College plans to phase out “ozone-depleting” refrigerant over next ten years

The+banned+chemical%E2%80%94R-22%E2%80%94is+used+in+on-campus+closed+vessels+such+as+refrigerants%2C+coolers%2C+and+air-conditioning+systems.+Photo+credit%3A+Charles+Wang

The banned chemical—R-22—is used in on-campus closed vessels such as refrigerants, coolers, and air-conditioning systems. Photo credit: Charles Wang

By Dana Gerber, News Editor

The college plans to stop using ozone-depleting refrigerant chemicals over the next 10 years as part of a nationwide phase-out of the substance that started in 2010, according to college officials.

The college will replace its current refrigerant chemical gas, R-22, with one that is more environmentally friendly, Director of Facilities Management Joseph Knoll told The Beacon in an interview.

This phase-out is part of The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, an international treaty signed in 1987 and designed to limit the use of ozone-depleting chemicals, including refrigerants. In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency banned the production, use, and importation of R-22—also known as Freon—refrigerants, except for continuing service needs of existing equipment. On Jan. 1, they instituted a ban on the remaining production of R-22s. Any equipment that still uses R-22 will have to use stockpiled or recycled quantities that are already in the U.S.

R-22 is used in on-campus closed vessels such as refrigerants, coolers, and air-conditioning systems, according to Catherine Liebowitz, campus sustainability manager.

“With the U.S. saying, ‘We’re going to phase this particular chemical out,’ that means everyone else has to respond,” Liebowitz said in a phone interview.

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The college has not yet decided which refrigerant they will utilize moving forward, Liebowitz said, but they will gradually switch over to a different chemical as systems naturally need replacement.

According to the EPA, the use of common refrigerant chemicals, generally known as HCFCs, negatively impacts the environment as it evaporates and contributes to the ozone hole over the South Pole. Liebowitz explained that while there is no completely green refrigerant, the use of R-22 is especially unsustainable.

“Just like carbon and just like methane is chipping away at this ozone layer, these HCFCs are doing that at a much higher and faster rate,” she said. “It is inevitably a pollutant—however, there are definitely better options.”

Knoll said there are hundreds of systems on campus that use R-22 refrigerants. However, he said many U.S. systems have already swapped out R-22 for R-410A, which is a more environmentally friendly chemical option, according to the EPA. Liebowitz added that R-435A, another more eco-friendly refrigerant, is an option the college is considering as they make the switch.

Knoll estimated the college will phase out all R-22 on campus over the next 10 years. He added that the cooling systems themselves—located on college roofs, in basements, and in mechanical rooms—will eventually need replacement, allowing for a simpler switch of the refrigerants that fuel them. He said this is a long-term process based on the condition and age of the equipment.

“There is a way of using the same equipment, scrubbing the lines, and putting in new gas,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s probably time to change the equipment too, but just because of cost reasons, you can’t do it all at once.”

Although the U.S. began phasing out the substance a decade ago, Liebowitz said the college is only now beginning to switch its cooling systems because officials will minimize waste if they wait until systems are no longer functional before replacing them.

“It’s more environmentally sound to use the system you have until it dies, versus just to convert it automatically,” she said. “That’s how we’re approaching the R-22 or Freon phaseout—we’re using the system until it no longer makes sense, and then switching over to a different system which still uses refrigerants, but isn’t using Freon.”

Liebowitz added that the college recently implemented new chillers—cooling machines fueled by refrigerants—on the roof of the 216 Tremont building. She said these chillers require less electricity and use the current chemicals in a more energy-efficient way. In combination with the refrigerant swap, she said these changes will limit the negative environmental effects of the entire cooling system.

“With all of these different things, it adds up to just being more environmentally sound,” she said.