Deciphering the AIM Act: Unveiling the EPA’s Subsection H Proposed Changes – Part Three of Our In-Depth Series
An Overview of Recent Developments:
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recently rolled out a comprehensive trilogy of regulatory amendments. Given the breadth of these changes, we’ve chosen to break down the updates into more digestible segments.
Part 1: The 15 LB rule, Trakref’s initial analysis, published on October 19, 2023, delved into the new 15-pound rule adjustment, refined repair practices, and introduced more rigorous record-keeping and reporting responsibilities. The first regulatory update under discussion falls under the AIM Act’s Subsection (h), focusing on the phasedown of Hydrofluorocarbons and the management of certain substitutes.
Part 2, Extended EPA Oversight: Mastering new skills to support the refrigerant lifecycle with New HFC regulation and supply chain management Requirements. We delved into the nuances of cylinder tracking alterations, the upcoming refrigerant utilization and reclamation shifts in 2028, and new labeling duties.
Part 4: By late December, we aim to explore the 2024 Allowance Allocations for the production and consumption of regulated substances in line with the American Innovation and Manufacturing Act of 2020, including the declaration of final administrative repercussions.
Part 3: Today, we shift our lens to the role of HFCs in fire suppression systems. While the initial plan was to cover a broader spectrum, including flammable refrigerants, and although we planned to discuss the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act’s (RCRA) implications, certain items still need to be answered. To ensure the integrity of our discussion, we’ve postponed our RCRA-focused insights in favor of a more factually grounded presentation. Nonetheless, today’s focus remains sharp on HFCs within fire suppression systems.
This regulatory wave ushers in a new epoch for refrigerant management. The EPA’s latest regulations under Subsection (h) necessitate a critical conversation around our approaches to servicing, repairing, disposing of, and installing equipment. In this update, the EPA employs incentives and regulations to guide the industry.
The EPA shares a common goal with the equipment marketplace: to ensure a sufficient supply of refrigerants for servicing high GWP equipment throughout its expected lifespan.
These regulations are extensive and multifaceted. To fully grasp the EPA’s rationale, expectations, and proposed directives, it’s essential to consider a wealth of information beyond Subsection (h). This comprehensive perspective has informed our development of digital solutions to foster improved outcomes.
We anticipate discussing the Subsection (i) restrictions, often called the Technology Transition, in early 2024. This will address the constraints on specific Hydrofluorocarbons as part of the American Innovation and Manufacturing Act 2020. However, our Part 2 series also addressed crossover provisions and commitments between Subsection (h) and (i).
Last week’s focus centered on the remaining elements within the ‘Proposed Rule – Phasedown of Hydrofluorocarbons’ segment under the AIM Act’s Subsection (h). Topics included the new management deadlines for cylinders, the impending restriction on virgin refrigerant usage in 2028, and the preparation for future reclamation refrigeration needs, alongside the expanded labeling and tagging protocols across the refrigerant lifecycle.
These regulations are extensive and multifaceted. To fully grasp the EPA’s rationale, expectations, and proposed directives, it’s essential to consider a wealth of information beyond Subsection (h). This comprehensive perspective has informed our development of digital solutions to foster improved outcomes. External resources included NFPA 2001, NFPA 2010, HEEP, HARC, Halons Technical Options Committee (HTOC), and its successor, the UNEP Fire Suppression Technical Options Committee (FSTOC), and many resources developed by all of these various groups responsible for developing private environmental governance.
The fire suppression industry has a longstanding tradition of rallying around innovative solutions, particularly in response to environmental concerns. This tradition is embodied in the recent developments under the American Innovation and Manufacturing (AIM) Act, which targets the phasedown of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) used in fire suppressant systems.
The AIM Act represents a pivotal step in U.S. environmental policy, aiming to significantly reduce the production and use of HFCs due to their high Global Warming Potential (GWP), with a schedule beginning in January 2022 and aiming for an 85% reduction by 2036.
The adoption of the Montreal Protocol in 1987 marked a crucial turning point in the fire suppression industry, necessitating a move away from ozone-depleting substances, notably halons. By 1994, developed countries had effectively ceased producing and consuming key halons such as halon 1301 and halon production, and 1211 and halon production.
This regulatory change spurred the development and adoption of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) as viable alternatives for fire suppression. While effective in extinguishing fires, these HFCs are classified as fluorinated greenhouse gases and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions when released into the atmosphere.
Over the past two decades, in line with the evolving standards set forth by the Paris Agreement and other environmental protocols, the fire suppression sector has continued to innovate. The industry’s response to the phaseout of ozone-depleting substances has been to adopt HFCs and inert gases like nitrogen and argon, codified in standards such as NFPA 2001. This standard includes a variety of “halon alternatives,” such as HFC227ea (FM-200™, FE-227™), HFC-125 (FE-25™), HFC-23 (FE-13™), and FK-5-1-12 (Novec 1230™), along with blends of various chemical agents.
However, it’s crucial to note that HFCs have a significant carbon dioxide equivalent impact, contributing to global warming by accumulating greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This realization led to amendments in the Montreal Protocol, initiating a phasedown of HFC, production and consumption starting in 2019, under certain circumstances, to align their emissions with global climate change mitigation efforts.
The fire protection industry has evolved over thirty years since the Montreal Protocol’s inception, seeking sustainable and effective fire suppressant solutions. This ongoing transition reflects a broader commitment to environmental stewardship, balancing adequate fire suppression with the imperative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect the ozone layer.
Fire suppressants like FM-200 (HFC-227ea) and HFC-125 have protected sensitive environments such as
- Data processing centers
- Electronic areas
- Power generation facilities
- Marine engine rooms,
- Art galleries and rare booksellers
- Bank vaults
- Military Facilities & Aviation of all kinds
- Oil & Gas Exploration and Refineries
These settings require non-conductive, safe, and clean agents to prevent damage during fire suppression efforts. Yet, the environmental impact of these agents, particularly their GWP, which can be thousands of times that of CO2, has prompted a search for more sustainable alternatives.
In response to the AIM Act’s directives, the fire suppression industry is transforming and exploring new technologies, existing equipment, and substances that meet safety requirements while aligning with environmental goals. Promising alternatives, such as 3M™ Novec™ 1230 Fire Protection Fluid, with significantly lower GWP than traditional HFCs, are already being utilized within the industry.
Parallel to these global policy and industry shifts, advisory committees like the Halons Technical Options Committee (HTOC) have been critical to global warming. Established after the Montreal Protocol in the late 1980s, the HTOC initially concentrated on finding replacements for ozone-depleting halons. As environmental regulations expanded to address climate change, the committee’s scope also widened to include alternatives for HCFCs and HFCs, reflecting a broader concern for ozone depletion and global warming.
In recognition of this expanded role, the HTOC was renamed the Fire Suppression Technical Options Committee (FSTOC) in November 2022, as decided by the parties to the Montreal Protocol. The FSTOC now encompasses a comprehensive approach to evaluating fire suppressants, considering their effectiveness, safety, and environmental impact.
The AIM Act, however, shortens the timeline and accelerates the need to develop new rules and more aggressive rules to ensure that 1) the industry has access to enough material to meet fire suppression needs in the future and 2) the Fire Suppressants are not unintentionally vented.
Background of HFCs in Fire Suppression
Hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, were developed to replace substances that harm the ozone layer, like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and halons. They played a crucial part in accelerating halon production’s phaseout, following the Montreal Protocol guidelines, an international treaty to use greenhouse gases and protect the ozone layer. However, it turned out that HFCs are potent greenhouse gases with a long-lasting presence in the atmosphere.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) identified HFCs as significant contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions. Recognizing this issue, the Montreal Protocol was updated in 2016 to reduce HFC production from 2019. Notably, about 15-60%(or more) of all HFC greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to their use in fire protection, air conditioning and heat pump equipment, and heat systems.
The U.S. fire protection industry has been on the front line of solving this problem. It has been dedicated to minimizing HFC and PFC emissions while ensuring safety from fire hazards since 1989, when a group of industry stakeholders came together to form a group called HARC.
HARC is an important industry ally and resource
(The Halon Alternative Research Corporation) is a non-profit that promotes developing and approving environmentally acceptable halon alternatives. HARC serves as an environmental protection agency, an information clearinghouse, and a focal point for cooperation between government and industry on issues of importance to special hazard fire protection. HARC has been at the vanguard of industry stewardship for more than three decades:
- Information Clearinghouse and Collaboration Hub are central points for sharing information and fostering cooperation in the particular hazard fire protection community.
- Industry Code of Practice: In coordination with various stakeholders, HARC developed an Industry Code of Practice to optimize the use of recycled halon.
- Voluntary Code of Practice (VCOP): Working alongside EPA, FEMA, FSSA, and NAFED, HARC contributed to creating the VCOP, which aims to reduce emissions from HFC and PFC fire protection agents.
- Recycling Code of Practice (RCOP): HARC established the RCOP to set standards for the safe and efficient recovery and recycling of halogenated clean agents, focusing on preventing contamination and minimizing emissions.
- HFC Emissions Estimating Program (HEEP): HARC developed HEEP to estimate HFC and PFC emissions from fire protection systems and assess the VCOP’s effectiveness.
In the proposed rule, the EPA addresses gaps in current best practices identified by HARC for managing HFCs in fire suppression systems. The aim is to enhance reclamation and reduce emissions. The new regulations would oversee servicing, repairing, disposing, and installing equipment that uses HFCs or substitutes. The proposal also focuses on the distribution of HFCs, specifically how they are transferred from larger to smaller containers within the supply chain.
Gaps remain, and they have an Impact On Operations
The point of subsection (h) is to ensure a future supply of recovered/recycled/reclaimed refrigerant to meet future demands. The EPA acknowledges the
A report from the FSTOC highlights the stockpiles, emissions of fire suppressants, and future needs of the entire industry. The report highlights the long-term use of fire-suppressant chemicals. The fire suppressants remain in place for decades, rarely leaking and only used when a fire occurs.
Some systems, like in the filling facility of Valdez, Alaska, still hold over 100,000 LBS of Halons – a chemical phased out in 1994. There are still tens of thousands of Halon systems in operation, slowly being replaced by HFC systems such as R-227, R-236, RT-23, and R-125, for which the FSTOC cannot even model emissions since their use is so broad.
In the current global situation in banking fire suppression agents, there needs to be more comprehensive knowledge about the banking and management of HCFCs and HFCs despite over two decades of use. With the phaseout of HCFCs and phasedown of HFCs, the need for recycling and banking these materials is increasing. Companies and government agencies need help with accuracy and accountability, and the scale and scope of these materials have been loosely managed, making it a challenge for EPA and other agencies to understand the total potential impact fully.
HFC recycling is widely practiced here in the US. However, Fire suppression companies do not report to the EPA. HFC recovery and reuse typically occur at the distributor level within the industry.
Although (HARC) has crafted a Recycling Code of Practice for halogenated clean agents, which is included in the NFPA 2001 standard, it is voluntary they need to be more accountable and transparent in verifying results and activity.
75% of HFCs used in servicing U.S. fire protection equipment are sourced from recycling, not new production.
While HCFC recovery from fire extinguishers does happen, reclamation processes are hindered by restrictions due to the proprietary compositions of the agents and complex blends.
The US Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) oversees recycling HFCs for military applications. Still, due to their widespread availability, there hasn’t been a need for a dedicated supply of HFCs for military purposes.
However, with the implementation of HFC phase-down regulations in 2022, the availability and potential need for a dedicated military supply of HFCs will likely be under review.
The EPA relies heavily on HARC recommendations and input to architect solutions that deliver on AIM Act objectives. Regardless of HARC commitments, they still represent differences in how HFCs are handled.
Recycling Standard. HARC has voluntarily adopted AHRI 2016, the same standard as the refrigerant HVAC/R services industry.
However, there is no requirement or penalty if they fail to meet the standard. Furthermore, the EPA would allow this material into the supply chain for service and maintenance without quality assurance.
Disclosure: None of the members or stakeholders report their activity to AHRI, nor do they disclose it to EPA. Presently EPA, EPA-certified reclaim companies must report their annual recycling activity. Many fire suppression systems that contain HFCs also contain blends of other components, so they are not pure, making them harder to recycle.
As a result of this difficulty, the industry has acknowledged that it is not easy, but they need to explain what happens to the material that cannot be recycled. I researched this and found no documented waste sent to a destruction facility. I used carbon offset markets as an indicator; none were noted over the last five years. EPA is therefore proposing:
- The Quantity of material by regulated substance defined by sold, recovered, recycled, and virgin related to servicing and installation.
- The total mass of each regulated substance broken out by sold, recovered, recycled, and virgin.
- The total mass of waste products sent for disposal and information about the disposal facility if the reporting entity does not process waste.
Definitions for What is recyclable. Despite the small proportion of HFCs used in fire suppression relative to other applications, any global phasedown could affect the fire suppression sector. As new HFC production decreases due to phasedown regulations, recycling becomes increasingly vital as an alternative source.
Historically, HFCs in fire protection equipment have been frequently recycled and reused. However, as FSTOC points out, the wide-ranging applications of HFCs and the complexity of patented blends containing HFCs present challenges for recycling and processing, which limits the effectiveness of recycling.
Expected outcome: EPA has proposed that Fire Supreesants sector report to the EPA annually.
QR Codes or Labelling: The requirement for machine-readable tracking identifiers, such as QR codes, on all HFC containers applies to fire suppression systems/cylinders. The EPA’s proposal includes these identifiers on containers containing HFCs used in servicing, repairing, or installing fire suppression and refrigerant-containing equipment. This is part of the EPA’s broader effort to ensure the proper management and tracking of HFCs; however, the staggered compliance dates would allow different entities involved in the supply chain to adjust to and comply with the new requirements. The requirement or specifics of dates should be included in the Subsection (h) dates.
EPA proposes tracking disposable cylinders to reclaimers or fire suppressant recyclers, which will be required as of January 1, 2026. This date aligns with the proposed requirement for reclaimers and fire suppressant recyclers to track containers they fill, sell, distribute, or offer for sale or distribution with regulated substances that could be used in the servicing, repair, or installation of certain types of refrigerant-containing equipment or fire suppression equipment.
Maintenance and Handling Requirements
EPA relies heavily on organizations like TEAP, FSTOC, HARC, HEEP, NFAP 2001, and NFPA 2010 to frame their control mechanisms related to HFCs in the Fire suppression sector. The TEAP’s FSTOC has noted that the U.S. phasedown of HFCs significantly impacts the production, consumption, and cost of HFC fire extinguishers.
The reasons cited include HFCs’ high global warming potential (GWP), a GWP-weighted allocation mechanism in the U.S., global warming, and market forces influencing which HFCs are produced or imported based on GWP and future market needs.
List of Proposed Requirements:
1. Prohibition on releases due to the owner’s failure to maintain the system properly.
2. New Training for Fire Suppression Technicians January 1, 2025 (Page 172)
3. EPA proposes new disposal guidelines for HFCs from fire suppression systems.
4. Options for disposal include:
- Recycling through certified fire suppressant recyclers or reclaimers.
- Destruction using EPA-approved controlled processes.
5. Current standards (NFPA 2001 for systems, NFPA 10 for extinguishers) lack specific HFC disposal requirements for existing equipment, so they have proposed adding this requirement.
6. EPA seeks public feedback on using recycled HFCs for servicing/repairing fire suppression equipment.
- Types of fire suppression equipment should use recycled HFCs for servicing/repairs.
- Should we mandate using only recycled HFCs for these purposes?
- Possibility of gradually introducing the use of recycled HFCs.
7. Practices to reduce HFC emissions during recycling for servicing/repairs.
8. Whether entities should adhere to industry standards like NFPA 2001, NFPA 10, and various ASTM specifications.
9. Feedback is requested on a proposed compliance date of January 1, 2025, for using recycled HFCs, with alternative dates of January 1, 2026, or January 1, 2027, also being considered.
10. Owners and operators dispose of HFCs used as fire suppression agents by sending them for recycling to a fire suppressant recycler or a reclaimer certified under 40 CFR 82.164 or arranging for its destruction using one of the controlled processes listed in 40 CFR 84.29.
- EPA proposes annual reporting requirements for entities handling regulated substances, including details on quantities sold, recovered, recycled, and virgin HFCs.
- Record-keeping requirements may overlap with those under 40 CFR part 84, subpart A; EPA seeks comments on this potential overlap and the timing of these requirements.
- Covered entities should keep fire suppression technician training records, which the EPA may review as needed.
- Facilities must document that they have provided appropriate training to personnel.
- Records confirming HFC recovery from equipment slated for disposal should be kept for three years.
12. Data Collection and Reporting
- Efforts to identify reporting parties and collect relevant data.
- Adjustments and refinements in the data collection process over time.
- Inclusion of direct recycling data in the reporting framework.
13. Results and Analysis
- Annual reporting of emissions data and calculation of CO2 equivalent emissions.
- Observations on year-to-year variations in greenhouse gases and trends in emissions.
- Possible explanations for climate change: the stability of carbon dioxide or changes in carbon dioxide emission rates.
14. January 1, 2025, all initial charges of fire suppression equipment should be used by recycled HFCs, thanks to extending this compliance deadline to 2026 or 2027. (with some exceptions for critical applications).
The EPA acknowledges the complexity of approving fire suppressants for specialized applications, which often involve rigorous testing by agencies such as the FAA, USCG, and DoD. To accommodate this, the EPA proposes exemptions for limited HFC releases under specific conditions:
When alternative or similar agents aren’t viable alternatives, the existing equipment’s failure could significantly risk human safety or the environment. These exemptions are only for testing, are crucial to demonstrate functionality, and do not extend to emergency use of HFCs for actual fire suppression.
Embracing the Future: Transforming Fire Suppression Management to Meet EPA Sustainability Standards
To ensure adherence to the EPA’s updated regulations and to promote sustainability, businesses must refine their fire suppression and air conditioning systems and management. The following points outline the necessary updates service existing air conditioning systems, equipment and best practices:
- Digital Inventory Management:
Establish a digital twin for comprehensive tracking of fire suppression assets, cataloging every HFC-containing component from inception to retirement.
- Record-Keeping and Reporting:
Implement an extensive record-keeping system to log all HFC-related operations, focusing on environmental impact and regulatory compliance.
- DOT Regulation Adherence:
Develop clear protocols for handling cylinders as they approach or surpass their DOT expiration, following EPA’s safety and environmental care guidelines.
- Advanced Training and Awareness:
Initiate thorough training programs for technicians that address new regulations, safe handling, and preventive maintenance to avert accidental HFC discharges.
- Sustainable Purchasing Practices:
Update purchasing protocols to reflect new fire suppression standards, incorporate staff training, amend supplier agreements with compliance clauses, and favor eco-friendly equipment options.
In addition to these actionable steps, it’s crucial to cultivate a company culture that prioritizes environmental responsibility. Educating staff on new regulations and the significance of HFC management will foster a proactive approach to environmental conservation and underscore the company’s commitment to sustainable operations. These integrated strategies will position businesses to meet EPA mandates successfully and contribute to global environmental objectives.
The fire suppression industry has traditionally relied on self-regulation and private environmental governance, with various groups like TEAP, FSTOC, and HARC leading efforts without formal accountability. As the EPA seeks to reinforce control over the environmental impact of HFCs in this sector, there’s a clear need for more precise and comprehensive rules that align with the existing regulations for HVAC/R systems.
The EPA’s proposed emissions reduction measures, aimed for implementation starting January 2025, include mandatory system maintenance, specialized technician training, and specific guidelines for HFC disposal, such as recycling and controlled destruction.
These efforts address HFCs’ high global warming potential and the market dynamics influencing their production and use. By incorporating public feedback and industry standards into its rulemaking, the EPA is taking steps to ensure that stakeholders in the fire suppression industry are held to clear, enforceable standards that support both environmental concerns and industry needs.
Comments on this notice of proposed rulemaking must be received on or before December 18, 2023. Under the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA), comments on the information collection provisions are best ensured of consideration. if received earlier. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held a virtual public hearing on or about November 3, 2023 and discussed some of these issues and accepted questions and made additional comments. EPA also held an additional meeting during a GreenChill discussion, several weeks ago.
The date, time, and other relevant information for the virtual public hearing will be available at https://www.epa.gov/climate-hfcs-reduction.
Outstanding Issues Requiring Clarity: Impact of EPA’s RCRA Rules on Supply Chain
1. Identification of Flammable Refrigerants in RCRA Chemical List:
- Is there a clear listing of flammable refrigerants under the RCRA chemical list that refer directly ?
- In the absence of such a listing, are there any plans for updating the RCRA list to include these?
- Are there specific listings for US EPA reclaim companies in the RCRA database?
- What are the expected registration requirements for these companies post-implementation of the new rule?
- How are reclaimers expected to manage their RCRA solid waste obligations, and what are the reporting and audit processes?
- Does the EPA specify a weight threshold or limit under RCRA triggering responsibility for distributors and aggregators handling recovery cylinders?
- Does the EPA’s stance on venting versus recovery of ignitable refrigerants imply a tacit acceptance of venting these substances?
- What are the legal implications for technicians venting ignitable substances in the commercial sector?
- Is there a companion requirement from OSHA or NIOSH regarding the responsibility to recover these substances?
- Are the changes to RCRA related to the phasedown of hydrofluorocarbons part of a separate regulatory update, or are they included in Subsection H as outlined in the proposed rule available at Federal Register Document?
2. RCRA Listings for EPA Reclaim Companies:
3. Supply Chain Responsibilities for Distributors and Aggregators:
4. Regulatory Stance on Venting of Ignitable Refrigerants:
5. Regulatory Updates Specific to RCRA or Incorporated in Subsection H:
The outstanding issues identified in relation to the EPA’s Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) rules underscore a vital phase in the ongoing effort to enhance environmental management and safety.
While there are areas requiring further clarity, such as the identification of flammable refrigerants in the RCRA chemical list and the specific responsibilities of distributors, aggregators, and reclaim companies, it is encouraging to see the proactive steps taken by the EPA towards environmental conservation and public health protection.
The engagement in these complex matters, including the nuanced approach to the venting versus recovery of ignitable refrigerants, indicates a commitment to environmental stewardship and responsible regulatory oversight. The potential integration of RCRA changes with other regulatory frameworks, such as those from OSHA or NIOSH, further demonstrates a comprehensive approach to environmental management.
We appreciate the efforts made by the EPA so far and encourage ongoing communication and transparency. The provision of clear guidelines and regulatory updates, particularly concerning the changes proposed under Subsection H, will be instrumental in supporting stakeholders throughout the supply chain. This clarity will enable them to effectively adapt and comply with the regulations, ultimately contributing to the larger goal of sustainable environmental practices.
While acknowledging the progress has been made, we look forward to continued advancements and detailed guidance from the EPA. Such collaborative efforts are key to ensuring that all parties involved are well-informed and equipped to meet both current and future environmental challenges with confidence and commitment.
Ted is the Chief Compliance and Sustainability Officer of Fexa, which offers Trakref: a cloud-based HVAC/R and refrigerant management software that provides unprecedented solutions for commercial properties. He has spent more than 20 years in the HVAC/R industry, even owning and operating one of the nation’s largest refrigerant reclaim and recycling companies.