If all goes according to Aleksej Pavšukov’s plan, Lithuanian OEM Refra will soon become a major player in the HVAC space — using natural refrigerants, especially propane (R290).
Pavšukov joined Refra as a Sales Manager in 2018 and was named CEO in August 2023. In a recent interview with ATMOsphere Founder and CEO Marc Chasserot, Pavšukov said that he sees propane-based (R290) HVAC systems, in particular chillers and heat pumps, as the core of the company’s future business. ATMOsphere is the publisher of Hydrocarbons21.com.
“I would like to believe that [by 2030] it will be 80% of the business,” said Pavšukov. “In the next 10 years, we’d like to be with the big guys in the market.”
Refra has been building CO2 (R744) refrigeration systems since 2005 and began manufacturing hydrocarbon (R290 and propylene/R1270) chillers in 2013 and reversible hydrocarbon heat pumps in 2018. The company, headquartered in Vilnius, also builds condensing units for small air conditioning systems and commercial cooling applications.
Of course, when it comes to building R290 HVAC systems, there are many challenges. Refra must find a way to compete on price with HFC systems, convince customers that propane is safe and ensure it can build standardized products after focusing on non-standard products for decades.
Pavšukov outlined his strategy for clearing these hurdles in his conversation with Chasserot.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can we, from a technological point of view, already implement air conditioning systems with natural refrigerants in office buildings today?
Aleksej Pavšukov: Yes, because there is already technology for that. We need to go back from direct expansion to water systems, like chillers. Nordic [Nordic Water Chillers] has been doing this for years, even with R410A when it was a “green refrigerant.” They were not working with direct expansion, though. It was all chillers.
Why so? Because it is easier to manage. With water, you don’t need to get into the refrigeration part. Also, when you have water on both sides, or glycol or another liquid, most of the problems are on the water side. With refrigeration, I like to say that if it works for 10 hours, it will work for years. Why so? Because you just need to run it.
You think Refra will be well positioned to capture the HVAC market as it grows in terms of technology. Price is a big problem, though, because this is a volume business. So how will you compete on price for natural refrigerants and air conditioning?
Aleksej Pavšukov: Our first factory has been operational for 30 years, and there are a lot of people who have been working in the factory for 20 years. They know the technology, which is why we’re using them to build the non-standard machines for refrigeration.
But HVAC is about standardization.
Aleksej Pavšukov: Yes, and our second factory is coming in with the standardization. That means that we have the brochures, the selection software and the price lists. The customer could be an HVAC customer who can select a product by the kilowatts, by temperatures, and give it to his customer.
Yes, but with price, how do you innovate with partners to reduce the price of the products themselves?
Aleksej Pavšukov: There are some new parts coming from our suppliers. It’s about efficiency, firstly. And secondly, we can reduce the amount of components we need for the safety of the system, the safety of the compressors. So, your cooling or heating machine could work a lot longer.
“For big players, it’s not so easy to change as it is for us. We can change faster and catch this change with naturals.”Refra CEO Aleksej Pavšukov
How are you working to reassure people that the fear of flammability with R290 is not an issue if these systems are done properly?
Aleksej Pavšukov: I see only one way, and that is just to talk about it, to talk a lot. When we speak to the customers they say, “Oh, it’s propane and it’s flammable.” But no one thinks about the amount we’re using in the chillers.
What is the typical charge?
Aleksej Pavšukov: Five to seven kilograms per circuit. We’re not trying to exceed 16 kilograms with our standard products. I always like to ask the question: Do you have a grill at home?
Yeah, I have a nice big propane tank.
Aleksej Pavšukov: And there is a 20-kilogram tank next to it. And you use your tank next to your grill. But with refrigeration or air conditioning, chillers are on the roof, and nobody has access to the roof. There is a lot less risk.
Beyond that, what are the other barriers preventing naturals from taking over HVAC like they already have done in refrigeration?
Aleksej Pavšukov: If we take the European market, Refra is a small company. All the big players, 95% of them have big machines with R32, which to them is a new refrigerant. A lot of old systems are using R410A. For big players, it’s not so easy to change as it is for us. We can change faster and catch this change with naturals.
You can watch Marc Chasserot’s full interview with Refra CEO Aleksej Pavšukov in the video below.