Despite CFCs being banned in new equipment since 1995, many CFC chillers are still in use. Contracting Business interviewed a panel of chiller experts, to talk about the phaseout, refrigerants, and chillers of the future.
The Montreal Protocol mandates that all chillers operating on "outlawed" CFC refrigerants be replaced or reengineered for refrigerant changeouts by January 1, 2010. However, the size and cost of a chiller puts replacement at the top of everyone's list of "Things To Do Later." In fact, the Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI) estimates that nearly 40% of all CFC chillers are still in use.
Contracting Business interviewed five chiller executives to learn their perspectives on chiller replacements, and the global chiller industry of tomorrow.
Expansive & Expensive
The time, money, planning, and possible building modification required to replace a chiller has caused procrastination among many building owners who would much rather spend their time on other green building-related issues.
"A building manager prefers to address lighting, controls, and ventilation," says Hugh Crowther, vice president of engineering and product management for McQuay International, Minneapolis, MN.
"When it comes to chiller replacement, they realize that at a cost of $200/ton, and another $100/ton to install it, there's often a lengthy payback. And, there are many situations that present difficult installation scenarios, such as getting a chiller to the top of a 30-story building, or down to the basement."
Building managers who follow preventive and scheduled maintenance programs find that their chillers are working fine, and simply feel no sense of urgency to replace them, says Mark Weldy, vice president of systems product management for Trane, Piscataway, NJ.
"Chillers are lasting longer, leaking less, and keeping occupants comfortable and productive," says Weldy. "Changing out a chiller is a big job, and when the chiller is working, convenience comes into play."
Larry Kouma, manager of large tonnage package chillers for the Engineered Systems Group of York, a Johnson Controls Company, says that while 40% of all CFC chillers remain in use, many of those are not "critical operation units," and are primarily used as back-ups, or emergency units.
"They've got a unit that works, period. It may not be the best or most efficient unit, but it's there in case of an emergency," says Kouma.
"With few exceptions, refrigerant recycling and handling practices have provided the market's supply of recovered and recycled CFCs."
"A 400-ton chiller can cost $80,000 plus $40,000 to install," says Crowther. And you're spending $20,000 per year to run the chiller. Even if it costs $30,000 per year to run the chiller, it's going to take four years to pay for it, plus maintenance.
"It's hard to get a building owner with a trouble-free chiller to spend $120,000 to change it. The economic argument tells them they should run it into the ground."
Chiller maintenance costs, he adds, are not a guaranteed motivator, because a repair cost often has less impact than the sticker shock of chiller replacement. By contrast, major breakdowns can provide strong motivation.
Therefore, Crowther believes, forward-thinking building owners will replace chillers early, to avoid a worst-case scenario of unexpected chiller failure.
"Changouts," he says, "are going to be driven by a desire to provide a better level of service to the building occupants."
Low Refrigerant Costs
Stable prices and adequate supplies of refrigerants — including those marked for obsolescence — have also kept building owners' attention off of chiller up-grades until it becomes absolutely necessary to act.
R-11 and R-12 will eventually disappear, but for now they are available as reclaimed refrigerants.
"CFC refrigerant is available and affordable," says Weldy, "so the cost of service remains reasonable and affordable for building owners."
"The cost of R-11 and R-12 has gone up, but there is adequate supply," agrees Bill Rial, president of screw chiller manufacturer Dunham-Bush, Harrisonburg, VA.
"Therefore, when a building owner compares the cost of maintaining the centrifugal chiller against the capital cost of replacement, if the existing one is adequate, there's not much incentive to changeout chillers," says Rial. "Eventually, R-11 and R-12 chillers will fail, or R-11 and R-12 centrifugal chillers will become economically unfeasible, and they'll be changed out."
Do Service Issues Increase Over Time?
Weldy says responsible building owners are not experiencing service issues as these chillers age, because they've been diligent about maintaining them.
"We haven't seen any unusual additional service issues, as long as the machine is well-maintained, based upon the manufacturers' requirements," says Weldy.
"One reason we aren't seeing any additional service issues with Trane chillers, is because we've always engineered centrifugal chillers to be low pressure, direct-drive, multi-stage, and semi-hermetic; a design for a lifetime of reliable operation."
Still, Trane believes the large number of CFC chillers in use offer update/replacement opportunities, as the 2010 deadline approaches. Trane's position on the chiller replacement issue is that the improved efficiency possible with new chillers is a good reason for building owners to consider replacement.
Weldy believes new technology and economic factors will ultimately hold sway over the replace/changeout decision.
"As chillers become more and more efficient, and as energy costs rise, the economics suggest that it's more cost-effective in the long run to replace the chiller," says Weldy.
And that could be a long time. According to Weldy, unless regulations change, the industry can expect to see CFC chillers in use through 2030, "because the equipment is reliable, service is available, and refrigerant remains cost effective."
Pavaan Bharteey, manager of applied equipment sales for Carrier Corp., says parts and quaified technicians are becoming scarce.
"There was a big shift, when we went to the 134a design versus R-11 and R-12. The new era machines are more efficient, and require less maintenance.
"I think owners often try to maintain older chillers as if they're new machines. The biggest issue is parts availability and finding qualified technicians."
"Screw chillers can run for 400,000 hours on the same screws," says Rial. "With a screw chiller, you check the oil once each quarter, and that tells you where you're at on the life of the screw, and you watch your efficiencies.
"Our market is more focused on older chillers in the replacement market, those that are 30-40 years old. Some of the industry's chillers are designed to last 15 to 25 years, so those are being replaced before screw chillers are replaced."
Refrigerant Changeout Option
According to our experts, efficiency and capacity often slips during a refrigerant changeout, while the cost for the conversion can be very high. This helps explain why very few of the 80,000+ installed chillers have been converted.
"If you don't have to pull out the heat exchangers, you can utilize new, non-CFC refrigerant without incurring a full installation cost of a new chiller," says Kouma, "however, on the downside, your existing heat exchangers may not be optimized for the refrigerant you change to; so you're going to be sacrificing efficiency, and giving up some capacity.
"If you have an R-11 unit, and you want to drop R-123 into it, you're going to give up capacity," says Kouma. "Your 300-ton chiller isn't going to be 300 tons anymore, and the efficiency is going to be degraded a bit."
Crowther suggests contractors share with building owners the negative impact a changeout alone can have on the bottom line, especially if the compressor is modified.
"Before you know it, it's a $50,000 conversion," reasons Crowther, "and it would have cost $120,000 to buy a new chiller."
"If you do a refrigerant changeout, the new refrigerants eat up the linings, motor linings, and gaskets in the older machines, and you have to changeout all of those things in order to regain capacity and efficiency," explains Bharteey.
"The cost fast approaches that of a new machine. Tha't why we're not really seeing too many changeouts anymore."
Technological Advances Abound
An unnamed scientist once said, "Research is the art of seeing what everyone else has seen, and doing what no one else has done," which pretty accurately describes the challenge of leading OEMs, and their work with chiller technology. They all know how chillers work, and how to build one. Their ongoing mission, however, is to build them better, for improved performance and efficiency.
"At McQuay, heat exchanger performance is key," says Crowther. "Much research is being done to get what we call 'really close approaches,' and develop super efficient heat exchangers.
"The next piece is improving the thermodynamics of the compressor. McQuay's 24-hour research and development center is remapping compressor curves, trying to squeeze every little bit out of it. The smallest change in the shape of the inlet and outlet cones gives you parts of a percent of improvement."
"A Carrier-first innovation is applying the use of variable frequency drives (VFDs) on a water-cooled screw chiller," says Bharteey. "It's an extremely efficient machine at all operating parameters. It provides carefree operation of the screw with the energy benefits of a VFD."
"Dunham-Bush focuses our technology on designing chillers with small footprints," says Rial.
"Fourteen out of our 19 sizes — up to 100 tons — have the smallest footprint in the industry, and the highest integrated part load values (IPLVs) in the industry — from 13.5 to 15.0. They're also very quiet, at 59dbA.
"Our Direct Expansion line features a patented inner fin, which forces the refrigerant between the aluminum and the copper wall, for very high heat transfer. We have the most compact heat transfer vessels in the industry," Rial says.
"Our water cooled chillers don't require pump out units, and they're tolerant of inverted start-up, which is a real plus."
Trane guarantees its centrifugal chillers will leak less than 0.5% per year, which it says is currently the lowest documented leak rate in the industry. Efficiency has also been of high priority.
"Trane has worked hard to make our EarthWise CenTraVac the most efficient centrifugal chiller on the market today, up to 13.5% more efficient than the next available chiller." says Weldy.
Larry Kouma is impressed by the many improvements made to chillers over the last couple of decades by all manufacturers, including leak-tight design, vastly improved efficiencies, and user-friendly controls.
"The packaging, controls, and diagnostics have resulted in better feedback and better information, which means the person who's running the unit gets that information in better detail, or in a more timely fashion," says Kouma.
"They can take proactive measures to keep the chiller running and in good condition, rather than waiting for it to break down."
Refrigerants of Choice
None of the experts CB interviewed expressed the concern that the industry is tardy in developing alternative refrigerants. Non-ozone depleting replacement formulas have been approved, and those are at the top of everyone's list.
"We see a migration to R-407C for direct expansion chillers," says Rial, "and for flooded systems, we see a migration toward R-134a. We believe the industry will continue to use R-22 for a very long time. There are about 5 million residential and unitary products produced each year, and a vast majority are made for R-22, which is a very effective refrigerant."
"Trane believes in providing customers with the right refrigerant in the right product, at the right time," says Weldy, "which means that we will use refrigerants in our large chillers that are energy efficient, environmentally responsible, and are good for our customers' business and compliant with the regulatory environment."
"If you're a scroll compressor manufacturer, R-410A is a great refrigerant because you can get a lot of capacity with a very small machine," says Crowther.
"R-410A is not a perfect refrigerant, in that it is challenged in hot, ambient conditions such as Arizona or the Middle East. However, for water-cooled conditions, R-410A is an excellent refrigerant. It seems to be the refrigerant of choice, so all the scroll compressor manufacturers are switching to R-410A as fast as they can.
"Screw compressors will probably all run on R-134a. The screw compressor's are great for larger sizes, but they get expensive in small sizes. And as you get down to smaller sizes, you have to decide at what point you should switch over to an R-410A scroll compressor. Can you build a 50-ton screw compressor competitively? The jury's out on that." "When a clear, high-efficiency, chlorine-free solution exists, why bother using HCFCs" asks Bharteey.
"Carrier made the commitment to 134a in the early 90s; we never went to the HCFCs. Now, everyone's starting to use 134a, and we know we made the right decision."
"R-22 is definitely going away," says Kouma, "and for water-cooled chillers of 200 tons and larger, R-22 has already been shoved out the door. Data from ARI and industry estimates show a clear shift from the transitional HCFCs to HFCs; and for large tonnage, clearly 134a is the one that has seen the greatest popularity, and a very strong preference."
New Construction or Replacement?
Experts CB spoke with are split as far as which category is more popular, renovation or replacement.
"Trane is seeing large commercial, lodging, and institutional owners purchase large chillers for active expansion and renovation projects as opposed to strictly replacement or green field projects," says Weldy.
Crowther sees replacements in the lead. "I'd guess that more than half the machines we sell are replacements; it's probably closer to 75%." says Crowther.
"There are 40,000 chillers that haven't been changed because replacements are generally tied in with a renovation of an existing building, as opposed to a greenfield construction."
Contractors as Counselors
Contractors can position themselves as experts on new construction or replacement issues.
"A lot of building owners look to the contractor as a third party, independent industry expert," says Bharteey.
"Manufacturers look to the contractors and industry peers who work on our equipment as a great source of feedback when we update and design new products."
"You start a construction project today, and it takes you 18 months to build it, you only have two years left on that chiller before 2010," notes Crowther.
"Therefore, the contractor will be the first person the building owner goes to with questions on the R-22 changeout."
Crowther says contractors should focus their efforts on learning the facts, and be ready to explain to customers their choices, and the ramifications for new construction projects.
Refrigerant Reclamation a Key Issue
Refrigeration reclamation and disposal is an issue that will have great implications for the ill-prepared.
"If a contractor or building manager has a lot of refrigerant stored, that will become a serious liability in 2020," warns Crowther, who says the issue is an opportunity for service contractors to help building owners devise plans to properly dispose of all stored refrigerant by 2020.
"If you own any of that reclaimed refrigerant, there's still a client base that wants to buy it from you today. However, when those last 40,000 chillers are gone, and you have 5,000 lbs. of expired refrigerant, you may be forced to pay a significant cost to dispose of it."
The Global Chiller Industry
It's natural to imagine a mad rush to replace CFC chillers as the 2010 deadline approaches, but our experts don't see that happening, and they generally believe that not all CFC chillers will be replaced by 2010.
"Most of the people I speak with want to understand what is happening to products including chillers under 200-tons," says Crowther. The sub-200 ton chillers include everyone with a 10-ton chiller on their rooftop, from small store-fronts, to almost every school. People are trying to understand what's going to happen to R-22. That's only four years away."
"I would expect the majority of the last 40% will be changed out over the next 10 years, as a matter of course, says Kouma.
"Shipments of the latest generation units that used the old CFC refrigerants were stopped in 1994, so those units will be nearing 20 years old by 2010. They'll be close to the end of their lifespan, even as a spare unit or as a back-up unit."
Until that time, Kouma believes only equipment failure, incentives, or new regulations will accelerate the changeout process.
"I don't see natural market drivers that are going to change the dynamics of chiller replacements over the next 10 years," says Kouma. "Proactive programs by both industry-supported ARI and the Environmental Protection Agency currently in development will help to accelerate safe CFC destruction and promote CFC chiller replacements."
CB CHILLER PANEL
Hugh Crowther, vice president of engineering and product management for McQuay International, Minneapolis, MN.
Mark Weldy, vice president of systems product management for Trane, Piscataway, NJ.
Larry Kouma, manager of large tonnage package chillers for the Engineered Systems Group of York, a Johnson Controls Company.
Bill Rial, president of Dunham-Bush, Harrisonburg, VA.
Pavaan Bharteey, manager of applied equipment sales, Carrier Corp., Indianapolis, IN.
THE REFRIGERANTS: WHAT'S IN, WHAT'S OUT
R-11 & R-12: once the most common CFCs for large air conditioning systems and low pressure chillers. Now available only through reclamation, and only for systems currently in use. R-22: another old favorite, for high-pressure chillers; will not be produced after 2010, and it can't be used in new equipment after 2010. A small amount will be manufactured to service existing equipment until 2020.
R-123: this HCFC will be available for new equipment until 2020, but no replacement has been found. Used almost exclusively in negative-pressure centrifugal chillers, R-123 replaces CFC R-11. From 2020 to 2030 it will be available only for service; available only from reclamation after 2030.
R-134a: the HFC of choice for the green era, this is a direct replacement for R-12, and it has become an industry favorite. "If you buy equipment that uses R-134a, you're prepared for the future," says McQuay's Hugh Crowther.
R-245fa: may work as a replacement for R-123; operates at a slightly higher pressure and cannot be used as a replacement in existing equipment.
R-407C: Popular replacement for R-22. Very similar, but not identical to R-22 in its performance as a refrigerant. If retrofitting R-22 systems, consult the original equipment manufacturer for specific guidelines for R-407C.
R-410A: Approved, popular refrigerant for use in unitary air conditioners; about 5% more efficient than R-22.
Sources: Honeywell Intenational; HRAI; McQuay International; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.