The European Parliament’s environmental committee (ENVI) recently broadened the scope of a proposed phase-down in the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) with a somewhat surprise move to ban foam insulation manufactured with HFC-based expansion agents, beginning as early as January 2016. Prohibitions on extruded polystyrene (XPS), polyurethane and polyisocyanurate foams were part of the package of amendments to the European Union’s (EU) fluorinated gas regulation that the ENVI committee endorsed in late June.
The proposed regulation, which must still be voted on by the full Parliament, aims to reduce fluorinated gas emissions to 16 per cent of current levels by 2030. It’s largely a matching initiative to a joint submission Canada, the U.S. and Mexico have made to the Montreal Protocol that calls on developed country signatories to cut production and consumption of 19 specified HFC formulations by 85 per cent by 2033.
HFC-based refrigerants and expansion agents have become increasingly prevalent with the removal of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) and ongoing phase-out of HCFCs (hydrochlorofluorocarbons) from the market, and have been deemed an allowable alternative because they are not ozone-depleting substances. However, HFCs have global warming potential that in some cases are more detrimental than the HCFCs they are replacing.
“Without further controls, it is predicted HFC emissions could negate the entire climate benefits achieved under the Montreal Protocol,” states a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report in support of a phase-down. “HFCs are rapidly increasing in the atmosphere. HFC use is forecast to grow mostly due to increased demand for refrigeration and air conditioning, particularly in (developing) countries.”
Expansion agents cause concern, even though they account for a much smaller share of HFC consumption, because the gas will eventually migrate to the atmosphere. On the flipside of the conundrum, the superior performance or R-value of foam insulation supports energy efficiency and overall carbon emissions reduction.
“They are very terrible materials in a lot of ways. They are highly toxic and particularly terrible if they are burned. Having said that, they are, in general, the best available insulation in cost terms,” says Mark Lucuik, director of sustainability with consulting engineering firm, Morrison Hershfield.
Hydrocarbons such as cyclopentane, isobutane and n-pentane are more commonly used as expansion agents in Europe than in North America. This seems to support the contention from drafters of the EU regulation that low global warming potential alternatives are available for most of the products tagged for prohibition. But critics counter that many of the contemplated alternatives such as hydrofluoro-olefins (HFOs) still aren’t commercially available.
The U.S. EPA reports that more than half the global supply of XPS board insulation is already produced using low global warming potential hydrocarbon alternatives. In contrast, polyurethane spray foams continue to rely on HFCs, in large part due to the flammability risks of hydrocarbons.
“Spray foam has very high R-value, it can act as an air barrier and it’s easy to put around things like piping,” notes Lucuik.
XPS is a board or panel product typically used at below-grade levels because it is more waterproof than other types of insulation. Polyiso is also a board or panel product that has been used in roofing for several years and is now becoming more common in wall applications.
The EU regulation proposes a Jan. 1, 2016, prohibition date for XPS foams containing HFCs. Polyurethane and polyiso products with HFCs would be banned from the market as of Jan. 1, 2020.
“You would be hard pressed to find a commercial building without at least one of these foam products and sometimes you see a commercial building with all to them,” says Lucuik.
A ban in EU countries is likely to have little impact on Canadian consumers or manufacturers who buy and sell products within the confines of North America. Nor does there appear to be any imminent likelihood that regulators here will follow the Europeans’ lead.
“Certainly, HFCs are important and there are a lot of different initiatives looking at them but, at least in Canada, it hasn’t been a major or visible priority of the federal government or the provinces,” says P.J. Partington, climate change policy analyst with research and advocacy organization, Pembina Institute.
In addition to the Canada/U.S./Mexico submission to the Montreal Protocol, Canada is one of more than nations that has signed on to the U.S. initiated climate and clean air coalition to reduce short-lived climate pollution. U.S. President Obama’s new climate change action plan addresses the issue, and the U.S. and China also recently agreed to work together on an HFC phase-down.
From a sustainable building perspective, Lucuik advises owners, managers and designers to weigh long-term energy performance against global warming potential and consider all the possible avenues for achieving higher R-values.
“If you put enough of the product on, it can give you the same performance level. So maybe you need six inches of mineral board as opposed to 4.5 inches of foam insulation,” he says. “You should never use less insulation because of climate change impacts of the insulation material but, wherever possible, you can use materials with less global warming impact.”
Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management and Building Strategies & Sustainability magazines.