Major Changes Coming to Clean Air Act Section 608 Rules

by Charlie McCrudden

In November, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed to expand and amend the National Recycling and Emission Reduction Program, commonly known as the Clean Air Act’s Section 608 program, which governs the handling, use, and sale of ozone depleting (ODS) compounds used as refrigerants. Since 1993, the Section 608 program has required individuals servicing air-conditioning and refrigeration equipment containing an ozone-depleting refrigerant like R-22 to observe certain practices that reduce emissions, while restricted the sale of refrigerant to certified technicians.

The proposed changes to the Section 608 program would affect the practices and operations of residential and commercial HVACR contractors, distributors, refrigerant reclaimers, and organizations that certify technicians.

These changes are both in line with current global changes to the global regulatory scheme for non-ODS refrigerants and long overdue.

Recently, delegates from the US and 196 other governments met to work out a plan to solidify a global phase out of the use of HFC refrigerants. While no final agreement was reached, procedural roadblocks are out of the way and negotiators are working to an amendment to the 1987 Montreal Protocol that successfully phased out the production and use of CFC and HCFC refrigerants that were found to damage the Earth’s ozone layer. The intent of these diplomatic discussions is to use the Montreal Protocol’s framework to accomplish a similar long term phase out for HFCs, which have a high global warming potential. The amendment has widespread support and the parties will continue to negotiate through 2016.

Meanwhile, here in the United States, one aspect of the Section 608 Program, the technician certification exam, is in dire need of an update. Many questions on the certification exam are not relevant for today’s HVACR technicians and need to be rewritten or deleted. There seems to be ripe opportunities to modernize and streamline the exam delivery method to accommodate online test taking. And ACCA has argued that technicians should be required to recertify every five years to keep up with new technologies and the ever expanding list of refrigerants on the Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) list. As a result, EPA will update the technician certification test bank with more questions on handling substitutes, including flammable substitute refrigerants, and on the impacts of climate change.

The EPA’s proposed rule anticipates a diplomatic effort to phase down the use of high global warming compounds used as refrigerants by extending the requirements of the current regulations to cover HFCs. The biggest change would be the need for an HVACR technician to hold a “608 card” in order to purchase HFC refrigerants (as they are currently required to do for HCFC refrigerants). And, it’s important to note that the venting of HFC refrigerants has always been banned, except for some “natural” substitutes that have already been exempted from the section 608 because they pose no harm to the ozone and have a low global warming potential.

Probably the biggest change for residential HVACR contractors will be new record keeping requirements for the disposal of systems containing more than five and less than 50 pounds of refrigerant. EPA believes most of these systems are disassembled in the field before the components are recycled or disposed of. Under the proposed revisions, records would document the company name, location of the equipment, date of recovery, and the amount and type of refrigerant removed from each appliance prior to disposal. In addition, EPA is proposing to require that records be kept to document the quantity and type of refrigerant that was shipped or sold for reclamation or destruction (e.g., to a certified reclaimer or refrigerant distributor or wholesaler). This requirement would apply to all technicians recovering refrigerant from appliances, not just those with a full charge between five and 50 pounds. The technician, or the company employing the technician, would be required to maintain these records for three years.

Commercial contractors will also see changes should this proposed rule be enacted without any changes. Under the proposal, EPA is looking to lower the leak rate threshold above which owner/operators of refrigeration and air-conditioning equipment normally containing 50+ lbs. of refrigerant must repair leaks from 35% to 20% for industrial process refrigeration (IPR) and commercial refrigeration equipment; and from 15% to 10% for comfort cooling equipment

The proposed rule would also require regular leak inspections or continuous monitoring devices for refrigeration or air conditioning systems, including annual inspections for systems normally containing 50+ lbs. of refrigerant, and quarterly inspections for commercial refrigeration and IPR systems normally containing 500+ lbs. of refrigerant. Finally, the proposed rule would prohibit operation of systems normally containing 50+ lbs. of refrigerant that have leaked 75% or more of their full charge for two consecutive years.

While the proposed changes are intended to reduce the amount of refrigerants (both ODS and non-ODS) that are knowingly vented or released into the atmosphere, update the current technician’s certification program, EPA has pledged to enhance enforcement of violations of the venting prohibition.

If approved, these changes would become effective on January 2, 2017. ACCA will provide regular updates on information on these changes over the next year.

Author's Note: Charlie McCrudden is the Director of Government Affairs for Daikin US.

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