Clean progress

Published:  11 April, 2016

HFCs may be following the path of halon in a global phase-down but there are alternatives, writes Kurt Werner.

Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) such as FM-200 have been used for decades to protect valuable electronic and paper assets that would otherwise be destroyed by traditional water sprinkler fire protection. They emerged as an alternative to halon when the latter was phased out, but are now themselves the subject of negotiations ultimately aimed at a phase-down. HFCs used in fire suppression have some of the highest global warming potentials relative to other sectors, so an increased spotlight on their environmental impact was inevitable.

For the past several years, proposals have been made under the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer to phase down global production and consumption of HFCs with a framework similar to the EU F-Gas Regulations. In this way, HFCs would be placed on a phase-down schedule similar to the path taken by halon. Until the 27th Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol (MOP27) in November 2015 in Dubai, the proposals had been blocked by a procedural issue which prevented formal negotiations from advancing. At MOP27, however, all of that changed.

MOP27 breakthroughs include the formation of a contact group on the feasibility and ways of managing HFCs; initiation of formal negotiations; and an agreement by all 197 countries represented to work within the Montreal Protocol towards an HFC amendment in 2016 by first resolving challenges and generating solutions in the contact group.

Major HFC stakeholders applaud the progress achieved at MOP27 and that progress has particular significance for the fire protection industry. Time has run out for HFCs regardless of the industry or application. Property owners are demanding sustainable technologies and responsible solutions that will last for the life of their valuable assets. The result is that the specifying community is increasingly excluding HFCs from specifications for new fire suppression systems.

The pressure on HFCs is not limited to the Montreal Protocol. Parties to the Montreal Protocol have already engaged in action that would help meet phase-down schedules in the forthcoming agreement. The EU has already implemented its own HFC phase-down under the F-Gas Regulations and the US EPA is taking action to fulfil the HFC component of the President’s Climate Action Plan. Specific to the fire suppression sector the US EPA is soliciting input on low GWP alternatives, applications for which low GWP alternatives are not yet available; and SNAP status change options.

Because the HFCs most commonly sold into fire suppression, such as FM-200 have a climate impact that is more than 3,000 times that of CO2, the US EPA has already received comments requesting that they consider a change in SNAP status for HFCs sold into fire suppression. Commentators have indicated that, with the exception of very niche applications, low GWP alternatives to HFCs are already widely used by the fire suppression sector.

Comments note that the fire suppression sector may be better prepared for an HFC phase-down than any other sector into which HFCs are sold. There is not just one but multiple substitute technologies that will enable a seamless transition away from HFCs for the fire suppression sector. Inert gas systems have already played a role in enabling some regions of the world to transition away from HFCs and continued investment in water mist systems by major stakeholders points to a stronger future for that technology.

One substitute agent in particular not only preserves many of the performance attributes of legacy agents, but has also enabled advancements in new system design. Like inert gas and water mist systems, Novec 1230 fire protection fluid by 3M is differentiated from HFCs in that it reduces the climate impact of a system by more than 99%. On that basis, Novec 1230 fluid is not impacted by global or regional phase-down schedules but, rather, is viewed as one of the technologies that will enable implementation of those phase-down schedules.

Novec 1230 fluid works by removing heat (rather than oxygen) and acts fast. It does not conduct electricity and therefore will not damage sensitive electronics – nor does it leave a residue after discharge. Increasingly system manufacturers are also leveraging the lower vapour pressure of Novec 1230 fluid to design systems at higher pressure, enabling remote cylinder storage, optimised piping networks and lower installation costs.

The number one priority for the special hazards fire protection industry is protection of valuable assets and minimising costly downtime of operations. Although HFCs are following the path of halon there are multiple sustainable technologies available to the specifying community that can be relied on to protect valuable assets well into the future.

Kurt Werner has been global business development manager for Novec 1230 fire protection fluid business since 2011. He has worked for 3M for over 30 years and is a Diplomate of the American Board of Toxicology.

  • Operation Florian

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