Compiled by Eamonn Ryan

While useful, refrigerants are considered to be a significant contributing factor in global warming and so advancement in technology has brought about the initiation of environment-friendly refrigerants.

Zayd Fredericks, industrial refrigeration representative at Metraclark.

Zayd Fredericks, industrial refrigeration representative at Metraclark. ©RACA Journal

Refrigerants play an essential role in cooling. Refrigerant gases used in all refrigeration systems are classified as natural or synthetic. Ammonia, carbon dioxide and propane are the most widely used natural refrigerants due to their excellent thermodynamic properties. Of all refrigerants applied today, ammonia and CO2 are the oldest that have been used since the 19th century.

Ammonia usage in commercial cold stores is increasing

In recent years, there has been a noticeable surge in the utilisation of ammonia as a refrigerant across various industries. Notably, ammonia emerges as a cost-effective alternative, particularly for larger capacity cooling applications, owing to its lower operational expenses, says Zayd Fredericks, industrial refrigeration representative at Metraclark.

He explains that Metraclark has witnessed a significant increase in demand for ammonia-related equipment. According to Fredericks, this uptick in demand aligns with the growing need for efficient refrigeration solutions, especially among companies involved in cold storage, logistics, breweries, poultry and retail distribution centres.

The reason for choosing ammonia system cooling solutions can be attributed to its cost-efficiency, especially in the face of rising energy costs. Unlike traditional refrigerants like Freon, which may have lower initial capital costs but higher operational expenses, the running costs associated with ammonia are substantially lower. This cost advantage makes it an attractive option for businesses seeking to optimise their operational expenditures in the long term.

 “Despite the higher initial investment required for installing ammonia-based systems, the potential for long-term savings outweighs this drawback for many businesses. While consulting engineers often face challenges in convincing clients to invest in equipment upgrades due to concerns over upfront costs, the cost-effectiveness of ammonia presents a compelling case for consideration,” he adds.

The trend towards increased adoption of ammonia as a refrigerant is not limited to a specific industry or geographic region, says Fredericks. “This growth trajectory is expected to continue, driven primarily by the economic benefits and operational efficiencies offered by this natural refrigerant.”

Beyond mere sales, Fredericks emphasises understanding the benefits of ammonia, particularly in long-term operational efficiency. According to their observations, major cold storage players are strategic in their decision-making processes, indicating that the shift towards ammonia is not impulsive but rather a carefully planned endeavour.

 The rationale behind this strategic shift varies across different sectors. While food security emerges as a primary concern for cold storage facilities, breweries and dairies, the beverage industry operates on a more predictable growth trajectory driven by consumer demand. This dichotomy underscores the importance of cultural and economic factors in shaping industry preferences.

Werner Terblanche of A-Gas South Africa.

Werner Terblanche of A-Gas South Africa. ©RACA Journal

Despite limited information on specific projects, anecdotal evidence suggests a notable uptick in interest, potentially fuelled by legislative changes such as those in the EU mandating lower storage temperatures for perishable goods, as well as phasedown regulations in terms of the Kigali Amendment favouring natural refrigerants.

Furthermore, the expansion of refrigeration capacity, particularly in sectors like citrus production, highlights the broader economic implications of refrigeration trends. While some businesses focus on survival amid market challenges, others capitalise on growth opportunities, leading to a dynamic landscape of industry players.

The geographical distribution of refrigeration projects also reflects the diversity of the market. For instance, while Cape Town may be a hub for certain fruits, the Eastern Cape emerges as a prominent location for ice cream production, catering not only to local demand but also to international markets.

Fredericks concludes that the increased usage of ammonia as a refrigerant signifies a strategic response to evolving market dynamics, driven by a combination of economic, regulatory and operational factors. “As industries continue to prioritise efficiency and sustainability, the role of ammonia in refrigeration is expected to expand further, shaping the future of cold chain logistics and food security initiatives both locally and globally.”

Climate change and challenges for the HVACR industry

SAIRAC Johannesburg President, Robert Fox, delivered the following presentation in a previous Tech Talk, addressing the crucial topic of ‘Climate Change and Challenges for the HVACR Industry’.

 In the early 1970s, scientists at NASA made a noteworthy observation of peculiar ozone readings over the Arctic region. Subsequent research led them to publish a study proposing the existence of an ozone hole, which was met with general scepticism. However, by 1980, as the ozone hole expanded, it garnered global attention and sparked further investigations. This turning point gave rise to the Vienna Convention, which aimed to tackle ozone depletion, and culminated in the Montreal Protocol of 1987.

The Montreal Protocol galvanised international commitment to reduce the use of chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) refrigerants. The ozone hole continued to expand until the year 2000, exacerbated by shifting weather patterns. Only in 2015 did the expansion cease, with a reduction of 20%, thanks to concerted efforts. Subsequently, the Kigali Amendment emerged, focusing on the global warming potential (GWP) and necessitating the phased elimination of hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and phase down of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). South Africa ratified this amendment in 2019.

Our journey in refrigeration dates back to the 1830s when natural refrigerants were first employed. Subsequently in the 1930s, R12 – a synthetic refrigerant known for its affordability and safety – was invented. The period between 1950 and the discovery of ozone depletion witnessed the prevalent use of CFCs, followed by HCFCs, with R22 being the most common variant.

In response to the depletion of the ozone layer, the industry transitioned to HFCs. However, in 2015, the European Union initiated a phase-down of HFCs to achieve a GWP below 150, thereby redirecting the market towards natural refrigerants. Examples of such environmentally favourable alternatives include ammonia, CO2 , and hydrocarbons such as R600 and R290. The Kigali Amendment specifically outlines the phasedown of HFCs.

To comprehensively understand the measures taken to address refrigerant emissions, it is essential to familiarise ourselves with several significant global treaties:

  • Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (1987): The Montreal Protocol is an international environmental treaty aimed at protecting the ozone layer by phasing out the production and consumption of ozonedepleting substances (ODS), including CFCs and HCFCs. It sets specific reduction targets and schedules for the phase-out of these substances, leading to the recovery of the ozone layer.
  • Copenhagen Amendment to the Montreal Protocol (1992): This protocol aimed to accelerate the phase-out of CFCs and HCFCs.
  • Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (1997): It established binding emission reduction targets for several greenhouse gases, including HFCs, by setting specific emissions limits for developed countries during the first commitment period (2008-12).
  • Beijing Amendment to the Montreal Protocol (1999): This established a fund, the Multilateral Fund for the Implementation of the Montreal Protocol, to assist developing countries financially and technologically.
  • Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol (2016): It specifically addresses the phasedown of HFCs, setting targets and schedules for reducing the production and consumption of HFCs, which are potent greenhouse gases used as substitutes for CFCs and HCFCs. The amendment aims to avoid up to 0.5°C of global warming by the end of the century and provides a framework for transitioning to more environmentally friendly alternatives.

These treaties have encouraged the development and use of alternatives that have lower or no impact on the ozone layer and contribute less to climate change.

Commencing in 2024, South Africa embarks on the phasedown of HFCs with a gradual reduction in the volume of imported refrigerants. Consequently, if the current import stands at 100 tons, the new limit will be 90 tons. However, this transition cannot occur overnight due to the considerable lifespan of installed refrigerant systems, which typically spans 20 years.

The phasedown process is anticipated to be a gradual and protracted transition, and significant changes are not expected in the immediate two to three years. However, we have begun observing the emergence of air-conditioning systems utilising R32, a refrigerant boasting a superior GWP of less than 750. While this presents a more favourable option, it is essential for technicians to undergo training in handling the new refrigerants and be aware of their inherent hazards when not handled properly. In the long run, natural refrigerants represent the optimal choice; unfortunately, the necessary hardware is not always available within the country.

Regulatory requirements play a critical role in guiding the industry towards sustainable practices. However, there have been notable delays in governmental decision-making processes. For instance, despite the Kigali Amendment being introduced in 2016, South Africa ratified it only three years later. Currently, the country relies primarily on outdated standard environmental acts as the sole government regulations. In 2012, the HCFC phase-out national plan was introduced, followed by the publication of the National Environment Management Air Quality Act in 2014, which specifically addressed the phase-out and management of ozone-depleting substances. South Africa’s ratification of the Kigali Amendment occurred in 2019. In 2021, an amendment was published; however, it failed to provide substantial guidance on the future phasedown in accordance with the Kigali Amendment. Consequently, a pervasive sense of uncertainty prevails, and a comprehensive roadmap for transitioning towards natural refrigerants remains absent.

A rapt audience at the April SAIRAC Johannesburg Tech Talk hosted at ACRA.

A rapt audience at the April SAIRAC Johannesburg Tech Talk hosted at ACRA. ©RACA Journal

Although hydrocarbon refrigeration technology is already established in other parts of the world, it is not yet fully commercially available within South Africa and is currently limited to the domestic appliance market segment. Importation of such technology is currently limited due to the lack of demand within the country.

The complexity escalates when considering multiplex systems employing ammonia and CO2 . Furthermore, analysing the cost of refrigerants relative to the baseline R22, R404 demonstrates a substantial increase of approximately 1.7 times, while the new refrigerant 448 is nearly 3.3 times more expensive than R22. Conversely, R290 proves to be a more affordable alternative to R22; however, its viability is hindered by the unavailability of compatible hardware.

Addressing maintenance costs, fuel quality, pressure and flammability requires adherence to safety principles outlined in SANS 10147 and ASHRAE Standard 34, which categorise refrigerants into different safety groups.

Regardless of the safety group classification, be it A1 or A3, utmost importance must be placed on ensuring proper handling to mitigate potential risks. Technicians operating in the industry must prioritise the critical aspect of refrigerant training. Alarmingly, a significant number of technicians remain unregistered and lack adequate training. It is imperative to drum home the necessity of attending training programmes to enable safe handling of refrigerants. This presents a formidable challenge that must be urgently addressed.

The good and the bad of refrigerants

Regular Cold Link Africa contributor Andrew Perks writes: “It was noted in a recent Global Cold Chain Alliance webinar in Cape Town, in an open discussion on ‘manage the moment’, that plant operator errors account for on average 80% of all the incidents recorded.

“There was an incident recently at a meat processing facility in the Free State which resulted in a serious incident which escalated due to unexpected factors. The engineer from the site that had the incident was quite open and shared the impact to the site with the escalating circumstances related to turbulent variable wind direction moving the released ammonia around the site so much that they had to relocate to different assembly points three times during the incident. This not only escalated the incident but made it very difficult to maintain order with those affected that were being evacuated.

 “You just have got to get incident response procedures in place and do regular training. It’s all about training, training and then some more training. While you may send your technical staff for SAQCCGas training, you still need to comply with current regulations that require an annual site incident response training/ evacuation plan that complies with SANS 1514,” says Perks. So, what do we do about getting prepared for your worst nightmare?

“It was agreed (in the discussion during the webinar) that having an up-to-date emergency plan is the first step. Thereafter, you need to undertake yearly site incident response/evacuation training exercises to get your emergency teams up to speed, which also keeps you in line with the MHI and OHS Act regulation’s requirements. It’s important so that in the event of an incident there are no surprises, and everyone knows how to react.”

As Perks says in the article, “hindsight is an exact science”, however in practice nothing is as valuable as having hands-on experience when dealing with potentially dangerous refrigerants such as ammonia. Nonetheless, despite the risks, Perks emphasises that there are many advantages to using ammonia due to the fact that it is extremely efficient and holds the potential to solve future energy requirements. As ammonia is a natural refrigerant it will not damage the ozone layer and is a clean source of energy.

“Lest you have forgotten, ammonia’s chemical formula is NH3. That is one particle of nitrogen and three parts of hydrogen. It’s the hydrogen that makes ammonia hazardous but it’s also the hydrogen that makes it useful as an energy source. As ammonia, all the particles are bound together, so it is easy to transport,” writes Perks.

“The fact that hydrogen is one of the lightest gases we know after helium makes it difficult to transport, but with the correct process we can split ammonia which is easy to transport into its base components of Nitrogen and Hydrogen. Starting to make sense? So much so that we now have an ammonia energy industry. Back in the day who would have thought this to be the reality of today?”

Supplied by Robert Fox

Supplied by Robert Fox

Perks highlights the fact that there are various ‘green’ ammonia projects which are currently being undertaken across the globe, which will open up a multitude of possibilities for using ammonia as a fuel source. In fact, such ‘bunkering’ studies have been underway for decades to find ways of using ammonia experimentally to fuel cars and ships. One of the advantages identified by Perks is that the only emission produced by cars using ammonia is water vapour, making it extremely clean as a fuel source.

“A couple of years ago, the Ammonia Safety & Training Institute (ASTI) took the decision to develop training programmes for use in the ammonia energy industry. ASTI realised that the skill set required in the ammonia energy industry is quite different to the ammonia refrigeration industry in that the level of prior knowledge is negligible for those attending the training courses. In order to cope with that, ASTI developed a course ‘ammonia 101’ for the energy industry. Perks Enterprises believe that they are in the unique position along with ASTI to bring this specialised safety training for the ammonia energy industry to South Africa.

“The fact that South Africa is developing a new industry in the country to supply ammonia for green energy purposes is encouraging. There currently is a development in Gqeberha which is projected to come online in 2025 reaching full capacity in 2026 with a view of exporting Ammonia worldwide. This requires that someone be in a position to supply relevant training and certification. The project is said to be looking at filling up to 10 000 jobs when completely operational. The need for safety and operational training is therefore massive.”

“One of the problems with the current training programmes in South Africa is that we really only have a skills programme for artisan training. You have to start somewhere but we also need to add those specific skills required for others who actually operate in the field,” writes Perks.

The management of refrigerants

The main purpose in managing refrigerants is to preserve and protect the environment. Werner Terblanche of A-Gas South Africa delivered the following presentation at SAIRAC Johannesburg’s Tech Talk at ACRA.

Refrigeration and air conditioning systems have become an essential part of modern life. In recent years, there has been growing concern about the impact of these systems on the environment. A-Gas has adopted an approach over the last couple of years that takes into account the regulations that practitioners must comply with and to ensure the doing away with harmful gases and replacing them with safer alternatives.

The main aim is to create a better approach to lifestyle management of refrigerants. Sustainability is becoming increasingly important, and it is becoming harder to ensure that decisions made today are futureproof. At a time when consumers are demanding that products are manufactured and managed in less wasteful ways, recycling and reusing materials has never been more important to industries across the globe. This is the circular economy.

A-Gas’ on-site rapid recovery teams recover gas that has already been used, for example, in air conditioning systems or supermarket refrigerators, returning it to its facilities to be cleaned for future reuse.

The focus on climate change has meant extraordinary growth in worldwide environmental legislation. As each new piece of legislation is adopted in countries around the globe, the type and makeup of the gases sold has changed at varying rates.

The company sources next-generation products while finding recovery and reprocessing material from the market. Governments around the world look to it to responsibly and efficiently manage these critical resources. Major air-conditioning manufacturers utilise its reclaimed refrigerants to fill certain models of current generation air conditioning units. These are recovered, cleaned, separated and reclaimed.

From 2024, the importance of HFCs will decrease significantly and African countries will be implementing similar measures to phase out HFCs. The amount of HFCs imported into a country will be based on a predetermined construction plan. Importers of HFCs and other gases will need to manage these gases to ensure that they are being used in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way.

One aspect of supply chain management that is unavoidable is the need for proper disposal and reclamation of gases. Many endusers require certification to show that a company has properly handled their gases. A-Gas can issue certificates to show what actions have been taken with each cylinder.

Another option is to have a dedicated team come to the site for gas recovery. This is a more expensive solution, but it ensures that the gases are handled efficiently and effectively. The team can recover gas cylinders, equipment, and all other necessary items. We even offer a buyback programme, which allows customers to return their empty cylinders and receive a refund.

Some customers may wonder where they can take outdated or contaminated gas. It is important to note that these gases should not be handled by inexperienced individuals or left to accumulate on-site.

One of the key challenges is the mindset of business owners who prioritise profits over environmental responsibility. It is essential to encourage these owners to see the benefits of investing in recovery and to view it as a way to generate income through a higher value service. In some cases, it may be more cost-effective to outsource the recovery process to a specialist company, rather than trying to recover refrigerant in-house.

Presenter Werner Terblanche of A-Gas South Africa describing the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol phase-out and phase-down regulations.

Presenter Werner Terblanche of A-Gas South Africa describing the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol phase-out and phase-down regulations. ©RACA Journal

One issue that arises is when the refrigerant is mixed or blended, making it impossible to separate. It is essential to handle such cases with care, as contaminated refrigerant can cause significant damage. The government may not support the recovery of small amounts of gas, which can lead technicians to recover the gas themselves. This practice can lead to workshops being filled with bottles of recovered refrigerant, which can then be given to recovery companies to dispose of properly.

There are laws and regulations in place that mandate proper recovery and disposal. Failure to comply can lead to fines and other penalties. Therefore, it is important to ensure that all cylinders used for recovery are checked and certified to be safe for reuse.

R32 and global warming potential

According to a White Paper by Daikin Corporation on R32, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), as the name suggests, are compounds containing hydrogen, fluorine and carbon. They are used for residential and commercial HVAC as refrigerants, by firefighters as a fire suppressant, and in aerosols as propellants.

HFCs are also greenhouse gases often described in terms of their GWP, which is the tendency of a substance to persist in the environment while absorbing energy and, thus, retain higher energy and temperatures in the atmosphere.

GWP ratings for substances and material that contribute to the potential of global warming are developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN body responsible for assessing the science related to climate change.

GWP uses the same scale to evaluate all substances and materials, making comparisons of direct emissions of refrigerants easy. For example, R410A – a commonly used HFC refrigerant over the past two decades – has a GWP of 2088, which suggests that each kilogramme of R410A emitted to the atmosphere is equivalent to 2 088kg of CO2 emissions. Different refrigerants have different GWPs: R32, or difluoromethane (CH2F2), is an HFC refrigerant with a GWP of 675, which is markedly lower than that of R410A and many other commonly used refrigerants. However, GWP is only one refrigerant property and not the only measure of a refrigerant’s environmental impact when employed in HVAC systems.

To estimate the total emissions-related effects of a refrigerant’s use in HVAC systems, environmental researchers often employ a methodology known as Life Cycle Climate Performance (LCCP) modelling. LCCP modelling estimates the total direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions over an HVAC’s system’s lifetime, from manufacturing to disposal and recycling.

Put differently, an LCCP analysis considers a refrigerant’s physical properties and thermodynamic performance as well as the impacts of that refrigerant’s use in an HVAC system to estimate total CO2 equivalent emissions over that HVAC system’s lifetime.

R-32’s properties can help HVAC engineers design systems that have a lower greenhouse gas emission impact than R410A. R-32 has greater latent heat capacity than R410A, which means that R-32 systems could be designed to achieve the same capacity performance by circulating less refrigerant at a lower flow rate through the compressor. A lower charge of R-32 refrigerant in comparison to R410A allows HVAC engineers the opportunity to design smaller compressors and coils.

These characteristics of R-32 help give engineers the tools they need to design R-32 systems with energy savings and a reduction in the material used. These indirect benefits can have a significant impact on the environment that are not accounted for in a GWP rating alone.

 Daikin lab tests on rooftop systems equipped with inverter[1]driven compressors and water-cooled chillers found that full-load and part-load efficiency rating metrics improved by up to 12% by using R-32 as compared to R410A. Daikin engineers have also found that R-32 can be used in heat pump and cooling applications and extreme cold and hot climates with improved performance over R-410A. According to the EIA projections, 94% of the required energy for operating air-conditioning systems was provided using electricity from non-renewable sources.


  1. Previous issues of Cold Link Africa – contributor Andrew Perks
  2. Various SAIRAC Johannesburg Tech Talks attended by RACA Journal
  3. White Paper by Daikin Corporation on R32 Refrigerant
  4. Andrew Perks of Perks Enterprises