The New EPA Final Rule on Refrigerant Management: How Does it Affect You?

EPA recently issued a final rule that updates refrigerant management requirements under Section 608 of the Clean Air Act. The rule, which was published in the Federal Register on November 18, 2016 and is now in effect as of January 1, 2017, extends existing requirements and sales restrictions for ozone depleting refrigerants to certain substitutes, lowers leak rate thresholds that trigger repair requirements, and establishes new reporting, recordkeeping and inspection requirements.

If your business operates or services larger refrigerant containing equipment, there is a good chance that this new rule will impact you. Let’s take a closer look at the new rule and understand how your company can prepare for compliance.

Background

Ozone depleting substances (ODSs) are generally human-made chemicals that damage the stratospheric ozone layer needed to protect life on earth from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Serious concerns about damage to the ozone layer by ODSs had developed by the 1970s, prompting widespread support for regulations to address these chemicals. In response to these concerns, EPA issued regulations establishing a national refrigerant management program in 1993. These regulations created requirements for refrigerant recovery equipment, restricted sales of refrigerant so that only qualified technicians could purchase it, required removal of all ODSs from appliances prior to disposal, and mandated repair of leaking appliances when annual leak rates of 35% (for commercial refrigeration appliances) or 15% (for comfort cooling appliances) were exceeded. Several updates to the regulations were made between 1994 and 2014, including procedures for revocation or suspension of approval to certify technicians and recycling equipment, and revised recordkeeping requirements.

The risks associated with ODSs prompted exploration and development of alternative refrigerants, with certain hydrofluorcarbons (HFCs) becoming the most common replacement. Unfortunately, many HFCs pose problems of their own, including human health risks and substantial global warming potential (GWP). EPA saw an increasing need to revise the refrigerant management regulatory requirements to address the widespread use of HFCs and better safeguard human health and the environment from all forms of refrigerant use.

What Does the Rule Do?

The final rule establishes new requirements intended to promote proper handling and use of ODSs and HFCs, and harmonize refrigerant management requirements across all refrigerant types. The rule contains provisions that affect both owners/operators of refrigerant-containing appliances and the technicians who service them. In particular, the rule:

1) Generally extends existing requirements of the refrigerant management program toward ODSs to substitute refrigerants such as HFCs. As an example, documentation of amounts of refrigerant removed or added to appliances formerly was required only for ODSs, but is now required for substitute refrigerants, as well.

2) Lowers the leak rate threshold triggering requirement to repair refrigerant-containing equipment containing 50 pounds or more of refrigerant. Beginning January 1, 2019 owners/operators must now identify and repair leaks that exceed 30% for industrial process refrigeration (previously 35%), 20% for commercial refrigeration (previously 35%), and 10% for comfort cooling (previously 15%) within 30 days of when the ODS or substitute refrigerant is added. Leaks must be repaired such that the leak rate is brought below the applicable leak rate. More information on leak repair requirements and EPA definitions of these three appliance types are available here.

3) Mandates that beginning January 1, 2019 owners/operators of all three appliance types listed above must perform and document both an initial and follow-up verification test of leak repairs whenever appliances exceed the applicable leak rate. An initial verification test must be performed before any additional refrigerant is added to the appliance. A follow-up verification test must be performed only after the appliance has returned to normal operating characteristics and conditions.

4) Stipulates that verification tests must demonstrate that leaks were successfully repaired. If either the initial or follow-up verification test indicates that repairs were not successful, owners/operators may conduct as many additional repairs and verification tests as needed within the allotted 30 day repair period. The repair period is extended to 120 days if an industrial process shutdown is required. In the event that repair within the applicable timeframe is not feasible, owners/operators of these three appliance types may request limited extensions to the deadline.

5) States that if the leak rate still cannot be brought below the acceptable threshold, either because the leak cannot be identified or because the appliance still leaks following repairs, owners/operators must create a retrofit or retirement plan for the appliances. A retrofit/retirement plan is also required if the owner/operator chooses to retrofit or retire rather than repair the leaks. The retrofit/retirement plan must contain the identification of the appliance, type and full charge of refrigerant used, type and full charge of alternative refrigerant (if retrofitting), plan for disposition of recovered refrigerant, plan for disposition of appliance (if retiring), and a schedule for completion of the retirement or retrofit within one year.

6) Requires owners/operators to conduct leak inspections for appliances that have exceeded applicable threshold leak rate starting on January 1, 2019. All inspections must be conducted by a certified technician, and must include all visible components of an appliance. The frequency of leak inspections is determined as follows:

  • Commercial refrigeration and industrial process refrigeration: Appliances containing 50 to 500 pounds of charge must be inspected once per calendar year until the owner/operator can demonstrate through leak rate calculations that the leak rate has not exceeded 20% (for commercial refrigeration) or 30% (for industrial process refrigeration appliances) for four quarters in a row. Appliances with more than 500 pounds of charge require inspection once every three months.
  • Comfort cooling: All appliances containing 50 pounds or more of charge must per inspected once per calendar year, until the owner/operator can demonstrate through leak rate calculations that the leak rate has not exceeded 10% for one year.

7) Requires owners/operators to submit reports to the EPA if any appliance containing 50 pounds or more of refrigerant leaks 125% or more of its full charge within one calendar year. The report must document efforts to identify leaks and repair the appliance.

8) Imposes new sales restrictions for refrigerants. Effective since January 1, 2017, recovered ODSs and substitute refrigerants may not be resold unless they were reclaimed by a certified reclaimer, or transferred into equipment belonging to the same owner. The actual sale of these refrigerants will be restricted to certified technicians beginning on January 1, 2018.

9) Requires owners/operators to maintain hard or electronic copies of the following:

  • Documentation of the full charge of appliances.
  • Records (such as invoices) showing when service or maintenance is performed, when refrigerant is added or removed, when leak inspections are conducted, and when verification tests are conducted.
  • Owners/operators using automatic leak detection systems must document that the system is installed and calibrated annually and record leaks identified by the monitoring system, including the time and location of the leak.
  • Retrofit/retirement plans.
  • Requests submitted to EPA to extend repair/retrofit deadlines.
  • Documentation of when a system was “mothballed” (temporarily taken out of service) to suspend a repair deadline, if applicable. Corresponding documentation must be maintained when refrigerant is added back into the appliance and it is brought back on-line.
  • Records to demonstrate a seasonal variance.
  • Reports for appliances identified as leaking 125% or more of their full charge within a calendar year.

10) Requires technicians to keep records of refrigerant recovered during system disposal from any systems with a 5 to 50 pound charge size. The records must include the location, date of recovery and type of refrigerant recovered for each disposed appliance, the quantity and type of refrigerant recovered within each calendar month, and information about quantities and types of refrigerant shipped for reclamation or destruction, including the party to which the material was transferred. This requirement goes into effect on January 1, 2018.

11) Requires technicians to evacuate ODSs or substitute refrigerants to levels specified in the regulations, using certified recovery/recycling equipment. Technicians evacuating refrigerant from motor vehicle air conditioning (MVAC) appliances must either evacuate the refrigerants or reduce the system pressure to below 102 mm of mercury. This requirement goes into effect on January 1, 2018.

12) The rule does not change certification requirements for currently certified technicians. Starting on January 1, 2018, technicians who have not yet been certified must pass a certification exam updated to reflect the new rule and offered by an approved certification program in order to maintain, service, repair or dispose of appliances containing ODSs or substitute refrigerants. Technicians must maintain a copy of their certificates at their place of business, and must maintain a copy until three years after they cease operating as a technician.

It should be noted that while the rule established greater regulatory reach over many refrigerants not previously addressed under Section 608, it does specifically exempt a number of ODS substitutes, including carbon dioxide, nitrogen and water in any application, and ammonia, chlorine, hydrocarbons, ethane (R-170), propane (R-290) and isobutene and specific applications and appliances.

Because this rule was already effective before the issue of a January 20, 2017 White House directive that stalled the effective date of many other recent safety and environmental regulations, it appears to be outside of the reach of that directive. While the potential for the current administration to attempt to challenge or weaken those compliance obligations that have not yet gone into effect cannot be ruled out, there is no such known effort as of the date of this writing. Barring any such effort, the rule will remain in effect and the compliance due dates discussed above will go into effect as scheduled.

Let VelocityEHS Help

The new final rule creates new compliance obligations for owners/operators of refrigerant containing equipment as well as technicians, but with the right tools in place, you will be ready to meet these requirements. The VelocityEHS Audit & Inspection solution lets you efficiently schedule and track the leak-rate inspections required by the rule, and is fully integrated with our Corrective Action solution so you’ll be able to easily manage all follow-up activity, including repairs necessary to reduce leak rates. With our Compliance Management solution, you’ll be able to track all of the due dates and other requirements you and your workforce must manage to comply with the final rule. Our solutions are designed with the needs of users like you in mind, and make it easier than ever to meet the challenges of a changing regulatory landscape and establish yourself as an EHS leader.