I have written before about how the combination of the forthcoming bans on higher-GWP refrigerants in the European F-Gas regulations and mandated reductions in the HFCs being sold into the EU are in danger of catching the end-users on the hop. Simply put, if customers don't soon convert to lower-GWP options, they will be faced with two troubling possibilities:

  • At best, more expense in topping up, as the prices will inevitably rise significantly as stocks run low
  • At worst, not enough refrigerant at all

Experts in the sector predict refrigerant prices will start to reflect the CO2 equivalent, making the higher-GWP gases increasingly more expensive.

Because the phasedown mechanism is based on a steadily reducing quota system, it requires a significant volume of customers to convert out of the higher-GWPs, or there simply won't be enough quota left to supply existing systems. And that could mean serious problems, the experts who have crunched the numbers fear.

People don't like to talk about crisis, but it is clear the pace of conversions need to increase.

"There is a lot more action required from the industry — we won't meet the phasedown quota if we simply wait for the bans," consultant Ray Gluckman says.

Well, the problem is as I first wrote about a year ago the customers don't appear to be taking much notice of the impending urgency of the situation. In fact, the consensus among experts in the field is that a mixture of apathy, ignorance and unwillingness to release budget was preventing much movement at all and more must be done by the suppliers to get customers to understand the severity of the situation.

Many manufacturers, contractors and consultants consider themselves ready for the changes to low-GWP refrigerants, but none seem to think their customers are ready.

If the global talks about HFC phasedowns come to fruition, those reading in the U.S. will likely have their own timescales to work to by the end of the year. They would do well to consider how to win the battle for hearts and minds among customers.

The main challenge for the users of refrigeration is that reducing the GWP of their systems will inevitably mean a change in their custom and practice, since the majority of the lower-GWP options being released are designated as mildly flammable.

In Europe, there is now a bit more optimism that a key piece of standards-setting EN378 will finally give end-users some confidence about the use of these refrigerants.

With refrigerant manufacturers Chemours and Honeywell both preparing to launch mildly flammable HFO blends later in the year, and AC supplier Daikin starting to roll out R32 in split systems in Europe, there was agreement that the long-awaited revision to EN378 expected in October would boost customer confidence. The new EN378 sets out the charge limits for A2L use in buildings, and sets out new risk management methods by which flammables such as hydrocarbons can be used safely.

Some European countries, such as France and Italy, have EN378 enshrined in their building regulations, so won't even consider specification of mildly flammables until the new standard setting out their safe use is published.

Gluckman warned again that a forthcoming drop in HFC quota in 2018 a cut of 44 percent on 2017 levels would have an impact on the price of higher-GWP refrigerants such as R404A: "It can only mean a massive jump in prices."

Robert Kebby of refrigerant manufacturer Honeywell said the message needed to be spread widely that the market must change.

"We expect there to be shortages in 2018 when the quota drops, and that will not be good for the industry," Kebby said. "It is our job to make the changes as painless as possible. We need to get the message to governments and to consultants as well as to end users that they need to change."

There was a feeling from suppliers that their customers just didn't appreciate the need for change, because the price of the higher-GWP refrigerants in the UK dominated by R404A had not yet climbed to a point where they would reach a tipping point. With the price of the new HFOs still relatively high in comparison, customers currently don't see the advantage in undertaking the upheaval of conversions.

While many suppliers think customers need to be persuaded to change, there is some pushback from the big retail end-users. Adrian Crowther of the Co-operative Group supermarkets challenged the suppliers to meet the retailers' demand for equipment that used lower-GWP refrigerants, such as CO2, hydrocarbons and HFOs.

"We need support from the supply chain to keep cost parity on the new solutions," Crowther said. "There is a definite move among retailers in the British Refrigeration Association towards control of HFCs. I have pushed back to manufacturers who won't provide the kit we require, and I have told them we will drop them if they don't change their stance."

In response, Tim Mitchell of chiller supplier Klima-Therm said: "I think the supply side is ready to move on equipment new refrigerants, but only once they know the demand is there in volume from customers."

Getting the low-GWP message through to customers, then, remains the main challenge for the European refrigeration industry. The focus will be on making that message simpler and more direct. Again, that is a lesson the U.S. industry could take on board for its future phasedown strategies.