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Recent Regulations in the Air-Conditioning Industry: Impact on Owners and Installers

Over the last fifteen years or so, Government has taken important measures, which have caused fundamental changes in the refrigeration, air-conditioning, heatpump, (and fire protection) industries, greatly affecting manufacturers, installers and end-users.  These changes all stem from the discovery that the release of certain gases into the atmosphere cause damage to the planetary environment.

Considering the air-conditioning and heatpump industry, there are three main types of refrigerants: Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC); hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFC); and Hydrofluorocarbons (HFC).

In 1995, CFCs were phased out of use and banned in the UK; from January 2010, HCFCs such as the commonly used R22 will be phased out, with new/virgin stocks banned.

The industry-approved types of refrigerant that can be used after January 2010 include HFCs.  These do not include chlorine and are classed as ozone-friendly.  The more commonly used HFC refrigerants include: R407c, later overtaken by R410a, which is more stable in larger systems and generally more efficient, and R134a in chillers and widely used in vehicle air-conditioning.

Depletion of the Ozone Layer

The ozone layer is a layer of the earth's atmosphere, between 10-50 km above the Earth's surface, containing high concentrations of ozone (O3).  Ozone is naturally produced in the upper atmosphere, near the equator, and settles in an ozone layer around the planet.  The layer filters some types of ultraviolet light, which would otherwise pass through to the surface and potentially damage life forms, causing skin cancer, cataracts, immune system deficiencies, etc in humans.

CFC and HCFC gases both contain chlorine and, when released, the chlorine separates from the compound and breaks down ozone (O3) into plain oxygen (O2).  This reaction repeats continuously, thinning out and even opening up holes in the ozone layer, reducing the vital protection it affords.

Greenhouse Gases and
Global Warming

Quite separate to the depletion of the ozone layer is the global warming situation.

The atmosphere allows most solar energy through to the earth's surface where it is absorbed and warms the planet.  Some energy is re-radiated away but the greenhouse gases in the troposphere trap much of this re-radiated energy, and this also helps to warm the planet.  A natural balance is achieved between the energy coming down to the surface and that reflected and lost to space.

However an imbalance occurs with the additional carbon dioxide (C02), methane, fluorocarbons, nitrous oxide, created by human activities.  When released into the atmosphere, these gases add to the collection of greenhouse gases and cause an imbalance, giving rise to important global warming and climate changes.

As regards fluorocarbons, the CFCs were phased out in 1995, and HCFCs (including R22) have begun phase-out since January 2010, with no new refrigerant available since that date.  The HFC refrigerants (including R407c, R410a, and R134a) that remain in use, as the main industry-approved replacements for the phased-out refrigerants, are ozone-friendly but they are greenhouse gases when released with significant global warming potential.

The Montreal and the Kyoto Protocols

Stemming from the 1987 Montreal Protocol and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the UK government created many Regulations to address these environmental threats, which include:

a) The 1994 Management Licensing Regulations and the 1990 Environmental Protection Act require careful disposal of refrigerants by registered handlers at Authorised Refrigerant Disposal Depots, without harm to the environment or health.  Venting of refrigerant to atmosphere is illegal with significant penalties.

b) In the 1990s, CFCs were banned in the UK.

c) In 2002, the UK banned sales and imports of R22 equipment, with sales of certain smaller air-conditioning equipment permitted up until 2004.  After this time there were no further sales of any R22 equipment in the UK.

d) Since January 2010, the manufacture or import of virgin/new R22 Refrigerant has ben banned in the UK, along with sales of the same.  Stocks of R22 refrigerant salvaged from existing systems may be reused.

Definitions for RECYCLED refrigerant and RECLAIMED refrigerant:

RECYCLED R22 refrigerant has been recovered from a system and received only a basic cleaning process, such as mechanical filtering and moisture removal.  Recycled refrigerant may not be sold, transferred, supplied or made available to third persons, whether for payment of free of charge.  It can only be reused in systems owned by the same owner.

RECLAIMED R22 refrigerant has been recovered from a system and chemically reprocessed to a specified standard by a reclamation facility (and labelled as such).  It may be sold on or transferred to other certified refrigerant handlers for use on other sites.

e) From 1st January 2015, sales of all types of R22 refrigerant - whether new or salvaged - will be banned in the UK.

f) Since July 2007, the responsible person for an air-conditioning system was selected as the owner of the system, or the tenant's representative if a lease requires them to deal with the maintenance and repairs of the systems.  The responsible person in that organisation is called The Operator.

g) Since July 2007, Operators of air-conditioning systems must arrange for mandatory leak-inspections by certified engineers.  These inspections are required annually for systems containing more than 3kg of refrigerant; every 6 months for systems with more than 30kg; and every 3 months for systems with more than 300kg.  Additionally, systems with more than 300kg must be monitored with leak-detection system.

h) Since July 2007, upon discovery of a refrigerant leak, the Operator must ensure that certified engineers repair the system with haste, and the system must be rechecked within one month to ensure the repair was successful.

i) Since July 2007, Operators must keep records for each system, recording leak testing details and any refrigerant added or removed from their system(s).

j) Since July 2007, systems containing refrigerant must have a permanent indelible label to show which refrigerant and the full weight of refrigerant in the system: the 'equipment charge' plus any additional 'top-up' added during commissioning for longer systems.

k) Since July 2007, Operators must ensure that all engineers involved with installation, maintenance or repair of refrigerant air-conditioning and heatpump systems have passed one of the following formal assessments for the Safe Handling of Refrigerants: City&Guilds 2078; CITB J0; City&Guilds 2079; or CITB J11-14.  Engineers without one of these four qualifications may not work on refrigerant systems.

l) Since July 2009, all companies employing engineers to install, maintain or repair refrigerant air-conditioning systems must be registered.  There are several government-approved authorities that are authorised to register businesses to carry out this type of work, including Refcom and Quidos.  Companies that are not registered may not carry out work on refrigerant air-conditioning and heatpump systems, and refrigerant suppliers may not provide refrigerants to unregistered businesses.