How to stay cool

Does your clinic or hospital building use air conditioning or refrigeration? The chances are that it does rely on some sort of refrigeration process for cooling public areas, environmental control of specialist theatres and storage of tissue or pharmaceuticals.

This means that the person responsible for controlling the building services facilities will be caught by new and existing environmental Legislation dictated by the European Commission. This legislation is designed to tackle emissions from the leakage of refrigerants used in the cooling circuits of air conditioning systems and refrigerators.

Some of the most common refrigerants in use in the UK today are subject to environmental legislation to ensure their responsible use and in some cases to restrict their availability, due to their high Global Warming Potential if released from equipment during installation, regular operation, service and maintenance. It is not uncommon for older systems to suffer from leakage rates and require regular work to find and fix leaks followed by addition of extra refrigerant to keep them performing effectively and efficiently.

Which legislation should you be up to date with?
The Ozone Depleting Substances Regulations (updated in 2011) introduced a phase out of one of the most common refrigerants used in building air conditioning – known as R22 which is classified as an HCFC (hydrochloroflourocarbon). It is no longer possible to install new equipment containing this refrigerant but many buildings with air conditioning systems installed before 2003 still contain R22 and if this equipment fails for any reason after 2014 replacement fluid will no longer be available for essential service or maintenance.

In 2008 the ‘Fluorinated Gases Regulation’ came into force in the UK and this introduced a number of legal obligations for owners and operators of cooling systems containing the very common HFC fluid often used as a replacement for R22. The new requirements included regular refrigerant leak checks, record keeping, labelling and special certification for companies and individuals who can legally carry out work on these systems.

The aim of the regulation was to ensure responsible use and track refrigerant consumed.

Alongside this additional legislation such as the Building Regulations (Air Conditioning Inspections) brought in regular efficiency inspections and reporting of the energy performance of your existing air conditioning. These were designed to encourage owners to consider how they can reduce the energy use and thus the carbon emissions from buildings.

What next for building cooling legislation?
The European Commission is now preparing new legislation likely to come into effect from 2015 which will start restricting the supply of HFC refrigerant gases. If you have recently had old R22 or HCFC systems updated with the HFC gases, or have new systems or newer buildings using these refrigerants, this will affect you. The Commission is also introducing bans relating to the purchase of new equipment or systems containing HFCs in order to encourage building and equipment owners to move to a range of new refrigerant fluids with a significantly lower GWP such as carbon dioxide. In time, the restrictions on supply of refrigerant could lead to increased costs and potentially delays in getting essential equipment repaired.

The proposed legislation restricting the availability of HFC refrigerants has not yet been adopted by the EU or enacted in UK legislation, however as a building manager in the health sector where many systems may be critical to patient care you should monitor developments carefully and keep in regular contact with your FM services provider on these issues to assess any potential future impact.

The Department for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs is responsible for implementing environmental legislation in the UK. Their website outlines a useful strategy for building owners or operators. You can see the Government website at for more information about the responsibilities of air conditioned building owners.

Managing older equipment
The following is a checklist of things to do when managing older equipment.

Assess the Risk – Identify all systems in the building(s), which refrigerants they contain and estimate their associated business risk.

Prioritise – identify the most business‑critical systems and address these first. But do not neglect all the other systems, these must also be managed.

Determine the Solution – on a system by system basis, identify the most appropriate solution. These are likely to fall within one of three main options: Replace, Convert or Leave As-Is.

Planning and Budgeting – develop a Plan, with phased implementation. Depending on the size of your building, it is unlikely to be possible or desirable to carry out all the actions at once. This will need to be done in association with your refrigeration contractor, in order to ensure their commitment.

Implementation – carry out the plan, with monitoring and regular review.

Suggested solutions
After identifying all systems using HCFC and HFCs refrigerants, each one should be assessed against decision criteria and assigned one of three main solutions. These are:

Replace – Some old HCFC R22 systems, including those that are in poor condition, inefficient or not meeting their current (or forecast) cooling load, may need to be replaced with new systems using a different type of refrigerant. This option can have a number of benefits, most importantly the opportunity to significantly improve the building’s energy efficiency. Replacement is however likely to be the most expensive option in up-front cost terms but could offer lifetime savings due to improved efficiency.

Convert – For some types of newer R22 systems, which are in good order, it may be possible to recommend a convert Solution. This covers a range of actions, from a relatively simple operation (eg identifying a new refrigerant designed as a replacement for R22 that is compatible with the system’s existing mineral oil) to a more comprehensive modification which will require a new type of oil at least, and may require additional compressor and/or heat exchanger capacity.

Whilst a conversion is often a practical option it must be noted that a converted plant may have less cooling capacity and / or be  less efficient than the original system. Also, the conversion must be carried out by expert contractors to ensure that refrigerant leakage does not get worse after the conversion.

Leave As-Is – This is applicable if the system is fairly new and unlikely to need major service or extension in the near future or represents no business-critical risk eg a small non-critical split air-conditioning system in a waiting room or office – this type of system is typically very reliable and may continue to operate without trouble for many years and could be replaced relatively quickly and cheaply with a new system using different type of refrigerant.

Existing systems: Decision criteria
Unfortunately there is no automatic answer and a balanced assessment must be made of each criterion for each building or system, and ideally with input from knowledgeable contractors responsible for your current service and maintenance. These criteria will include:

Age – refrigeration and air-conditioning plant over 20 years old are likely to be approaching the end of their natural life and should probably be replaced. The bulk of R22 systems will be between 10 to 20 years old and these should be assessed further. As a further guide, if a system has previously been converted from R12 or R502 to R22, then this should also be replaced and not converted a second time. Fairly new HFC systems are likely to be operating effectively and not require major work in the short term.

Condition – if an R22 system has been well maintained and is in good condition, this would tend to be more suitable for a convert solution. Records of refrigerant leakage are important indicators to the likely success.

Meeting Current Cooling Requirements – due to the rapid rate of change in many industries, many refrigeration systems are no longer operating within their original design specification. This is likely to impinge on operating performance, reliability and energy efficiency. This review presents an opportunity to replace the system (or alter it) to meet the current and forecast application requirements.

Energy Efficiency – capital costs of air-conditioning systems are typically around 20 per cent of the total lifetime costs. The benefits of replacing an old system with a new energy‑efficient system should be assessed. New options such as free-cooling can be specified to provide significant on-going savings.

Availability – Some systems are so “embedded” within the building that replacement may be almost impossible. Alternatively, it may be possible to build a replacement plant alongside the existing plant and then switch‑over with the minimum or disruption.

Further information

ACRIB is the Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Industry Board, an umbrella organisation for trade associations in the sector and a company limited by guarantee. It helps to inform and advise the industry and users of refrigeration, air conditioning and heat pump equipment as well as working to improve standards and competence of the workforce: