June 17, 2013

Is Your Air Conditioning System Ready For The Coolant Ban?

The commonly used R-22 refrigerant faces a complete ban from the end of 2014. This will affect the majority of UK organisations with air conditioning or refrigeration systems. We look at the implications for maintenance, highlight the issues which will arise at the end of a commercial lease and take advice from Simon Green, an engineer with expert experience in dilapidations.  

Under the European ‘ODS Regulation’, it has already been illegal since 1st  January 2010 to use virgin HCFC R-22 refrigerant to service and maintain air conditioning, heat pump or refrigeration equipment. The law allows recycled R-22 to be used until 31st December 2014, after which time a complete ban will be imposed – this means while you can still use your system, you cannot repair any leaks or failed compressors.

The potential impact on business is huge – in a survey[1] of 350 food and drink businesses carried out by the Carbon Trust in 2005, 70% operated at least one system using R-22.

So what approach should be taken by a landlord or tenant who operates air conditioning or refrigeration plant with R-22 inside? The lease might specify that costs of repair of mechanical and electrical systems have to be met by the tenants. So what should happen at the end of a lease? Is the business owner liable for the cost of replacing the whole system or the tenant?

The answer, according to specialist Simon Green of Green Building Design Consultants, depends on the level of disrepair: “Old age does not necessarily mean disrepair”, says Simon. “Some 30 year old systems which have been well maintained are in better condition than 10 year old systems which have been allowed to corrode.”

The landlord or prospective tenant will need to review the efficiency of equipment to decide if it is still fit for purpose. Factors to consider are the efficiency of the system, condition of mechanical and electrical component and potential leakage. “If the system is providing sufficient cooling for the premises, is leak free, in mechanically and electrically sound condition, then there should be no need for replacement or repair, regardless of the age of the equipment”, says Simon.

Landlords and tenants need to consider taking action before the end of a lease to avoid any nasty surprises. A system which has been allowed to corrode might need to be fully replaced or repaired. Or a landlord might request that the R-22 coolant is replaced. “It is possible that the R-22 refrigerant can be replaced with an alternative, permitted coolant, but depends on each system and manufacturer”, says Simon. “Most equipment manufacturers advise against using an alternative; mechanical modifications and system re-commissioning will be necessary; and the alternative coolant is likely to reduce efficiency of the system and can corrode the refrigerant system.”

Refrigerants which have previously been banned are still safely operating in air conditioning systems throughout the UK, following a change in tenancy. “One previous case we were involved with was at Lloyds Court in Milton Keynes. The Versatemp (or managed heating and cooling system) contains refrigerant R-504 which was banned in 1984. When the lease expired, we carried out a detailed inspection of the system and found it to be operating efficiently with no risk of leakage. The system is still working today”, adds Simon.  

This issue is set to become a major source of potential conflict between landlords and tenants at the end of a lease. An increasing number of prospective tenants might refuse to agree to contracts in which they are obliged to carry our repairs to this type of equipment, or may demand that equipment is replaced before a new lease commences. In these circumstances, expert engineering assessments can play a central role in resolving the issues.

[1]Carbon Trust Networks Project: Food & Drink Industry Refrigeration Efficiency Initiative, Carbon Trust / Food and Drink Federation (July 2007)

Refrigerant Condenser Unit
Refrigerant Condenser Unit

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