This article was originally published in the January/February 1993 issue of Home Energy Magazine. Some formatting inconsistencies may be evident in older archive content.



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Home Energy Magazine Online January/February 1993






Over the past decade, a number of utilities in the United States and Canada have successfully implemented programs to collect and dismantle old refrigerators, freezers, and air conditioners from their residential customers. Energy savings, the primary reason for offering turn-in programs, are sometimes overshadowed by the environmental benefits, heavily emphasized in the promotion of the programs to consumers. While these recycling programs receive very positive media coverage as a result of handling major appliances, or white goods, in an environmentally sound manner, the bottom line for these utility programs is that they must provide energy savings on a cost-effective basis, which means that only operating units qualify for recycling.

Dismantling in British Columbia

After a successful pilot, B.C. Hydro opened the first utility-run refrigerator dismantling facility in Canada in June 1991. Located just outside Vancouver and operated by ARCA B.C., the facility is the central destination for all refrigerators collected in the program. Local firms do customer pick-up and transportation and an independent handling house makes all rebate payments and tracking reports. The program encompasses recovery of chlorofluorocarbon gasses used as refrigerants (CFC-12) and removal of any capacitors and oil. All materials are reclaimed or disposed of in accordance with environmental regulations. After the basic dismantling, the hulks are shipped to a metal recycling depot where the various components are separated and the hulks shredded before the metal is recycled.

In the pilot evaluation preceding the service territory-wide launch, we found that approximately 20% of the units weren't working and therefore contributed no energy savings by recyling. As a result we now verify that refrigerators are in working order in the customers' homes before hauling. The province-wide program began in March 1992 and will become fully available by 1993. In order to accommodate customer demand, the rebate was reduced from $50 to $30 in September.

As of September 1992, over 26,000 refrigerators had been collected and dismantled, resulting in average annual energy savings of 20 million kWh. Verification of energy savings through billing analysis and metering of refrigerators is continuing. Our estimate of average energy consumption per unit is 863 kWh per year, assuming a ten-year life of savings. The estimate of 863 kWh includes weighting for manual and automatic defrost (automatic defrost models tend to consume more electricity), and a free ridership percentage (to account for those units which customers would have gotten rid of anyway).

Go For Partnerships

A number of challenges still lie ahead for utilities operating turn-in programs or planning to implement them. These include defining the utilities' role in the white goods management process, the impact of legislation banning white goods from landfills and requiring chlorofluorocarbons used as refrigerants (CFC-12) to be recovered from appliances, and the concern over venting of CFC-11 present in the polyurethane foam insulation of refrigerators (not to be confused with CFC-12 refrigerant).

Federal legislation in both Canada and the United States came into effect in July 1992, requiring that anyone repairing or handling CFCs in appliances must be certified and that all CFCs used as refrigerant must be collected. Appliance repair companies are now equipped to perform CFC recovery during servicing, providing alternatives to utility-performed waste-management services. Mandatory training requirements may enable governments to implement white goods management programs more easily due to more trained technicians appearing in the industry.

Almost all municipalities in British Columbia have banned white goods from landfills. The few that do accept them usually have programs in place to recover CFC-12 refrigerant on site; the hulks are either taken by appliance dealers for upgrading and resale, or are sent to metal recyclers. This has made it possible to recover greater amounts of CFCs than before, and has provided partnership options for municipalities wanting to divert white goods from landfills.

So, what is the role of the utility in CFC recovery and in white goods management in particular? I prefer to think of turn-in programs as catalysts for white goods management plans rather than as long-term solutions. The utility goal is to decrease the number of second refrigerators, and encourage the use of energy-efficient appliances. Once this has been accomplished, we should take a back seat to the white goods management plans implemented by various levels of government. Very often, the utility-run programs initiate infrastructures through collection of operating units. Municipalities can pay to participate in them, take them over, or simply learn from them with the goal of developing their own comprehensive white-goods management plans. Ideally, all parties with an interest in waste management of this type should be involved from the program development stage.

Tackling CFCs

Polyurethane foam insulation is becoming a thorny issue for many utilities. While CFC-12 recovery is commonplace, polyurethane in refrigerators contains two or three times as much CFC-11 in the insulation as CFC-12 in the refrigerant loop. The technology to recover CFC-11 has arrived only recently.

Northeast Utilities has operated an appliance pick-up program to which 31,000 refrigerators and freezers have been surrendered by customers. The units have been disassembled in a manner similar to that used by B.C. Hydro, but this program is about to begin the processing of foam insulation using the Adelman CFC-11 recovery system developed in Germany. (See CFCs in Refrigerator Foam, HE, July/Aug '91, p. 11.) The contractor, Appliance Recycling Centers of America Inc., is the exclusive North American distributor of the system, and has installed it at their facility in Hartford, Conn. in partnership with Northeast Utilities.

Northeast Utilities anticipates that approximately 3,000 units with foam insulation will be dismantled in the first year of operation (constituting 15% of the working refrigerators that Northeast plans to collect through their turn-in program).

Until recently, California regulations had implied that CFC-recovery operators would require hazardous waste permits--almost impossible to obtain--if they were going to extract CFC-11 from foam. Now, however, utilities here can enjoy a recent regulatory exemption that holds that, as long as the refrigerator foam is destined for recycling, it will not be classified as a hazardous waste. (A recently passed state metallic discards bill will restrict disposal of metallic wastes, such as refrigerators, if they contain toxic substances and that such materials destined for landfill will be recycled if it's possible to do so.)

The only utility in California currently operating any type of turn-in program with recovery of CFC-12 refrigerant is Sacramento Municipal Utility District. Pacific Gas and Electric Co., Southern California Edison, and Los Angeles Department of Water and Power are all exploring the potential for refrigerator turn-in programs that encompass CFC-11 recovery.

The goal of utilities should be to work toward solutions that meet both the needs of the utility in energy savings, and the those of the municipalities in developing comprehensive white goods management plans. Though easier said than done, this type of an integrated approach is the only solution that will provide long-term benefits as we move to a ban on production and use of CFCs.

-- Carol Nelson

Carol Nelson is a planner in the Energy Efficiency Services Division of Pacific Gas and Electric Co. in San Francisco. She formerly managed the Refrigerator Buy-Back program for BC Hydro in British Columbia, Canada.



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