The present view from the cooling industry in Europe has something of an air of déjà vu about it.

There are tightening markets, and therefore significantly rising costs for higher-GWP refrigerants like R404A. The industry is dealing with general consternation from end-users that they are having to pay more than they forecast even a year or two ago, and mild panic from AC contractors that R410A is no longer available from some wholesalers.

Additionally, there’s apathy and indifference from a large volume of smaller customers who simply don’t realize that they should be planning to exit these higher-GWP gases quick-smart, or find themselves in a whole heap of trouble. Or at least a lot of cost.

These views were all represented, or reported, as expected at RAC’s recent F-Gas Question Time. And to these I should add one more element: the persistent clarion calls from those whose job it is to forecast refrigerant use that doing nothing is not an option, particularly since the first F-Gas ban on servicing with higher-GWP refrigerants for supermarket-sized systems comes into force in just 18 months.

Question Time is an annual event where our aim since we began four years ago has been to bring the supply chain together to thrash out the main issues around the F-Gas legislation.

As I said to the audience last month, the difference this year was that previously our discussions were about hypothetical situations and what-ifs, whereas now it is very a discussion about the reality on the ground.

All those factors mentioned are vexing the industry now, but since they have all been covered by me often enough, there’s not much to say about them again. Suffice to say, the clock is ticking and the closer the deadlines get for bans and the closer the next big drop in HFC quota comes (in 2021, by the way), the worse the price and availability situation will get in Europe.

For readers in the U.S. other parts of the world, where a similar quota system will start kicking in under the terms of the Kigali Agreement, the message has to be to communicate to customers and contractors that the earlier the moves to lower-GWP are planned, the less pain will be suffered.

That is the short-term reality, but there were some interesting insights from the assembled group at Question Time around a longer-term approach for what we might term a “sustainable low-GWP cooling industry."

It centers around two key issues: improved refrigerant containment and recycling. There was a consensus among speakers at the event that we need to effectively foster a new culture in the industry where these two factors are much more prioritized. It was agreed that we haven’t been that great at containment over the years, at least in U.K. refrigeration, although we are vastly better than we used to be. Meanwhile, in recycling and reclamation, the industry hasn’t been very good at all.

The audience at Question Time was encouraged to start thinking in terms of prizing the refrigerant as a valuable asset, rather than the cheap commodity it has been historically. This change of view will inform working practices amongst contractors as much as stricter procedures from end-users.

This has a practical intent as much as anything else as the HFC quota reduces the available stocks of new gas, the industry needs to keep more of the refrigerant it has already got in its possession, whether that is through stopping its leaking, or reclaiming it once it is recovered from the system.

Speakers said that the new culture will mean contractors and end-users need to work more together on intensified efforts to stop leakage, while at the same time finding ways to recycle and reclaim higher volumes than it is currently doing.

A key phrase was used by Mark Woods, who as managing director of the U.K.’s largest contractor Space Engineering (incidentally, owned by a U.S. firm, HillPhoenix) is at the sharp end of containment. He said, "We need to ‘make every kilo of refrigerant a prisoner’." Woods also said that contractors need to work harder on containment than they ever have before, as the refrigerant in current systems becomes progressively scarcer and, as a result, more costly.

That view was agreed with by Ray Gluckman, who as a consultant has extensively looked at the way refrigerant demand might play out as the HFC quotas reduce. He agreed containment could be a major long-term factor. He said, "If we can reduce leakage in commercial refrigeration, it will reduce demand in one of the bigger parts of the market."

It was generally agreed that there is also a responsibility on end-users to prioritize containment, especially given that many supermarkets have systems that are growing old.

Adrian Crowther, Co-operative Group’s technical standards and design manager, noted that it is important to keep good records of the refrigerant to keep on top of the leakage issues. He said, "I think accurate recording of leakage is an area that needs improvement. I think this could be masking the true extent of leakage."

But the second part of the dual approach to "preserving refrigerant" is more focus on reclaiming refrigerant particularly as the HFC quota heads for another major drop in volume in 2021.

Graham Wright, legal specialist at air conditioning giant Daikin, called for new era of partnership between suppliers and contractors, to tackle the major problem of refrigerant wasted after it comes out of systems. Wright cited Daikin research that suggested around 65 percent of the annual volume of R410A used for service and maintenance in the U.K. is simply wasted.

Wright said, "The message should be ‘reclaim at all cost.’ We just can’t afford to be wasting that volume anymore." Furthermore, he said that aside from refrigerant recovered from systems, the firm’s research had discovered huge wastage at the end of life of AC systems, when the units go to waste processors with little or none of the system refrigerant returned for use.

Wright said there needed to be action at all levels. "We want to work with partners [on reclaiming and recycling schemes], but we also need to put pressure on our installers not to let the refrigerant go. This, I believe is a wake-up call."

Gluckman agreed, noting, "It is a very important point — we need reclaimed refrigerant if we are to survive the [upcoming 2021] cut in quota in my opinion…"

He also pointed out that there is a very clear financial incentive for the industry for reclaiming refrigerant such as R404A and R410A amidst their spiraling price rises. He said, "There is now a major financial driver to support reclaim. If new refrigerant costs £100/kg to buy, but a much lower amount to reprocess, the logic for reclaiming needs no further explanation."

"Make every kilo a prisoner" is a catchphrase that the cooling industry in Europe needs to make second nature and one that the U.S. should take to heart as well if it is to create a sustainable future.