Even those Americans staunchly in favor of fighting global warming may find themselves balking at the idea of having the latest low-GWP (low global warming potential) refrigerant coursing through their walls. Hailed for its Zero Global Warming and Ozone Depletion Potential, R441A is considered the ideal upcoming refrigerant for use in U.S. homes. There’s just one small catch. Composed of ethane, propane, butane, and isobutane, R441 is flammable.
For now the EPA’s Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) has approved the use of R441A for refrigerators, freezers, and vending machines. However there is a push to have it approved for use in air conditioning compressors. Many Americans are just now getting accustomed to having R410A (Puron) charged air conditioners cool their homes. Others have yet to make the change from traditional R22 (Freon) systems to R410A. While R410A is more efficient and less damaging to the environment than R22, it operates under much higher pressure than its predecessor. Consequently, it takes more skill and more time for a technician to charge an R410 air conditioning system than it took to charge one that used R22. Furthermore, because of the extra pressure exerted on its coils, R410A charged equipment is not expected to last as long as the old R22 units.
Homeowners and air conditioning technicians have been learning, sometimes reluctantly, to live with this change. However, it’s unlikely that they will adapt as readily to the implementation of R441A. As Steven Mella (CEO for ComStar International) has put it, “Existing systems are not designed for flammable refrigerants. You need systems with explosion-proof components, such as switches that won’t create a spark.” Before the regular use of R441A can be implemented, there is the little matter of engineering cylinders and valves for recovering flammable refrigerant. And, of course, the air conditioning equipment itself must be redesigned.
If global warming is, indeed, looked upon as an environmental ill, low-GWP refrigerant may be one of those treatments which proves far worse than the disease it sets out to cure.