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New appliance regulations reduce emissions but raise concerns

Silver, stainless steel refrigerators line the aisle of an appliance store.
Alex Simone
/
WBFO / NPR

Summer’s increasingly hot weather highlights the importance of access to cooling appliances like air conditioners.

But access to those resources could look different in the future, with New York adopting new standards for refrigerant emissions.
 
State regulations adopted this year will start phasing out the sale of appliances that use hydrofluorocarbons in 2025, like your air conditioners and freezers do right now.

It would allow residents or businesses to use the non-compliant appliances they already have, but they would be unable to purchase new ones that use hydrofluorocarbons, also known as HFCs.

The change should significantly reduce emissions, said Christina Starr, senior manager of climate campaign for the Environmental Investigation Agency.

“whereas your typical household air conditioner might only have a few pounds of these gasses in it, your average supermarket, for example, has about 3,000 pounds of HFCs in it," she said. "And it leaks about 25% of that refrigerant on average each year, according to the EPA. So that's about the equivalent emissions of 400 cars being added to the road using gasoline.”

HFCs could account for 10% or more of global emissions by 2050 if alternative measures aren’t pursued, according to the Washington State Department of Ecology.

The locally based company Mollenberg-Betz works with industrial-level appliances regularly.

Company president Adam Mollenberg says the state’s updated regulations could be jumping the gun.

“The federal guidelines from the EPA that are out there now. It's a good timeline, it's a timeline that manufacturers have already been working with around the country to meet these, these, these upcoming EPA guidelines. They're prepared for it. We're working towards it. Everybody seems to agree," he said. "It's a very feasible and attainable goal. And now you have New York State DEC trying to push the envelope too far, too quickly, and no one's ready for it … The equipment manufacturers, refrigerant manufacturers, aren't, aren't going to make an effort to be ready for it, because there's 49 other states that aren't going to have these, kind of regulations, are sticking with the federal EPA.”

Starr says these changes have been in the works a long time.

The plans used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which aim to significantly reduce HFC emissions by 2036, mean the state is on the right track, Starr said.

“If we want to accelerate that process and give incentives to help them and support small businesses, for example, in making that transition, we can subsidize the costs of that, especially when it comes to early replacement of systems," she said. "Maybe they can get an incentive for the early replacement of that system, and those types of incentive programs have been implemented in in other states outside of New York, and New York has actually done some of these types of projects through an existing grant program that it has.”

Alternatives like propane and ammonia make sense on the scale of industrial appliances, said Matthew Smith, Mollenberg-Betz Vice President of Services and Operations. But he’s skeptical how well those changes will translate to residential use.

“The refrigerants they're going to, the ammonia, the CO2, they're here already," he said. "Propane has been around forever as a refrigerant as well, but now putting that into residential homes and everything else, is creating other problems, not only the cost but the safety factor of it.”

Mollenberg says the safety is such a concerning factor because the new environmental standards also means making sure the new coolant methods are conducive to the home-setting.

“There is no regulation in place for a residential ammonia system, not that ammonia is a good solution to put in residences. It's great for industrial and we love it, but it's not suitable for residences," he said. "My point is, if you're going to be putting propane or isobutane or CO2 or ammonia, the regulations for the applications … and compliance codes don't exist, building codes don't exist.”

Ammonia is considered corrosive to the lungs, skin and eyes, and also can be flammable, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

But according to the EPA, one advantage of ammonia is that its strong odor means people can be alerted before it reaches dangerous levels.

New York’s updated refrigerant regulations go into effect January 1 of next year.