Many of the refrigerants used for heat transfer in refrigeration and air conditioning systems (A/C) are harmful to the environment or human health. As a result, refrigerants are regulated under
Title VI of the Clean Air Act. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) regulations governing refrigerants can be found at
40 CFR 82. Many retail facilities have refrigeration or A/C equipment that are covered by the regulations and have legal requirements for handing, maintenance, and documentation.
There are three main categories of refrigeration equipment typically found in retail facilities:
Stationary and mobile A/C equipment also use refrigerants. Stationary A/C equipment, i.e., comfort cooling equipment, provides indoor air conditioning and is often located on the building roof. Vehicles usually have motor vehicle A/C (MVAC).
Why are refrigerants regulated?
Ozone-depletion. Refrigerants were originally made of ODSs called chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFC), which are commonly called by the trade name, Freon®. These refrigerants either have been or are in the process of being phased out, meaning that production and importation is banned or is being incrementally reduced and will be banned in the future.
HCFC-22, also known as R-22, is the most commonly used refrigerant in stationary commercial refrigeration and A/C equipment. R-22 is also a component in refrigerant blends with non-ODS refrigerants. Examples of blends containing R-22 include R-401A and R-402A. Other HCFCs used as refrigerants, but to a much lesser degree than R-22, include:
Climate change. In addition to being ODSs, CFCs and HCFCs are highly potent greenhouse gases (GHGs) with high global warming potentials (GWP). Hydroflourocarbons (HFC), which have been used as substitutes for CFCs and HCFCs due to their lower ODP, are also highly potent GHGs. As a result, these refrigerants may be subject to regulations and requirements governing GHG emissions.
To limit the impact of these potent GHG refrigerant substitutes, EPA expanded the scope of the refrigerant regulations in November 2016, by revising the definition of refrigerant to include ODS refrigerants and substitutes. This was primarily meant to address emissions of HFCs, but applies to all substitutes. The applicability of the revised refrigerant definition is being phased-in to various refrigerant requirements through January 1, 2019.
Environmentally friendly refrigerants. While ODSs and HFCs have commonly been used as commercial refrigerants, there are alternatives with lower ODP or GWP. These refrigerants include:
EPA’s Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) identifies alternatives to ODS and high GWP refrigerants for specific end uses. See Purchasing Refrigerants and Refrigeration Equipment below for more information.
The United States is a party to the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (Montreal Protocol), which is a landmark international agreement for the protection of the stratospheric ozone layer. The agreement outlines specific measures and timetables for phasing-out the production and import of CFCs and other ODSs, many of which are, or were, used as refrigerants. The Montreal Protocol does not prohibit the use of ozone-depleting chemicals, only their production or import.
In October 2016, the parties to the Montreal Protocol announced an amendment to also phase down HFCs due to their GWP. The production and consumption of HFCs will be reduced by 80 percent over the next 30 years, beginning in 2019.
Class I and II ODSs
The Montreal Protocol divides ODSs into two classes.
Class I substances are the most potent ozone depleters and include all CFCs, as well as other ODSs that cause or contribute significantly to degradation of the stratospheric ozone layer.
Class II substances "are known or reasonably anticipated to cause or contribute to harmful effects on the stratospheric ozone layer." Class II substances are HCFCs, including HCFC-22 and HCFC-142b.
EPA phase-out of ODSs
To limit ODS refrigerants entering commerce in the U.S., the EPA is implementing incremental bans on the production and import of Class I and II ODSs. The ban on the production and import of all Class I ODSs was fully implemented in 1996,
subject to several exemptions.
The phasing-out of Class II ODSs is ongoing. As a party to the Montreal Protocol, the U.S. must incrementally decrease the production and import of HCFCs until a complete phaseout is reached in 2030. The phaseout is proceeding as follows:
In addition, the law provides additional minor exemptions, although they are likely not applicable to retail facilities.
In November 2016, EPA revised the definition of refrigerant to include "any substance, including blends and mixtures, consisting in part or whole of a class I or class II ODS or substitute." Therefore, any refrigerant used to replace a Class I or Class II ODS is or will be regulated in the same manner as an ODS refrigerant, unless it is specifically exempted. The applicability of the revised refrigerant definition is being phased-in to various refrigerant requirements through January 1, 2019.
Since 2001, the sale or distribution of all refrigeration and A/C equipment containing CFCs has been banned. In addition, the sale or distribution of any refrigeration or A/C appliance manufactured after January 1, 2010 and pre-charged with HCFC-22, HCFC-142b, or a blend containing one or both of these refrigerants is banned.
California / South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD)
California is currently the only state aggressively regulating refrigerants. However, the state regulations are focused on the climate change potential of refrigerant emissions, rather than the ozone-depletion potential. As part of the California's Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB 32), the California Air Resources Board (CARB) has taken numerous actions to regulate high GWP substances. These regulations impact:
The state also has plans to regulate refrigerated shipping containers (RSCs), which commonly use HFC-134a. The CARB regulations will include requirements to reduce GHG emissions from RSCs during the entire cold chain process, meaning anyone who might use or decommission an RSC. This includes product producers, shipping companies, the ports, cold storage and product preparers, and product sellers.
Within California, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD), the air quality regulatory agency for Orange County, and portions of Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and Riverside counties, has established regulations governing refrigerants in stationary A/C systems.
Facilities with commercial and retail refrigeration systems that use ammonia must meet requirements or operating procedures to reduce the risks associated with ammonia. EPA’s Chemical Accident Prevention provisions, commonly known as the Risk Management Program (RMP), applies to large refrigeration processes using at least 10,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia or 20,000 pounds of ammonia with a concentration of 20 percent or greater. Facilities not large enough to be covered by the RMP must still minimize risks associated with ammonia. All facilities where extremely hazardous substances are present have a general duty to identify hazards and take actions to prevent and minimize the impacts of accidental releases. This is known as the general duty clause, and it is consistently enforced by EPA.
Ammonia is both flammable and toxic, and can be considered an extremely hazardous substance in this context. As result, ammonia refrigeration systems must comply with the CAA general duty clause, regardless of the quantity of ammonia.
There are no regulations detailing how to comply with the
general duty clause, but the objective is to prevent an accidental release and minimize the consequences of a release. To accomplish this, facilities with ammonia refrigeration systems must:
Each facility is unique and requires site-specific actions to meet the obligations of the general duty clause. At a minimum, facilities must follow recognized industry standards and practices for ammonia refrigeration to be in compliance with the general duty clause. An example of recognized industry standards and practices are those published by the
International Institute for Ammonia Refrigeration.
Only certified technicians can perform maintenance, service, repair, or disposal of equipment that could release a Class I or II ODS refrigerant or substitute refrigerant. Certification is obtained by passing an EPA-approved test given by an
EPA-approved testing organization. If no in-house employees are certified, a maintenance and repair company that employs certified technicians can be hired.
A certified technician is responsible for maintaining, servicing, repairing, or disposing of A/C or refrigeration equipment. No person may knowingly vent an ODS refrigerant or a substitute refrigerant to the atmosphere, except for:
Leaks from refrigeration and A/C equipment is one of the main ways that ODS refrigerants get into the atmosphere. Facilities with equipment containing a full charge of an ODS refrigerant greater than 50 pounds are required to measure the rate of leaking, fix leaks within specified time periods and keep documentation.
The leak rate is the rate at which the equipment is losing refrigerant. It is expressed as a percentage of the appliance’s full charge that would be lost over a 12-month period if the current rate of loss were to continue over that period. The leak rate can be determined using either an annualized method or a rolling average method, but the same method must be used for all refrigeration or A/C equipment at the facility.
Repair requirements are triggered if the leak rate, exceeds the following rates:
Owners of A/C or refrigeration equipment must keep a record of repairs and maintenance procedures, as well as any refrigerant added to the equipment.
Leaking equipment must be repaired within 30 days after determining that the leak rate trigger was exceeded. Additional time is permitted for leak repairs where the repair parts are unavailable.
Equipment owners may retrofit or retire refrigeration or A/C equipment in lieu of repair. In this event, the repair requirement is waived as long as a plan to retrofit or retire the equipment within one year is developed within 30 days after determining that the leak rate trigger has been exceeded or after a failed follow-up verification test, or if good-faith efforts to repair a leak are unsuccessful.
ODS refrigerants may only be purchased by EPA-certified technicians. This purchasing restriction does not apply to refrigeration or A/C equipment containing ODS refrigerants, nor does it apply to the retail sale of such equipment. In addition, the purchasing restriction does not apply to non-ODS refrigerants, such as HFCs, until January 1, 2018. As of that date, the revised refrigerant definition will be applied to the purchasing restriction, and the purchase of ODS and substitute refrigerants, unless specifically exempted, must be done by EPA-certified technicians.
Alternatives / Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP). The EPA established the Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) to review ODS alternatives. Under the policy, the EPA evaluates the risk to human health and the environment, including GWP, of ODS substitutes, and publishes lists of acceptable and unacceptable substitutes by end-use. EPA has identified alternatives for the following end-uses, among others:
Black market ODSs. Anyone purchasing or possessing an ODS is responsible for making sure the substance was produced and obtained legally. Therefore, hiring reputable firms to install and service refrigeration and A/C equipment is paramount. Such firms should be able to document the legality and purity of the refrigerants being used.
In addition to the confiscation of the ODSs, those in possession of illegally obtained ODSs may become the target of an investigation by the U.S. Customs Service, the EPA, and/or the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) that may result in fines or imprisonment.
Retrofitting existing equipment. One solution for equipment using ODS or high GWP refrigerants is to retrofit the equipment to use a more environmentally friendly refrigerant. A retrofit can extend the useful life of refrigeration and A/C equipment, but there are potential pitfalls. Refrigeration equipment designed for one refrigerant may not function at all or as efficiently using a different refrigerant and using a different refrigerant could also create safety problems.
Recover / Reclaim / Recycle
Recover. In general, before disposal of refrigeration or A/C equipment, the refrigerant must be recovered from the equipment, meaning the refrigerant is removed and properly stored. The same refrigerants exempted from the venting prohibition are also not subject these requirements.
A certified technician must recover refrigerant before disposal for refrigeration equipment that is dismantled onsite. Technicians use different methods and equipment depending on the size and age of the equipment and often the recovery equipment must be certified by an EPA-approved organization.
For small appliances that enter the waste stream with the refrigerant charge intact, the final person in the disposal chain (i.e., scrap metal recycler or landfill) is responsible for refrigerant recovery. However, the recycler or landfill operator may require the refrigerant to be removed before delivery and a signed certification statement to verify the refrigerant removal.
A small appliance is considered to be any of the following products that are fully manufactured, charged, and hermetically sealed in a factory with five pounds or less of refrigerant: refrigerators and freezers designed for home use, room A/C units, dehumidifiers, under-the-counter ice makers, vending machines, and drinking water coolers.
Once recovered, the refrigerant can be reclaimed or recycled. For the purposes of reselling or reusing previously-used refrigerants, the term refrigerant includes any ODS or substitute.
Reclaim. A recovered refrigerant cannot be resold unless it is reclaimed to the purity of virgin refrigerant by an
Recycling. Recycling involves recovering the refrigerants for reuse within the same system or another system operated by the same owner. Recycling may involve using EPA-approved equipment to clean refrigerants for reuse, but not to the same standards as reclamation.
A recovered ODS refrigerant can be sent for destruction to a facility that can achieve the destruction efficiencies required by regulations under the CAA or the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).
CFC refrigerants that will be reclaimed for further use are eligible for an exemption from federal hazardous waste regulation in 40 CFR 261.4(b)(12). CFC refrigerants that cannot be reclaimed must be evaluated to determine if they exhibit any of the characteristics of a hazardous waste (i.e., ignitability, corrosivity, reactivity, and toxicity). Those exhibiting such characteristics must be handled according to regulations established under RCRA. Non-CFC refrigerants destined for reclamation or recycling that involves filtering, cleaning or purifying the refrigerants prior to reuse may be considered wastes and must also be evaluated to determine if they are hazardous wastes and managed accordingly. For example, ammonia or any ignitable compressed gas such as propane will need to be evaluated to determine if they exhibit any of the characteristics of a hazardous waste. Many states are authorized to implement their own hazardous waste regulations, and they may be more stringent than federal regulations.
Motor vehicle A/C
Motor vehicle A/C units (MVACs) contain refrigerants. Older vehicles used CFC-12. Most newer vehicles use HFC-134a, which does not deplete the ozone layer but has a high GWP. Lower GWP alternative refrigerants include CO2, HFO-1234yf, and HFC-152a.
Technicians servicing MVACs must be trained and certified by an
EPA-approved organization. Service shops are responsible for verifying and maintaining records that the technicians and the equipment are properly certified.
GHG reporting for precharged equipment
Importers or exporters of appliances designed for household or commercial use that are precharged with fluorinated GHG refrigerants, such as HFCs, are subject to EPA’s Mandatory GHG Reporting Rule under
40 CFR 98, Subpart QQ, if either the total imports or total exports of fluorinated GHGs is greater than or equal to 25,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalents per year. Such appliances may include A/C units, MVACs, refrigerators, chillers, and freezers.
Any product containing an ODS must be labeled. The label must be clearly legible and conspicuous, but may be on hangtags, stickers, or cards. The label must state: “WARNING: Contains [or Manufactured with] (insert name of substance), a substance that harms public health and environment by destroying ozone in the upper atmosphere.”
Facilities that own or operate refrigeration or A/C equipment must keep records to document compliance with venting prohibitions and end-of-life requirements. In general, for compliance with venting prohibition requirements, an inventory of equipment containing refrigerants should be maintained, and include for each piece of equipment:
Records documenting the end-of-life for each piece of refrigeration or A/C equipment should include the equipment decommissioned, the name and quantity of refrigerant recovered, and all information necessary to document the final disposition of the equipment and the recovered refrigerant.
Importer/exporters of appliances precharged with fluorinated GHG refrigerants must maintain records that document compliance with GHG reporting requirements.
The EPA enforces regulations governing ODS emissions. Enforcement actions can range from civil fines to criminal prosecution. The EPA can impose civil fines up to $37,500 per day per violation. The most common violation is failure to comply with the requirements for leaking equipment.
For California facilities, the CARB is responsible for implementing and enforcing the requirements of the state’s refrigerant management program, and the SCAQMD implements and enforces its refrigerant regulation within its jurisdiction.
GreenChill is a voluntary partnership program between the EPA and food retailers to help reduce the impact of refrigerants on the environment. GreenChill provides resources and a certification program and helps food retailers in: