Propane R290: Here to stay

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There is a growing awareness across the United States of the importance of using environmentally friendly, non-toxic propane R290 as a natural alternative for commercial refrigeration equipment, according to Rich Gilles, Senior Product Leader, Micro Distributed Systems, Hussmann Corp.

“R290 is here to stay,” Gilles said. “It just makes sense from the perspective of store owners, their consumers and the environment.”

Gilles said Hussmann introduced five months ago its propane R290-charged microDS system for full-sized, low- and medium-temperature merchandisers, including open, multi-deck and reach-in units. “R290 is highly efficient and it works great,” he said.

Those merchandisers are charged with a tiny amount of propane R290—just 150 grams or 5.3 liquid ounces per circuit—which is at least 95 percent less refrigerant than what’s required in full-store hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigeration systems, providing a huge savings on multiple fronts for food retailers.

The evolution of propane R290 began shortly after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) adopted in 2016 its Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP), which is designed to phase out the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) in commercial refrigeration because of HFCs’ high global warming potential and their impact on climate change.

While propane R290 was pushed forward as an alternative solution for commercial refrigeration, it has taken until now—with the help of leading retailers who piloted microDS systems—for R290 to gain acceptance as an excellent refrigerant alternative to HFCs.

Benefits of propane R290

Propane R290 offers many benefits for the retailers who use it, for their environmentally concerned consumers, and for the good of the environment.

First, according to the EPA’s GreenChill Partnership, a typical supermarket’s refrigeration system holds an HFC refrigerant charge of about 3,500 liquid pounds. Unfortunately, the average store also has an annual leak rate of about 25 percent.

That means, on average, refrigerant leaks cause a single supermarket to emit about 875 pounds of refrigerant, mostly HFCs, into the atmosphere every year.

With more than 236,000 food retail outlets in the U.S. alone, one can quickly see that as much as 206.5 million pounds of HFC refrigerants escape from store merchandisers annually, evaporating into the atmosphere and contributing to the problem of global warming and climate change.

HFCs, unlike propane R290, have a GWP rating greater than 1,300 versus R290, a natural, non-toxic refrigerant, which has a tiny GWP rating of just three (3). And, R290’s ozone depletion potential (ODP) is zero. Zero!

Importantly, with refrigerant leakage being such a problem across the food retail industry, Hussmann’s microDS system is virtually leak-proof.

That’s because the merchandiser’s refrigeration unit is self-contained and hermetically sealed, and all brazing of refrigerant lines is done during manufacturing, where the unit is also charged, programmed and tested before it leaves the manufacturing plant.

This process, Gilles said, all but eliminates any risk of refrigerant leaks now or in the future. It also makes installation and maintenance much faster and easier.

“With regulations changing around HFCs, environmentally safe R290 offers a ‘future-proof’ solution, where retailers won’t have to deal with state or federal laws regulating hazardous refrigerants and the testing and reporting of refrigerant leaks,” he added.

Importantly, during a recent EPA GreenChill webinar, HEB -- one of the companies that piloted microDS systems -- confirmed that its’ store has not had a propane R290 refrigerant leak since the microDS merchandizers were installed in 2013.

Propane R290 initially suffered from concerns over the safety of using propane in merchandisers.

“But, R290 is different from the type of propane used for outdoor grilling and is especially formulated for use solely as a refrigerant,” Gilles said. “We also use solid state components to further enhance safety and have created electrical systems that enable a store to simply plug the unit into a standard wall or floor outlet. It’s that easy.”

A possible charge limit increase in the future by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) of 150 to 300, or possibly even 500 grams per circuit, might also help propane R290 gain even wider attention as a viable, full-store solution, one that would dramatically increase the use of natural refrigerants and help the EPA achieve its goal of reducing – if not eliminate -- the use of HFCs.

There’s even more awareness now on the consumer side, with the EPA already having increased charge limits for use of propane in domestic refrigeration equipment.

Finally, as more environmentally concerned consumers become aware of the benefits of using propane R290 as a refrigerant in their grocery store’s merchandisers and display cases, food retailers who use this natural alternative will certainly earn a reputation for caring more about their customers and sustainability, which is something that can only help propel them toward the future and ahead of their competition.

This post is sponsored by Hussmann