New DOE Standards Mean Big Win for Propane

The Department of Energy’s most recent energy efficiency standards take effect in 2-months, on March 27, 2017. What does that mean for natural refrigerants? Well, it’s actually pretty exciting…

Let’s start at the beginning. The U.S. Department of Energy sets energy efficiency requirements, or Energy Conservation Standards (ECS) in accordance with the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Over the last decade the DOE has published rules that update the standards laid out in the legislation, strengthening the requirements and expanding the requirements to cover additional types of equipment (e.g. not just reach-in freezers, but ice cream freezers, and open cases as well as doored cases). Most recently, in March 2014, DOE updated its standards for commercial refrigeration equipment via a Direct Final Rule (79 FR 17725). In DOE terms, commercial refrigeration equipment includes both self-contained equipment and systems that utilize remote condensing units, usually housed in a compressor room. These standards apply to supermarkets, convenience stores and restaurants.


That 2014 rule, which updated the energy consumption standards for commercial refrigeration equipment, maintains a distinction between product classes with doors, and those without. As it turns out, self-contained equipment with doors has the potential to be extremely energy efficient, thanks in part to better motors, LED lighting and…hydrocarbon refrigerants. That’s great! One of the reason we love propane and other A3 refrigerants is because they are so energy efficient. Currently though, the charge size for propane is limited to 150 grams in the U.S. With such a small maximum charge, propane cases pretty much need to have doors In order to generate the needed cooling capacity.

So we know that doored, hydrocarbon cases are efficient. And we know that manufacturers are still making cases without doors using HFC refrigerants. (These door-less units have less stringent efficiency standards, and many retailers still prefer door-less units for certain types of merchandising.) As it turns out, the new DOE standards set such aggressive energy efficiency requirements for self-contained equipment with doors, that basically the only way (or the most efficient way) to meet those strict standards is to use propane as the refrigerant. The new standards will reduce energy consumption (measured as Maximum Daily Energy Consumption, or MDEC) by more than 40% for solid-door “reach-in” refrigerators and freezers, by 28% for glass-door supermarket refrigerators, and 12% for freezer cases.

The DOE says the rule taking effect this March will avoid 142 million metric tons of CO2 emissions over the next 30 years, equivalent to the annual GHG emissions from 27 million passenger cars. It’s estimated to save businesses nearly 12 billion dollars in utility bills over that same 30-year time frame.

It’s not DOE’s job to focus on refrigerant choice. EPA does that through its Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) program. But by acknowledging what’s feasible with respect to self-contained equipment, DOE has guided the industry’s hand toward hydrocarbons, specifically propane. Or maybe another way to say it is that DOE has opened the door for propane to come into the mainstream. Regardless of how you frame it, these new energy efficiency standards equate to a huge win for the advancement of natural refrigerants. Propane is going mainstream. Not because of refrigerant phaseouts or restrictions, but because propane refrigerant combined with the latest in LEDs, motors, sensors and high-efficiency glass makes for the most energy efficient self-contained cases possible.

Todd Washburn, of True Manufacturing and also a member of the NASRC board of directors, feels pretty good about the new standards, “True is committed to hydrocarbon cases and so we are well positioned for this transition. But from a sustainability perspective, this is a huge win. The self-contained market is going to become an example for the rest of the commercial refrigeration industry as to what is possible with non-fluorinate refrigerants.” Aaron Daly, the Global Energy Coordinator for Whole Foods Market is also a fan of the updated standards, “I think these forthcoming energy efficiency requirements really show that hydrocarbon refrigerants allow us to do so much more with respect to energy efficiency, and ultimately allow us to decrease greenhouse gas emissions as much as we possibly can.”

The new DOE standards are a big win for natural refrigerants and for energy efficiency, both of which should translate to cost savings for end-users.