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Can I be HFC-free? A Quest for Climate-friendly Cooling

Blog post by EIA Climate Research Assistant, Kathrene Garcia

When I talk about the work we do at EIA, I often mention how the climate-damaging chemicals our climate team fights to eliminate are in most household refrigerators. This typically leads to me scouring the inside wall of a friend’s fridge to find the label that reveals its dirty secret: R134a, a super pollutant hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerant inside.

When purchasing a refrigerator there are more than a few things to consider: dimensions, color or finish, configuration, and price usually take precedence; but many buyers have begun to prioritize the impact of their appliances on our planet. Nowadays, LED light-bulbs and energy efficiency are often important considerations for consumers; but few people know to check for what refrigerant is circulating through the back coils of their fridge, or are aware of how dangerous and damaging those chemicals can be.

All refrigerators contain refrigerant, a gas that removes heat, and which have traditionally and commonly been fluorocarbon gases (f-gases). In the 20th century, common f-gases in appliances were ozone-depletors. Eventually these chemicals were phased out under the Montreal Protocol. By the turn of the century, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) began to dominate the market. While their effect on the ozone is negligible, HFCs are super pollutant greenhouse gases that contribute to significant global temperature rise. The average HFC refrigerant in domestic refrigerators is R134a which has a global warming potential (GWP) that is 1400 times worse than the same amount of CO2. Shockingly, even today, R134a continues to be used – despite the availability of natural alternatives.

Finding an HFC-Free Fridge

One evening I was having a typical what-do-you-do-for-work conversation in my then new apartment in DC. I opened my refrigerator door, and to my surprise I found R600a in fine print. Isobutane or R600a is a hydrocarbon with an ultra-low GWP of 3, which is immensely better for the climate than HFCs and more energy efficient.

Two years ago, when the ancient fridge in our EIA office kitchen finally quit, we set out to find an HFC-free replacement. At the time, the U.S. market was miserably trailing the rest of the world in adopting HFC-free household refrigerators. It took much time and effort to determine with certainty that a model was HFC-free; even then, the pickings were slim with only a few available options. While we found what we were looking for, the experience left us discouraged.

r600 label
A quick online search for an HFC-free refrigerator today leads to many dead-ends and numerous text-heavy operation manuals. Equipment specification PDFs on retailer websites often do not list the refrigerant in use, and a consumer is tasked with sifting through documents to find what should be clearly labeled. It remains a tedious, indeed near impossible, process to find an HFC-free refrigerator online.

To make it easier for the climate-conscious consumers, we visited our local appliance stores and inspected the internal labels of the models on the display floor. All refrigerators have a label inside of the case; if you inspect it, you can either find the refrigerant type clearly marked, or if you know to look for R600a or R134a, you can find these numbers hidden on the label. Recently we compiled a list representing a sample of the US market, and released our Buyer’s Guide which details the model numbers for HFC-free fridges, so you can either look up where to buy them online, or know what to look for if you’re shopping for one in store.

What We Found? Times are Changing

Stunned to discover I possessed a hydrocarbon refrigerator, a rare find in the US, I thought, ‘perhaps times have changed after all’.

In just a few years, since the change of an outdated safety standard and subsequent federal and state-level regulations, both advocated and advanced by our campaign, the prevalence of HFC-free models that use R600a has increased significantly. In 2018 we could only find a few available options in our search. Today, just under half, or 44%, of the domestic refrigerators in our sample set used R600a. Of the 11 brands, six had over 50% of their supply using R600a. Notably, big U.S. players like Samsung and LG had 68% and 72% of their respective fleets using R600a, and brands with a large European presence, Bosch, Haier and Hisense, were 100% HFC-free. In many instances, going HFC-free comes with the added benefit of energy efficiency; in our sample set, 80% of the R600a refrigerators qualified for Energy Star certification, whereas there was only about a 50% chance an R134a fridge qualified.

In contrast, brands that have historically dominated the U.S. market, like Electrolux, GE and Whirlpool have far fewer HFC-free options on the market. Some brands, KitchenAid and Maytag, did not have a single HFC-free model in our search. We were surprised to see only a single HFC-free Whirlpool option on the floor in our sampling, given the company frequently touts itself as the number one selling appliance brand. Maybe these brands have HFC-free options online or maybe they don’t; if only it was easier to find out! The fact that this is not easy – even for someone conversant on the topic – is telling of the continued U.S. lag in adopting climate-friendly technologies.

Despite brands slowly adopting these technologies in the U.S., there has been some progress. Since 2018, California and five other states have enacted regulations prohibiting R134a in all new fridges beginning in 2023, and ten other states are in the process of passing similar regulations. Electrolux, announced they will phase-out HFCs from their products globally by 2023, aligning well with these state regulations. While things are changing quickly for household fridges, other types of cooling systems using HFCs, such as supermarkets, still have a long way to go, but we can advocate for faster change.

Ask your Landlord, and your local Supermarket, to eliminate HFCs

I will be moving soon, and I don’t know what refrigerant will be in my next flat. If I’m lucky, it will be climate-friendly, but I have no influence in that decision and little ability to tackle HFCs on my own. That’s the twisted thing about climate-change: it constantly makes us feel like we’re not doing enough, yet the largest players remain unfazed.

Many people, like me, either don’t get to decide what fridge model they use daily, as is the case for most renters and office employees, or will not be purchasing a new fridge for another 5-10 years. While we, as consumers, hold some responsibility, those who purchase refrigerators in large quantities, be it universities during COVID19, apartment complexes and other commercial building owners, or supermarkets could make bigger dents. These entities should be informed on this issue and procure refrigerators that are good for both people and the planet.

Supermarkets in particular have enormous refrigeration systems that extend past the display cases to back room chillers, refrigerated trucks, cold warehouses and so on. With such large systems, supermarkets are among the largest corporate offenders of HFC use, with thousands of tons of these chemicals throughout their cold chain. Yet out of nearly 40,000 supermarkets in the U.S., barely 1% are known to have transitioned to HFC-free systems; our Supermarket Scorecard shows that action and change throughout the industry is needed.

These large companies have a greater climate footprint than you or me, and thus a greater responsibility to transition to climate-friendly alternatives. Some grocers are addressing the climate impact of their cooling. Explore our climate-friendly supermarkets map and search by zip code or address to find a store near you. Join us and Green America in thanking a climate-friendly supermarket near you, or if you don’t see one in your town, ask these grocers to expand on their progress.Together we can do our part by putting pressure on the market, using our dollars wisely, and advocating for change that is bigger than us.

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