18 May 2020

New study – Refrigerators, heat pumps and air conditioning systems could be greener today as wider use of natural refrigerants is safe

Recent research within the LIFE FRONT project, with active participation from ECOS, shows that introducing higher ceilings to the use of climate-friendly refrigerating agents is safe.

  • Natural refrigerants such as propane are being phased in as greener alternatives to HFC gases but their spread is still limited as industry and regulators have concerns over their flammability.
  • Less-restrictive limits would allow for a much wider market uptake of greener fridges, freezers, air conditioning systems, and heat pumps.

A scoop of cold chocolate ice-cream on a hot summer day, a ready-to-eat pizza on movie and chill nights… Modern life is hard to imagine without fridges and freezers. Unfortunately, fridges, as well as air-conditioning systems and heat pumps, do also fuel global warming as they release polluting HFC gasses.

Man-made artificial HFC gasses were introduced to replace CFC, which were harmful to the ozone layer. The problem is that HFC gases warm up the atmosphere – and they do it much more than CO2. F-gases, a group of gasses HFC is part of, have a global warming effect up to 23 000 times greater than carbon dioxide (CO2), and their emissions are rising quickly.

That is why HFC is already being phased out of the market. Instead, industry is gradually introducing environmentally friendly natural refrigerants like propane. New alternatives have stronger cooling features that make them even cheaper than the polluting HFC. A perfect solution? Almost – propane is flammable. Therefore, industry and regulators are afraid of security risks that a high concentration of propane could pose if used in powerful fridges and freezers.

As a result, current limitations on propane charge in fridges and freezers are too strict, as found by a study conducted by the LIFE FRONT project entitled “Recommendations for the revision of safety standards for RACHP equipment”. Over-cautious rules result in a limited market uptake of propane and other natural refrigerants, thus delaying the time when our refrigerators, air conditioning systems and heat pumps will finally pollute less. The report proves that the safe application of higher charge limits of natural refrigerants is possible, and that future applications of safety standards will result in charge limits that enable a far greater and wider application of hydrocarbon refrigerants of natural origin, without a significant risk increase for users. These risks can be kept to an absolute minimum by applying design principles to limit certain forms of leakage or the presence of ignition points.

Besides, experts created detailed guidelines on how the refrigerator, air conditioning, and heat pump sector could extend the use of flammable refrigerants safely, or with a minimum level of risk increase, bringing natural refrigerants to their full potential.

The paper goes into technical details on how charge size limitations could be increased as compared to current standards. Guidelines present new approaches for determining safe charge limits, including the use of calculation methods, experimental methods, and risk assessment methods.

International organisations for standardisation have already acknowledged that limits are indeed too low. In May 2019, the international standardisation body IEC approved raising the propane charge limit in commercial refrigeration from 150 gr to 500gr among other measures to increase the use of natural refrigerants. It was a very tight vote due to the opposition of chemical lobbies. 

The paper was produced by experts from the LIFE FRONT project based on laboratory testing of refrigerants. The LIFE FRONT project aims to remove barriers posed by standards for flammable refrigerants in fridges, freezers, air conditioners, and hear pumps. Instead, it seeks suitable climate-friendly alternatives. ECOS is part of the project, together with shecco, HEAT GmbH, NIBE, ait-deutschland, and AHT Cooling Systems.

ECOS is co-funded by the European Commission and EFTA

Website by