has an ozone depletion potential of zero, and a GWP of only three times that of CO2. Significantly, according to one expert, you need a lot less of it: "The refrigeration cycle coefficient of performance (COP) is comparatively good. As a result, the refrigeration charge for propane can be 40-60% less than other common refrigerants."

But not in the U.S., which hasn't approved them. As Phil McKenna of Inside Climate News noted, "HFCs are multi-billion dollar products that would likely be replaced by less expensive and more efficient climate-friendly alternatives if standards put forth by Underwriters Laboratories didn’t until recently limit their use, likely at the behest of chemical companies."

Gradient heat pump on outside of building


Even the teensy gradient heat pumps we covered earlier couldn't run on R-290. Gradient CEO Vince Romanin told Treehugger it was designed around it, but the international standard allowed 2.2 pounds, one-tenth of a standard barbecue tank, and the American limit was 4 ounces.

But change may be finally coming. Again, we learn from McKenna that the little-known Switzerland-based International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), which sets international standards, approved the use of R-290. The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) in Washington D.C. tells McKenna, “This is a crucial milestone because this sector, the air conditioning sector, needs to transition away from HFCs if we are to even keep the hope alive of staying within a 1.5 degree Celsius warming world.”

The EIA briefing on the approval lists a pile of conditions, including "sufficient airflow and/or installed gas detector to ensure detection of leaks," safety shutoffs, installation restrictions, and testing. Most importantly, there are still big restrictions on the quantity of refrigerant: "up to 988 [2.2 pounds] grams of R290 in a standard split AC system." That's not much when most air conditioners use 2 to 4 pounds of refrigerant per ton of cooling, although as we noted, you need less with R-290.

However, according to the EIA, this approval is not the end of the journey. "In key markets such as the United States, European Union, China, and Japan, the updated IEC standard will first need to be adopted by national or regional safety standards bodies. In some cases, updates may also need to flow into additional building codes and other regulations before adoption occurs."

There are standards, there are building codes, and then we can't forget the good old Underwriters Laboratories; all of this takes time. The EIA notes the U.S. was late in converting fridges to R-600a:

"We can’t afford the same delay in U.S. adoption for the much larger and much more impactful HVAC sector. ACs and heat pumps include a much greater variety of equipment and applications, which means the process may be more complex. There’s no time to waste. The potential costs of inaction are too great to ignore for the industry, their customers and our climate."

This is why we need political action on the level of the Defense Production Act for refrigerants. If the U.S. is going to ramp up production of heat pumps, it also has to ramp down production of HFC refrigerants. Waiting for the normal process of code revision and ULC approval could take a decade, especially with the chemical industry fighting all the way to keep producing the stuff.

The President has called for more heat pumps; he has to fix what's inside them too.

View Article Sources
  1. "Fourth Assessment Report." Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

  2. "Briefing on the IEC Standards Proposal for Air Conditioning." Environmental Investigation Agency.