Natural Gas Chillers

Though natural gas chillers have effectively served many end users over the past half century, all signs today are pointing to a drastic decline in the use of this technology. Manufacturers we spoke with reported that sales have dropped by up to 75 percent in the U.S. from approximately 2006 to 2010. Most—and for some manufacturers, all—new gas-fired chillers sold in the U.S. are being used to replace existing gas systems, not for new installations. According to one manufacturer, gas chiller sales for new installations are in decline worldwide. In addition, no gas-fired absorption chillers are made in the U.S. anymore. When existing gas chillers eventually reach their end of life, system owners will need to decide whether to replace them with another gas chiller, knowing that this technology is in decline, or to convert their facility to accept an electric chiller—a potentially expensive option.

Traditionally, gas-fired chillers were able to overcome their higher first cost compared to electric chillers because gas-fired systems produce lower electrical demand costs. However, the steady increase in efficiency of electric chillers has narrowed the operating cost differential with gas chillers. The high gas prices seen over the past seven years, peaking in 2008, undoubtedly also hampered consumers’ uptake of gas chillers. But even with the dramatic decline in gas prices since the peak, gas-fired chillers have not seen a resurgence in interest.

It appears that new gas-fired chiller installations will be relegated to niche applications. One placement that still might prove cost-effective is where alternative energy sources are available, such as digester or landfill gas. If this alternative gas is clean and cheap enough, it could be used to offset the use of natural gas. However, the gas source would need to be located near a building with a significant cooling load—not a common occurrence. Another niche market is where waste heat is available, such as from an industrial process, that could be used with a hybrid direct/indirect-fired absorption chiller to offset the use of natural gas.

What are the options?
How to make the best choice
What’s on the horizon?
Who are the manufacturers?

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