World Refrigeration Day: A look at the numbers in the USA

June 26, 2019 / by Ted Atwood

Ted Atwood

Today is the first Annual World Refrigeration Day! All around the world, companies, agencies and associations responsible for providing equipment, services, support, R&D, regulations, protocols, policies, safety and health will share their knowledge. The core purpose is bringing recognition to the importance of refrigeration (and HVAC/R), its impact on the world, and plans for the future. 

Our favorite topic is refrigerant and refrigerant management. Each week we talk about leaks, impact, controls, best practices and evolving regulations. So we’re taking today to share some of the statistics that drive us, and our overriding goal of controlling emissions and leaks by building tools, processes and protocols.

By the Numbers

Our favorite topic is refrigerant and refrigerant management. Each week we talk about leaks, impact, controls, best practices and evolving regulations. So we’re taking today to share some of the statistics that drive us, and our overriding goal of controlling emissions and leaks by building tools, processes and protocols.

Each year the EPA publishes the refrigerant reclaim numbers, the total weight of all gasses returned to certified reclaim companies in the previous calendar year. These numbers are significant because they tell the story about what is being returned, help us understand the health of the refrigerant recovery industry, and measure our progress or status.  The EPA seems to be missing refrigerant reclaim numbers from the 1990’s but beginning in 2000 they have been doing a great job of tracking the results. We have extracted the 2014 – 2018 values to better understand the short-term trends.

We Know Recycling/Reclaiming

A little context here might help. Trakref’s early roots were in the reclaim industry. We started by building, selling and supporting a massive worldwide network of enormous refrigerant recycling equipment (commonly referred to as reclaim equipment). Ultimately, we built, owned and operated more than 11 plants over 20 years.  These plants processed thousands of pounds of refrigerants every hour. In total, if all our machines were turned on at once we could recycle (reclaim) more than 40,000 pounds per hour.  But this rarely every happened.  Why?  Because the US refrigerant reclaim numbers have never risen to over 16M lbs.  This seems high, right? That’s a lot of refrigerant. But compared to the total quantity bought to fill leaks, charge new systems and keep all your food, offices, data and research cold (600M lbs) it’s less than 3% of the total. 

We won’t go into why it’s so low, we spend the rest of the year talking about that. Today we will drill into the numbers and what they mean. But first we’re going to pause for a Thank You!

Thank You!

Thank you to the people who recovered that nearly 16M lbs of refrigerant.  Why?  Well, here is our understanding of the work it took to do this job….

  • 16,000,000 lbs – Ok, so we are over-stating slightly for this discussion. But the real numbers are in the download.

  • The average recovery tank (cylinder) holds approximately 15 lbs. Note, these are circa 2014 numbers. But they were consistent for 20 years so it’s not likely to have changed very much.

  • That’s approximately 1,100,000 recovery cylinders – Woo hoo! And for those who like statistics, the average recovery cylinder makes fewer than 2 trips every year out and back from a reclaim facility. So that means roughly 500,000 cylinders made the journey around the US. I don’t know how this impacts our discussion, but statistics are addictive, and some values can be useless. I think this is one of the useless ones (I have more but will hold back on sharing).

  • There are 250,000 techs in the US (Bureau of Labor Statistics) doing all this work (not enough by the way), and that means that each sent back 5 cylinders. This stat is likely really wrong because many smaller systems are not recovered. They leak out and regulations don’t affect these systems. So it is safe to assume...

  • Most recovery work is done on larger systems (50 lbs and over), so:

    • If the system had 50lbs at its installed gas
    • And ½ the gas was in the system (another assumption) when recovery began
    • Then less than 650,000 systems were actually recovered

So what does all this mean?  Less is being recovered than was originally planned. Not just by our expectations, but by the high-level thinkers with MBAs and degrees in policy, business and behavior. Everyone underestimated the apathy, and overestimated the reach of the federal government.

Back to the Numbers

Let’s take a look at the top 5 things gleaned from the 2018 reclaim statistics:

  1. HFCs are NEW in 2017 reporting. Though it looks like a bump in returns, the EPA is finally reporting on HFC emissions, and they now account for 33% of all gas returns. Don’t be confused by the significant increase in 2017/2018 numbers over the 2016 values, because they include an entire class of refrigerants not included in previous years.

  2. R-22 is down 7% BUT it accounts for about 50% of all R-22 (excluding stockpiles) available for resale. Why is it down?  Most likely techs are hoarding the gas to hedge against costly buying or shortages to come in the near future. 

  3. CFC and HCFC returns to reclaimers are way down nearly 11% overall. This is a true reading of the reclaim impact, since in this category (R-22 included) these gasses are not very useful. Technicians are likely to return the gas since they have no ability or interest in reusing for other clients. 

  4. Mixed refrigerant is way up! It accounts for 7% of all gas returns. From experience this number is larger (closer to 25%) on small cylinder returns and lower for large recovery projects and larger cylinders. It’s also significant to note that this category of refrigerant grew 159%, the most significant growth in refrigerant returns year over year. 

  5. Overall the numbers are static, with only a 2.5% decrease in refrigerant returns.

BONUS INSIGHT:  The carbon value of the refrigerant returned to reclaim is down 7%.

Get My Free Review of  Refrigerant Reclaim Numbers!

Why do reclaim numbers matter?

Refrigerant reclaim is a bellwether to tell us how well the industry is responding to EPA regulations and how much people in the industry are doing to recover, capture and return refrigerants.  Production and sales of refrigerants continue to grow. When I first started in 1994, only about 150M lbs of refrigerant were consumed in the US and reclaim numbers in 1995 were roughly 12M lbs or about 8% of total market share.  Since then we have watched reclaim numbers steadily drop to 3%. 25 years ago, there was a lot of hope and promise (and investment) when regulations went into effect. The US HVAC/R industry rallied to lead the world in recovery, reclaim and results.

As we celebrate the first World Refrigeration Day we want to take time to thank everyone that has contributed to the 15,579,914 lbs, recovered, stored, shipped, tested, recycled, repacked and resold (an in some cases destroyed). It was a lot of work and we encourage those of you on the sidelines to do more to improve on this effort. 

Trakref  is thrilled to celebrate World Refrigeration Day & All the people who made it possible!

Click below to receive a downloadable PDF of our report!

Get My Free Review of  Refrigerant Reclaim Numbers!



Topics: HVAC/R, Refrigerant Compliance, Refrigerant Management, refrigerants, private governance, Regulation, recycling, World Refrigeration Day, emissions

Ted Atwood

Written by Ted Atwood

Ted is the President & CEO of Trakref, a cloud-based HVAC/R and refrigerant management software company that provides unprecedented solutions for commercial properties. He has spent more than 20 years in the HVAC/R industry, even owning and operating one of the nation’s largest refrigerant reclaim and recycling companies.