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AIR CONDITIONING: KEEPING LEGAL

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AIR CONDITIONING: KEEPING LEGAL


There’s one environmentally damaging aspect of the motor vehicle that mass electrification won’t eradicate: air conditioning. While there’s nothing harmful about the refrigerant gas while it is cooped up in the system, when it leaks (and it invariably does) there is a problem. For example, each gram of the most common refrigerant, R-134a, is equivalent to releasing 1.43kg of CO2 into the atmosphere.

For this reason, R-134a is being phased out in Europe and the UK. Gas producers have a quota of how much high-GWP (global warming potential) gas they can sell in a year, which reduces each year. The quota includes various blends of fluorine gas used in applications such as supermarket chillers. It is up to refrigerant suppliers to decide how much of the quota to use for mobile air conditioning (MAC) and how much to use for the others.

As an aside, R-134a was itself introduced as a greener alternative to R12, which was withdrawn in the 1990s as it was depleting the ozone layer.

R-1234yf, also known by the trade name Solstice, is the refrigerant fluorocarbon gas that has been phased in over the last few years as a replacement for R-134a. Despite early concerns from one VM, which felt its mild flammability was a safety risk, it is now an industry standard. However, motorists wishing to fill with the new gas will find that it is not a drop-in replacement. While in theory, you could rebuild the system to make it compatible, in practice owners of R-134a equipped vehicles will have to accept that the gas will soon be obsolete, but in the meantime prices will be higher.

CERTIFICATION

However, just like anything else, wherever there is a demand someone will pop up to fill it.. Recently, the problem has been the growing number of illicit products on the market, often sold as R1234yf, but just like any chemical bought from the street, they could contain absolutely anything. These illegal products have been criticised for being damaging, not only to the environment or potentially to the internals of a vehicle’s air conditioning system, but also to the state of the market as the sale of these illicit products has a financial impact on producers, distributors and garages buying gas through legitimate channels. Apart from the gas itself being questionable, and money from its sale funding crime, all shipments seized in Europe so far have been in a type of canister that isn’t legal for use in the EU or the UK.

A trade body called The European Fluorocarbons Technical Committee (EFCTC) has embarked on a campaign to raise awareness of the issue. The organisation hosted a seminar late last year, at which Dave Smith, Business Director at fluoroproduct supplier Koura (previously known as Mexichem Fluor) said: “We believe that up to 20 percent of the European market for refrigerants is possibly smuggled product. It is essential that the financial community is fully aware of this issue and that it checks and, if appropriate, red flags any financial transactions that may involve the purchase of HFCs.”

Honeywell is also concerned about the amount of rogue gas on the market. Speaking to us last year, Tim Vink, Director of Regulatory Affairs at the company said that the problem had become so acute that genuine suppliers faced an ‘existential problem’ for their businesses. “The members of the EFCTC have taken the initiative to set up an ‘integrity line’ where people can report anonymously if they are offered anything suspicious in the market and that information can be used to build a picture of where these products are coming from,” he explained. The hotline and any legal action taken against perpetrators will be taken by an independent third party, because, Vink says: “We are not experts in providing the right sort of evidence.”

QUOTAS

Anyone working on mobile air conditioning needs to be trained and certified under the F-gas regulations. As these rules were introduced by the European parliament, there was concern that the rules might change after the transition period. However, DEFRA has confirmed that they will remain the same.

protracted negotiations have produced welcome clarity and certainty for firms that operate in different parts of the EU, who feared their proof of competence would cease to be recognised after the UK formally withdraws from the EU at the end of January.” The deal, which will see the UK continue to work with EU trade bodies to ensure the integrity of F-gas trade, lays to rest concerns that UK businesses would lose their certification and be unable to trade with continental suppliers. Head of Refcom Graeme Fox commented: “Our industry is in the fortunate position of now knowing exactly where we stand on professional certification.” The announcement was welcomed by F-gas licensing body Refcom, which said, in an official statement: “Months of

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INDUSTRY CRACKDOWN ON ILLEGAL REFRIGERANT

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INDUSTRY CRACKDOWN ON ILLEGAL REFRIGERANT


By Greg Whitaker

Illegal and potentially hazardous air conditioning gas has been entering the UK and European aftermarket, partly as a result of a reduced supply of legitimate R134a refrigerant, according to a director of Honeywell.

As the EU has been pursuing its climate change policy, the amount of harmful fluorocarbon gasses (known as F-gas) allowed to be sold has reduced significantly in the last few years. The first big cut was in 2018 when the amount of gas allowed in the market was reduced by 37 percent.

Tim Vink, Director of Regulatory Affairs at Honeywell International Inc, explained: “The problem comes when people think ‘I can make a bob out of this’, so they get offers from suppliers, essentially from South-East Asia, and possibly unwittingly started importing gas without having an adequate quota. They’d then offer these products [to the market].”

The problem is apparently so widespread in some places that genuine suppliers face what Vink describes as an ‘existential problem’ for their businesses.

Banned containers

Product that has no business being in the market is obviously harmful to legitimate refrigerant suppliers, but the issue has wider implications: “The problem is, you can’t be sure what is on the packaging label is actually in the container and that could cause serious issues with the functioning of the system. It could have a completely different vapour pressure which could blow up the compressor,” warned Vink. “If you are not using the right lubricant and the compressor runs dry, you get a burn out and all that sort of stuff, so you have to be very careful with the material you put into an air-conditioning system”.

Another concern is the container. Vink said that many of the products taken off the market so far have been in non-certified and non-refillable gas bottles, of a type that has not been legal in Europe since 2006. Honeywell and other F-Gas producers have formed a trade body, known as the European Fluorocarbon Technical Committee, or EFCTC, with the aim of informing the market and pursuing culprits through legal channels.

“The members of EFCTC have taken the initiative to take an integrity line where people can report anonymously if they receive anything suspicious in the market and that information can be used to build a picture of where those products are coming from in the market,” explained Vink. The ‘action line’ and legal action against perpetrators is taken by an independent third party, because as Vink explained: “We are not experts in prosecution and providing the right sort of evidence”.

Action line

The initiative has already seen some success. “Material has been seized in the Netherlands, Spain and Poland,” said Vink. “We as an industry are spending a considerable sum with a third party investigation unit that will go to prosecutors in the countries where material is found”.

Vink believes that the spurious product is being sold both online and by cold callers to aftermarket businesses, offering discount gas. Ultimately, the problem will be relieved by an adequate supply of legitimate gas back in the market and Vink assures us that a low-GWP drop-in replacement for R134a is being worked on at the moment, with a launch slated for early 2020.

Get more information about the EFCTC campaign at fluorocarbons.org

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