First published in Frozen & Refrigerated Buyer Magazine July 2015
How much R-22 is really in your racks? It may be a lot less than you’re claiming, and that could spell big trouble.
The relationship between the Environmental Protection Agency and the Section 608 regulated community is normally anything but agreeable. Yet in one respect, the EPA regulators and regulated supermarkets are of the same mind: when it comes to charge size, don’t ask, don’t tell.
35% TRIGGER RATE
The much-feared 35% trigger rate calculation in Section 608 depends on a rack’s charge size. Unfortunately, that charge size is often wrong. By a lot. But you won’t find anyone in the industry openly discussing the problem. There is tacit agreement on all sides that the less said, the better.
This issue came to my attention while I headed up the EPA’s GreenChill Partnership. A partner discovered that the amount of R-22 that service technicians were claiming to have pulled out of racks during retrofits didn’t match the “official” charge size in the company’s Section 608 refrigerant records. The discrepancy in the charge numbers was as much as 30-35%. This would not be a compliance problem if the calculated amount of R-22 in the records were 30-35% lower than the amount that was pulled out of the system. But it wasn’t. They were pulling significantly less R-22 out of their systems than they had on the books.
So, was someone skimming R-22 out of the systems that were up for retrofit? Was a lot of R-22 being vented during the retrofit process? Those two potential causes were easily eliminated by close supervision of the next retrofits. There truly was significantly less R-22 in the racks than the company had thought, and these artificially high charge sizes had been the basis for the company’s trigger leak rate calculations for decades. Upon further investigation, we found that this company wasn’t alone.
A lot of missing R-22 is a financial problem, but why is it a Section 608 problem? Leak rates are a factor of the amount of refrigerant leaked and the amount of refrigerant in a rack. A 300-pound leak from a rack that has 1,000 pounds in it is a 30% leak rate. If that rack really has only 800 pounds in it, then the leak rate is actually more than 37%, which exceeds the Section 608 trigger rate.
The Section 608 trigger rate of 35% is what “triggers” additional compliance obligations. Supermarkets are supposed to repair all known leaks in their systems, and they must calculate a leak rate every time refrigerant is added. If a rack leaks more than 35% of its charge in a 365-day period, EPA regulations require certain actions within specific time frames. If a store is unable to document the proper actions, heavy fines can follow. That’s HEAVY in all caps. Up to $37,500 per violation per day. One violation, if not addressed for a month, can lead to a fine of $1,125,000.
A company’s chances of tripping the 35% leak rate trigger are lower if the rack’s charge size is listed as being higher than it really is. In most cases, I suspect that the initial charge of older racks was not deliberately misstated. Companies simply had no idea how much refrigerant was in their older racks, so the EPA allowed companies to estimate the charge size if there were no records of the initial charge. There are several suggested methods for calculating charge size in Section 608, but the EPA also allows a company to develop its own methodology. Many estimates, regardless of methodology, are leading to charge size inflation.
There would not be a problem if there were a way to ensure that the calculations are somewhat correct. But the EPA is unlikely to demand that all the refrigerant be pulled from a rack to validate the accuracy of charge estimates. Nor is it likely to point out that the foundation of the most feared part of 608 is questionable. It seems it is easier for the EPA to accept the status quo than to find a solution to the problem. And the regulated community is unlikely to mention to an inspector that they really don’t know how much refrigerant is in each rack. Thus, we have tacit agreement among all parties to just pretend this isn’t an issue.
I’ll continue tackling the issues around charge sizes in the next issue.