Future legislation on HCs – who is responsible?

By John Ackermann
As hydrocarbons such as propane and isobutane become more common in local applications, there is a concern about the regulations.

Many bottle coolers seen in shops, stores and restaurants in South Africa are charged with propane (R290) while many domestic fridges are charged with isobutane (R600a). Hydrocarbons (HCs) have zero ozone depleting potential (ODP) and a very low global warming potential (GWP) i.e. less than 4 GWP.

Hydrocarbon systems have high energy performance and require much less charge than HFCs for similar cooling capacity.For safety reasons, the refrigerant charge per circuit is (currently) limited to 150g to avoid possible “explosions” in the event of all the charge leaking into the surrounding environment and the concentration level exceeding the safe limit.

HC001Many bottle coolers in retail outlets are charged with R290.. Photos by: John Ackermann

Although hydrocarbon refrigerants offer many environmental advantages, such systems require special skills for the servicing, maintenance and repair. Hydrocarbon systems require specific design considerations and the selection of components that do not pose the risk of explosions.

Having the refrigerant charge limited to 150g, the required safety compliance falls within that for household appliances and outside that of SANS 10147. Because of its low environmental impact and high performance levels, there was an international call to increase the maximum HC charge to 500g per circuit as this will extend the benefits to larger split air conditioners, packaged commercial refrigeration units and equipment for transport refrigeration. (This regulation regarding the proposed increase to 500g was passed in April after a recount of initially unfavourable votes.)

A higher charge will most likely result in more stringent compliance with safety standards similar to all other refrigerants. With South Africa being solely reliant on imports of all the available synthetic refrigerants, a swing towards natural refrigerants (hydrocarbons, ammonia, CO2) offers a sustainable long-term solution towards low carbon footprint cooling systems.

Considering what has been said, the difficulty in trying to establish who serves on the South African committee, asked to vote on the International Electrotechnical Commission’s (IEC’s) proposal to increase the HC charge limit to 500g, seems incomprehensible. After many attempts prior to 12 April 2019, the closing date of votes on the IEC proposal to increase the HC limit, no contact details of any committee member could be found to discuss the pros or cons of the vote on the IEC proposal.

A higher charge will most likely result in more stringent compliance with safety standards similar to all other refrigerants.

The IEC is a worldwide organisation for standardisation comprising all national electrotechnical committees (IEC National Committees). The object of IEC is to promote international co-operation on all questions concerning standardisation in the electrical and electronic fields. To this end, and in addition to other activities, IEC publishes international standards, technical specifications, technical reports, Publicly Available Specifications (PAS) and Guides. The preparation of such guides and standards is entrusted to technical committees; any IEC National Committee interested in the subject dealt with may participate in this preparatory work. International, governmental and non-governmental organisations liaising with IEC also participate in this preparation. IEC collaborates closely with the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) in accordance with conditions determined by agreement between the two organisations.

HC002Domestic refrigerators are mostly charged with HC R600a (isobutane).Domestic refrigerators are mostly charged with HC R600a (isobutane).

The formal decisions or agreements of IEC on technical matters express, as nearly as possible, an international consensus of opinion on the relevant subjects since each technical committee has representation from all interested IEC National Committees.

As far as can be established, the voting rights of South Africa and its participation in the IEC on the standard relating to the safety of household and similar appliances, and in particular the requirements for commercial refrigerating appliances and ice makers with an incorporated or remote refrigerant unit or motor compressor, rests with the SC061 committee of the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS).

HC003The availability of compressors and components for R290 (propane) is an influencing factor on the choice of refrigerant for new systems.The availability of compressors and components for R290 (propane) is an influencing factor on the choice of refrigerant for new systems.

There are perceived safety risks and potential dangers surrounding the use of hydrocarbon refrigerants in domestic and commercial air-conditioning and refrigeration applications. These misconceptions can be minimised by the enforcement of standards, which are drafted by persons who are familiar with the conditions at ground level and have the required technical expertise.

If role players in the refrigeration and air-conditioning industry are unable to discuss their concerns or require information regarding the use of HCs, because of not being able to contact the drafting committee, there could be grave consequences on the safe use of HCs in South Africa and a reluctance to gain from maximum charge being increased to 500g per circuit (which has since been approved).

In closing, as far as can be established, South Africa abstained from voting on the increase in charge from 150g to 500g. As to the reason for not voting, who knows?

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