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WILL CARB REGULATIONS RESULT IN A CA AIR CONDITIONER TRASH HEAP?

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Will CARB Regulations Result in a CA Air Conditioner Trash Heap?

The California Air Resources Board (CARB), an agency within Cal-EPA, is tasked with developing and implementing regulations and strategies to reduce greenhouse gases (GHG) 40% below 1990 levels by the year 2030. They have broad regulatory power to implement rules and regulations to meet this mandate granted by AB 32 in 2006 and then SB 32 in 2016. Legislation (SB 1013) by then state senator Ricardo Lara requires CARB to initiate an aggressive hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) reduction program as part of its fight on short-lived, but highly powerful, climate pollutants. HFC refrigerants are hundreds to thousands of times more potent per pound than carbon dioxide GHG and are highly targeted by CARB. Lara’s SB 1013 was approved and signed into law and its effect was to largely codify the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) regulations into California state law. This was done due to considerable uncertainty as to the outcome of federal litigation on the EPA SNAP rules being challenged. 

What all this means is that CARB has declared war on conventional HFC based coolants that are ubiquitous in the installed base of appliances both commercial and residential in California. CARB not only wants to ban all HFC based coolants in new installations, but it wants to accelerate the removal of existing systems currently in use in the state creating an image of stocked piled legacy systems at county waste facilities across the state.

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What are the Safety Implications?

However, safety —including the issues of flammability and toxicity — is a key consideration when evaluating next-generation refrigerants. Cost of new coolant technology is important as well. Regulators like CARB are concerned over how to proceed to move away from HFCs quickly and safely while pressuring the HVAC&R industry to move “full speed ahead” in product development that will meet California’s ever tightening regulatory requirements and not raise product prices to the point of disrupting the HVAC&R market.  The HVAC&R industry is being required by CARB to use lower greenhouse warming potential (GWP) refrigerants, many of which are flammable.  The industry would like to meet the new regulations with refrigerants that both meet regulations and are nonflammable or that have the lowest level of flammability possible. The lower the flammability, the lower the risk. But there is no mistaking the fact that proper installation now is becoming more and more critical. Who is responsible when a new system causes a residential home to go up in flames? Is it the subcontractor in the white van with the ladder on top, or is it the manufacturer? Manufactures will say that their systems are “safe” – if they are installed properly. Installers in CA will say the new products they are being required to introduce are inherently more dangerous than legacy systems that used non-flammable coolants. It is quite the conundrum. How will CA consumers feel when they learn their new air conditioning system, if not installed properly, could result in a catastrophic loss of their property?   The conundrums and controversies highlight the complexities of refrigerants and the trade-offs inherent in the fight to curb global warming. In the 1980s, the Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer led to the ban on chlorofluorocarbon-based coolants, because of damage to the ozone layer they caused. They were replaced by HFC based coolants, which are now being curbed because of their effects on the climate.  In the end, manufacturers want to build good product that meet code, distributors and installers want to make sure those products are safe to install, and consumers want HVAC&R units that are economical, safe and energy efficient to cool their homes and places of business.

Ana Marie Aguas