EPA requirements force processors to treat refrigerants as an asset to be managed instead of waste product to be released.

An annual analysis of your refrigerant can tell you as much information about the performance of a chiller as an annual tear-down.
As corporate America rides today's roller-coaster economy, a renewed emphasis has been placed on cost savings and efficiency whenever possible. Profitability and, in some cases, basic economic survival depend on how well a company manages its assets.

Buried at the heart of the industrial infrastructure are the chillers, pumps, towers and other large mechanical components that play a critical role in process cooling and industrial refrigeration applications. These components have become highly prized assets in the battle to succeed in business.

From an accounting perspective, an asset is described as something to which a value can be assigned. A $100,000 piece of process cooling equipment certainly meets this criteria; as such, companies should seek to maximize their investment by ensuring that the equipment runs at peak capacity, it is maintained properly and lifecycle is maximized. Intensive preventative maintenance programs are a critical part of this asset management.

Cut Costs

Large heat-exchange equipment such as centrifugal chillers need annual tear-downs for careful inspection of thrust-bearing tolerances, drive-line alignments, heat-exchanger tubing failure and motor winding integrity. Frequently, the one item that can extend the lifecycle significantly often is overlooked or not analyzed properly. This critical item is the heat-exchange fluid itself - the refrigerant and refrigerant oil. It is the one component that travels throughout the entire refrigerant system and provides the medium for heat transfer. In addition, it maintains proper lubrication and cools critical moving parts and motor housings.

When properly analyzed, the refrigerant and refrigerant oil acts as a window into the workings of these systems. A detailed analysis is necessary for a complete understanding of the current condition of the chillers. For $200 to $500, a sample can be collected and analyzed prior to scheduled maintenance services. This analysis potentially can divulge as much information about the performance of a chiller as a $10,000 annual tear-down at a fraction of the cost.

These reports will identify items such as oil logging, high water content, acid levels, metal content, mixed gases and other noncondensable particulates that erode the equipment components from the inside out and steal heat transfer capacity, equating to higher energy consumption (kilowatt per ton). These concerns are can be detrimental to a plant's bottom line, especially for those with multiple machines and continuous operating requirements. With this in mind, the cost of a refrigerant analysis seems relatively insignificant. Figure 1 demonstrates a potential scenario of the detrimental affect of oil logging.

Figure 1: Oil Logging Effects on Heat Transfer. Oil logging, high water content and other types of contamination can damage the heat transfer equipment and reduce heat transfer capacity.

Reusable Assets

With the enactment of the Clean Air Act Amendment of 1992, the refrigerant shifted from a consumable, disposable product to a reusable asset. At one time, CFCs were simply produced, wholesaled, retailed and eventually released, lost into the atmosphere. Because laws require that refrigerant now must be reclaimed and reused, it must be viewed as an asset.

Used refrigerant continues to increase in value as the cost and limitations on making new refrigerant increase. As refrigerant prices climb, this hidden asset takes on a higher priority when managing a large central plant. For example, prior to 1995, the retail price of R-12 was approximately $3 per pound; today, it is worth approximately $30 per pound. That represents a 1,000% increase in five years.

With a typical 500-ton centrifugal system containing an average of 1,500 to 2,000 lb of R-12 refrigerant, the asset value is staggering. Now the questions to ask are: Do I leverage the refrigerant value on conversions and retrofits to improve efficiencies? Or, do I maintain status quo? Enter the other component that today's plant managers must contend with: risk management.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in its enforcement of the Clean Air Act (CAA), has placed responsibility for compliance on those who maintain process cooling and refrigeration systems.

The complicated nature of the replacement of ozone-depleting chemicals, the lack of a totally safe substitute and the myriad of laws and regulations can make it challenging for contractors to comply with regulations. Ongoing U.S. legislation, environmental organizations and international trade ramifications for developing countries such as the Kyoto Protocol will continue to affect refrigerant pricing via refrigerant tax and production caps.

Responsibilities of asset management, risk management and maintaining constant EPA compliance have caused some large end users to outsource this function to minimize the liabilities associated with proper and complete refrigerant management. Out-sourcing is an option for companies that do not have the time, manpower or technical ability to assume these responsibilities in-house. In some cases, industrial processing plant managers can increase their jobs per technician simply by outsourcing their recovery needs.

Recycled vs. Reclaimed Refrigerant: What's The Difference?

An understanding of the distinctions among recycled, reclaimed and virgin refrigerant is crucial to make correct refrigerant purchasing decisions.

Recycled refrigerant has been recovered and run through a limited filtration system to remove some contaminants. It is illegal to sell recycled refrigerant, but it may be reused in the same system or in another system belonging to the same owner.

Reclaimed refrigerant has been recovered and processed through an extensive remanufacturing process to meet or exceed ARI-700, the product specification for virgin refrigerant. Reclamation involves thorough testing and verification of purity.

Virgin refrigerant has never been used in a system. Like reclaimed products, it meets or exceeds ARI-700, the standard required by OEMs for use in their equipment.