Is Your Refrigerator Running on R600a? Here's Why It Should

This refrigerant has low global warming potential and you can catch it now.

woman buying a refrigerator

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Most refrigerators, air conditioners, and heat pumps are charged with refrigerants made from hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). Many of these HFCs are formulated to protect the ozone layer, but are still serious greenhouse gases with global warming potential (GWP) many times that of carbon dioxide, as shown on the table:

The global warming potential (GWP) of refrigerants.


There are some refrigerants that are much less harmful than HFCs—just plain old hydrocarbons like R-290, better known as propane, and R-600a, isobutane. Both R-290 and R-600a are flammable, so the volume of the refrigerant is limited for safety reasons.

The U.S. has been slow to permit their use in air conditioners; Phil McKenna of Inside Climate News documented how the major producers of the more expensive HFCs, like Dupont and Honeywell, had such heartfelt concern about fire safety that they managed to delay approval by Underwriters Laboratories, and of course, maintain the market for their more expensive product. McKenna wrote, "HFCs are multi-billion dollar products that would likely be replaced by less expensive and more efficient climate-friendly alternatives if standards put forth by Underwriters Laboratories didn’t until recently limit their use, likely at the behest of chemical companies."

Now McKenna is documenting his attempt to buy an HFC-free fridge. They are charged with R-600a, but the quantity in a fridge is small enough—about a quarter of a pound—that the major manufacturers are now selling them, including GE appliances. His tale of woe begins when they deliver a fridge with R-134a and didn't want to take it back. It all worked out in the end, he got it replaced, but there are some interesting points here.

The first is nobody is talking about this issue or marketing their fridges as being better for the environment. McKenna notes the EPA doesn't provide the information with the EnergyStar program, even though it is a significant issue in the fight against climate change. I should note Treehugger didn't think about it when producing the list of the most efficient refrigerators for 2022; it isn't on anybody's radar even though it is as important as efficiency. I will honestly admit it wasn't on mine.

McKenna wonders about this:

"What mystifies me is why GE and other manufacturers haven’t used their conversion to climate-friendly alternatives as a selling point in their marketing. As a climate journalist, one of the most common questions I get from friends and family is, “What can I do to address climate change?”... if there was a choice when buying a common household appliance between one that was climate-friendly and one that would release emissions equal to burning a barrel of oil, I’m pretty sure it’s one that environmentally conscious consumers would want to know about. They might even pay a premium for such products."

And there is no premium—the equipment is the same and the refrigerant costs a third as much. Nobody advertises it or until recently, put it on their websites. There is a new guide from the Environmental Investigation Agency, which they prepared by "poking their heads inside refrigerators at big box stores and recording refrigerant information listed on the serial plate stickers." Since McKenna's article was published, GE Appliances, now a subsidiary of Chinese appliance giant Haier, has published a list of the fridges with R-600a, explaining:

"R600a is an HFC-free refrigerant with no ozone depletion potential and a lower global warming potential compared to earlier refrigerants. By January 2022, all household refrigerators (except for larger built-in refrigerators and freezers) will be required by regulations to use lower global warming refrigerants. Built-in refrigerators and freezers will transition before January 1, 2023."

McKenna still wonders why nobody is talking about this issue and suspects it's "possible that appliance manufacturers prefer to quietly make the switch to climate-friendly alternatives without raising the ire of chemical manufacturers." I suspect it is more likely that any change made for environmental reasons raises the ire of the climate arsonists on television who fight LED bulbs and water-saving shower heads. Since the change isn't noticeable functionally, why raise the issue?

In any case, anyone who does care about the environment should be looking at the labels and asking questions before they buy a new fridge. Worldwide, R-600a now dominates: According to the United Nations Environment Programme, more than a billion domestic fridges use it. Make sure your next fridge does too.

View Article Sources
  1. McKenna, Phil. "I Tried to Buy a Climate-Friendly Refrigerator. What I Got Was a Carbon Bomb." Inside Climate News, 11 Mar. 2022.

  2. "Appliances with R600a Refrigerant." GE Appliances.