One of the signature moments for natural refrigerants in the U.S. last year occurred in September when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) raised the charge limit for three hydrocarbons – isobutane (R600a), propane (R290) and R441 – in new home refrigerators and freezers to 150 g from 57 g under the Significant New Alternatives Program (SNAP).

The higher charge limit enables appliance manufacturers to supply U.S. consumers with full-size refrigerators using isobutane – which had not been possible when the charge limit was 57 g. (Smaller-size isobutane fridges using up to 57 g have been available.) The U.S. will thus join other large global markets like Europe and China where the full-size isobutane fridges have been marketed for more than 15 years.

But when will consumers start seeing the full-size isobutane refrigerators in stores?

No later than 2022, said Kevin Messner, senior vice president, policy & government relations for the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM), based in Washington, D.C.  That’s the year that California has set for the prohibition of high-GWP HFCs like R134a in full-size home fridges; similar bans will apply to built-in units the following year.

The EPA’s national deadline of 2021 for high-GWP refrigerant bans in home units fell into limbo last year following the suspension of SNAP rules for these gases. “California is where the action is,” said Messner, who hopes similar regulations in other states will mirror what California has done.  Differing dates “would be a barrier for the transition” to isobutane,

2022 received industry support in California as a deadline because “it generally takes three years to redesign and retool for a new energy standard,” Messner said. While some manufacturers had started gearing up for the change, they couldn’t make a big investment “until EPA finalized the regulation.”

Still, consumers could start seeing isobutane units sooner than 2022, though “this year would be quick,” said Messner.

Lixin Chen, a sales representative for J & C International, a Canadian compressor manufacturer, thinks the new isobutane fridges could start emerging in 2019, with “more and more next year.” J&C supplies such OEMs as Frigidaire, Electrolux and Haier/General Electric.

“Eventually, the U.S. [home fridge market] will be 100% isobutane,” he said, citing the higher efficiency of the units.

The efficiency of isobutane compared to R134a stems from the former’s denser molecule, which “moves heat better,” said Messner, though he declined to say how complete units would perform.

“Eventually, the U.S. [home fridge market] will be 100% isobutane.”

Lixin Chen, J & C International Ltd.

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