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Want to be eco-friendly? Consider greener refrigerants

NATIONAL REPORT—Reducing global footprint is always top of mind for many industries. For PTAC manufacturers, designing units to be as “green” as possible is a top priority. While there are many ways to go about doing this, one way is to carefully consider the type of refrigerant for a PTAC product; however, those in the industry note that even though one might be better over the other environmentally, disadvantages are still present—leaving it up to the manufacturer to decide what’s in the best interest.

Brigitte Mader-Urschel, leader of the GE Appliance Sustainability Council, said, “Sustainable product design starts with designing a product that has the lowest potential footprint possible over its entire life.”

The goal for GE Zoneline was to design a PTAC with lasting performance and high reliability. The unit must also be designed with maintenance and service in mind. “For example, cleaning an outdoor coil is an important aspect to its life and efficiency,” Mader-Urschel said. “The GE Zoneline is designed in a way that only four screws need to be removed in a matter of seconds to access the coil. Ease of access allows quick maintenance. Higher efficiency is also a key contributor to sustainability. Energy usage during heating or cooling represents the largest carbon footprint contributions in a PTAC’s lifecycle. Efficiency can be achieved, for example, by choosing a heat pump model.”

Richard D. Nuss, VP of sales and business development at Islandaire, an air conditioning and heating manufacturer in East Setauket, NY, told Hotel Business that there are three fundamentals to developing an environment-friendly PTAC product: quiet noise levels, conditioning fresh air and energy management.

One way PTAC manufacturers are attempting to make their products a bit “greener” and improve performance is by switching new products over to another refrigerant, one that’s more environmentally-friendly. PTACs use refrigerants to cool coils. These coils attract heat and humidity, and then push both outside. To keep things simple, air conditioners transfer heat while circulating refrigerant between indoor and outdoor units.

It’s important to note, however, that products can be deceiving. Mader-Urschel noted that “a product labeled ‘eco-friendly’ based on one or two specific components (e.g., refrigerant) is not truly eco-friendly” if the following attributes are omitted from the overall equation: efficiency and durability.

“The term ‘eco-friendly’ can be defined in several ways,” said Rex Anderson with Goodman Manufacturing Company L.P., a member of Daikin Group. “Increased energy efficiency of a PTAC unit offers one definition. By using less energy to deliver indoor comfort, the PTAC unit is offering a benefit to the owner of the system and the user of the system. Another perspective is the refrigerant used in the PTAC system. Currently, chlorine-free refrigerants offer benefits to PTAC product users.”

Over the years, refrigerants have changed in the PTAC space in an attempt to reduce impact on the environment. Refrigerants widely used today include the following: R-22, R-410A and R-32. Outlined in a Daikin document—one promoting the company’s use of R-32 refrigerant with PTACs—with regard to the global environment, regulations have increasingly become stricter. The document also breaks down environmental impact of air conditioner refrigerants and trends by ozone depletion (ODP) and 100-year global warming potential (GWP) of different refrigerants.

R-22 has an ODP of 0.055; both R-410A and R-32 have an ODP of 0, according to the company. GWP increased from R-22 to R-410A but decreased from R-410A to R-32. There are potential issues with R-32, however. “While it has lower GWP than commonly used R-410A, it’s also more flammable, has other impacts to infrastructure and is a proprietary product—potentially driving up costs for hotel owners,” Mader-Urschel said.

According to Daikin’s document, R-410A is the most commonly used refrigerant in developed countries. It further stressed the environmental impact of using R-32 instead of R-410A: “If all R-410A were converted to R-32, the impact of global warming from HFCs in 2030 would be reduced by the CO2 equivalent of approximately 800 million tons (19%) compared to the continued use of R-410A.” The document also notes how R-32 can “reduce electricity consumption up to approximately 10% compared to that of air conditioners using R-22,” mainly due to efficiency of heat.

Should hotels convert units to R-32? Anderson doesn’t think so. “We don’t recommend replacement or substitution of the unit’s original refrigerant,” he said. “Many times the compressor and other components are designed to work seamlessly with a specific refrigerant.”

“A chlorine-free refrigerant is currently considered the standard refrigerant used in PTAC systems,” Anderson said. “Refrigerants have changed over the past several decades. R-22 was once the standard, then R-410A was introduced and now R-32 has become an option, too. Each refrigerant offers benefits that other refrigerants could not offer. Some were related to increased energy-efficiency levels and others were required due to regulatory conditions.”

Islandaire uses the R-410A refrigerant based on the availability of compressors; the PTAC manufacturer doesn’t offer R-32 and, according to Nuss, “rarely gets asked for it.”

While refrigerants are a big part of keeping PTAC units eco-friendly, that alone isn’t enough—but it’s a topic unknown to many. Manufacturers designing eco-friendly PTAC are often required to take a broader approach to conceptualizing these items. “GE’s philosophy is a more comprehensive approach to keep in mind the long lifetime and usage hotel owners will experience with our products,” Mader-Urschel said. “Of course, manufacturing footprint and end of life (e.g., with recyclability) is also important and many of our components and our supply chain process are designed for low carbon footprint. For example, PTAC room fronts are molded on site to avoid lengthy transportation and unnecessary emissions, and components include recycled resins.”

As far as the industry’s future, Nuss believes there’ll be more of a focus on energy management features. Anderson agreed: “Energy use, refrigerant type and sound levels are all items that could be considered essential in an ‘eco-friendly’ PTAC unit.”

“As with many things, a truly sustainable product must consider all aspects of its design, use and end-of-life impact, and for all participants in the system, from manufacturers, distributors, customers and servicers,” Mader-Urschel said, explaining GE’s approach to designing the ideal PTAC unit for properties. “GE’s strategy is one to fully consider all impacts and find an integration design solution that fits for the various challenges.” HB


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