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Moving to HFO-based process cooling systems

23 August 2021

Dave Palmer highlights some important considerations for the food and beverage industry’s transition to low GWP, HFO-based cooling systems. 

Manufacturing companies need to be able to balance the rising costs and energy emissions of a plant while maintaining product quality and process efficiency. 

Stringent standards imposed on food producers often add to costs. In addition, reducing emissions and energy use is also coming under the increased attention of policymakers, further adding to the pressures on the food manufacturing sector.

This has served to focus the attention of the process cooling industry about the need to drive innovation and meet the call for new ways of providing high-performing and sustainable process cooling solutions. The result are new technologies and techniques that allow end users to contain their costs without compromising on other critical factors.
One trends is a move away from ammonia-based cooling systems. Ammonia has been traditionally common in food and beverage processing applications due to its cooling capabilities and low global warming potential (GWP) qualities. Yet, repetitive incidents with leaks threatening workers’ health and causing potential end-product and environmental contamination, have triggered discussions about its use as a refrigerant. 

With ammonia’s toxicity causing serious health risks with even a low-level leak, substantial improvements in technology have been needed to offer a viable alternative to the ammonia-based systems – removing the risks and adding better energy efficiency and lower cost of ownership.

When considering the risk factors of ammonia-based systems, process cooling systems with hydrofluoro-olefin (HFO) refrigerants create a vital, safer, more energy efficient option, but with equally low environmental impact. 

Looking at the two alternatives, there are six main criteria to compare a system with an HFO refrigerant, like the R1234ze, to an ammonia-based solution:

1. The Global Warming Potential: Industry has a responsibility to play a role in regional and pan-European initiatives towards becoming carbon-neutral societies. To reach our overall sustainability targets the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of the refrigerants used in the cooling systems cannot be ignored. 

The R1234ze HFO is an ultra-low, near zero GWP fluid of GWP of less than 1, which means it has a lower impact on the global warming than the CO2. Ammonia has a GWP of 0, which makes the two fluids very comparable from this perspective. What stands out for the R1234ze is that it offers a  carbon footprint reduction without sacrificing performance. Moreover, chillers with R1234ze refrigerant can outperform ammonia even by 25% according to the energy efficiency ratio (EER) analysis.

2. First cost: When comparing the initial investment in a process cooling system ammonia solutions can be significantly more expensive.
These higher costs stem from hours spent to design the system. Expensive stainless-steel piping is required to withstand ammonia’s corrosive properties, and special devices need to be used to monitor the safety of the system. 
Standard design, production and components allow manufacturers to offer HFO-based systems at a much lower cost. Standardised HFO chillers are also usually smaller than the ammonia systems and so plants, where space footprint might be an issue, can also save space thanks to the more compact design.

When it’s not the right time for capital investments, manufacturers can now also benefit from a new type of subscription offering that gives them access to the newest process cooling equipment with the flexibility of an operating expense. 

3. Toxicity: Toxicity and the safety of people and the environment shouldn’t be taken lightly. It is well known that ammonia is highly toxic and in case of leaking can pose a serious risk to human health, as well as food and beverage operations. R1234ze, on the other hand, is a non-corrosive substance with a very low toxicity and mild flammability. 

4. Maintenance: Regular maintenance will always be needed on any process cooling system, but some systems are easier to maintain than others. Because of its toxic properties, when handling ammonia or performing maintenance on ammonia systems, facility managers and technicians must take safety precautions. They need to anticipate and manage the risks to people and the surroundings.

However, on a system with R1234ze, maintenance can be performed with limited risks. 

5. Lead time: Another thing to consider when choosing the right system – lead time can make a big difference. The main factor here is standardisation. Standardised products with standardised components open the door to shorter lead times and quicker deliveries allowing for the appropriate system with R1234ze to be delivered on short notice. 

Non-standardised products like the ammonia-based systems, take longer to design and manufacture, before they can be shipped and installed.

6. Performance: The last, but equally important area to consider, is performance. Standardised products such as chillers with R1234ze have underdone rigorous R&D procedures to offer the best possible performance and efficiency levels.  Standardisation allows the units to be tested and certified by third parties to prove their catalogue performance is truly delivered. 

So far no ammonia systems have been certified by third-party organisations like the Eurovent or the Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI). This means that it is only after the full ammonia system has been installed and is running, manufacturers can see if it achieves the performance promised.

In conclusion, modern, innovative systems with R1234ze, that are purposefully designed for process applications, have clear advantages when compared to ammonia-based systems. When specifying process cooling equipment, it is important to carefully examine all the options available on the market to ensure they will fully benefit from their new cooling equipment for the years to come. 

Dave Palmer is general manager for UK and Ireland at ICS Cool Energy.

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