Understanding Refrigerant

Whether it's a reach-in refrigerator, countertop display case, or drop-in cooler, every piece of refrigerated equipment relies on liquid refrigerant to provide the consistently cool temperatures that keep products safely stored. However, it's important to understand how refrigerant works, what refrigerant is, and which types of refrigerant may be used in the equipment you purchase.

How Does Refrigerant Work?

Refrigerators safely store food by removing heat from the unit with refrigerant, a substance that circulates through the system after being metered out by a capillary tube or thermal expansion valve. To keep food out of the danger zone, the temperatures provided by refrigeration generally fall in a range of 33 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and commercial freezers may have a temperature range of -10 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

What is Refrigerant?

Refrigerant had long been made with synthetic chemicals such as CFCs (chloroflurocarbon) and HCFCs (hydrochloroflurocarbons). In the 1990s, refrigerants made with CFCs were found to be harmful to the environment and were phased out. As science deepens our understanding of how certain chemicals affect the environment, the replacements to those substances are also being phased out.

Most refrigeration equipment sold in the United States now uses an HFC refrigerant – or refrigerant made from hydroflurocarbons1, organic compounds containing hydrogen, fluorine, and carbon – but these have more recently been recognized as potentially harmful to the environment. While CFCs were found to deplete ozone layers, HFCs are greenhouse gases that trap heat in our atmosphere.2

The EPA's Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) program3 lists which substances are acceptable to use in refrigeration and which ones are unacceptable because a safer substance can now be used instead. Recently, a number of HFCs were ruled to be unacceptable in equipment made after a certain date; the exact date depends on the HFC refrigerant in question, but most are meant to be phased out by 2020 at the latest. It's worth noting that there is a grace period of a few years between the time a refrigerant cannot be used in new equipment and the time that refrigerant will no longer be serviceable by technicians.

Which Type of Refrigerant Does My Unit Use?

In most cases, the data plate on your commercial refrigerator will give you the exact refrigerant use. This sticker or metal plate is typically located inside the unit and includes information including model and serial number.

Generally, older models and those manufactured by companies that have not yet made the switch continue to use an HFC refrigerant. For commercial refrigeration equipment, the most commonly used HFC refrigerants are R404A and R134A.

All refrigerants are chemical substances, but to remain compliant with evolving energy laws, manufacturers are turning to more environmentally friendly alternatives to HFC refrigerants. Many are opting to make equipment that uses hydrocarbon refrigerants like propane, which is labeled R290. This alternative has a much lower Global Warming Potential (GWP) than both R404A and R134A, but it isn't just better for the environment – R290 absorbs heat more quickly and efficiently than HFC refrigerants, allowing units using it to recover set temperatures at a faster rate without using as much energy.

  1. Hydrofluorocarbon (HFC). Encyclopædia Britannica. Accessed July 2017.
  2. HFCs and Other F-gases. Greenpeace. Accessed July 2017.
  3. SNAP Final Rule 20. EPA. Accessed July 2017.