If your company has been busy on the environmental front, especially in shrinking its carbon footprint, you have reason to smile. But unless it has taken a particular step to combat CO2, a move many companies have yet to consider, your smile may turn into a frown. What’s the critical step? Keeping track of its refrigerants.
That’s right. By preventing leaks of refrigerants – the substances that keep your light-filled office cool on a summer day and your data servers from overheating — your company can reduce its carbon footprint by thousands of metric tons and save itself some real money in the process.
Hydrochlorofluorocarbons, the substance linked to peeling a hole in the planet’s ozone layer, are being phased out as a refrigerant. But replacing this ozone-depleting substance are hydrofluorocarbons. And HFCs have the potential of warming the globe by at least 1,000 times that of CO2. Already in the United States, they are puffing 119.3 million metric tons of global warming gases into the atmosphere annually.
Consider: One commercial office building that simply prevented a quarter ton, or about 15 percent, of its refrigerant from leaking from a chiller for a year, decreased as much greenhouse gas as that saved by retrofitting its building to be 30 percent more energy efficient.
So what can a company do? Your environmental chief or building superintendent should find out when the building’s chiller system was last charged and how many pounds of refrigerant were added. Typically, chillers are closed-loop systems, so that charge represents refrigerants that have leaked from the chilling system. Relatively simple refrigerant tracking will make it easy to monitor and manage refrigerant gas leaks.
With some simple joint braising, your company can celebrate the most environmentally responsible day it has had in years. And every braised joint not only helps your chiller operate more efficiently, it’s saving the company the cost of the refrigerant charge and the service call.
Beyond leak prevention, refrigerant system retrofits can pay for themselves in as little as five years through refrigerant savings, improved reliability, lower maintenance costs and decreased energy consumption. Your company also could try using alternative refrigerants, with far smaller global-warming potentials; this will peg it as a truly cutting-edge refrigerant manager. Of course, good risk managers should ensure their buildings’ chillers are equipped with a dual relief valve to prevent the entire refrigerant charge from escaping – a giant puff of invisible dollars and greenhouse gases into the air – in the event of breached pipe.
By the way, your home and car are likely filled with refrigerants too. You can help the environment yourself by asking your city or electric utility to pick up your out-of-date window air conditioners and refrigerators (and think twice whether you really need that energy-hogging old fridge keeping your beer cold in the basement). More and more utilities are collecting these old appliances and partnering with companies that not only render appliance refrigerant gases inert, but also sell credits on the carbon markets for having done so.
Joyce E. Coffee, LEED AP, is vice president of CSR & Sustainability at Edelman Chicago.