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Summer's Ongoing Venting Crisis

July 12, 2010
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Mike Murphy

Near the 4th of July, while driving through a residential neighborhood, one with rows and rows of houses with three-car garages, atrium entrances, and 13 SEER air conditioning units, a thought occurred - about 19 out of 20 of those a/c systems might some day spew refrigerant into the atmosphere - that is, if refrigerant continues to be recovered at the same rate as today.

For a visual to accompany this thought: imagine an aerial view of those 20 houses as you watch 19 people simultaneously walk over to vent their a/c unit, as simply as if they were opening the valve on a backyard propane grill.

Not that people in the HVAC trade are necessarily purposely venting (though some do), but if only about 5 percent of all HCFC and HFC refrigerants are being brought in for reclamation, then where else could this stuff be going?

Unfortunately, a tiny percentage is going into people’s lungs. It’s a practice known as huffing, and almost every summer there is one tragic story of an uninformed technician found dead as a result of an attempt to get high on refrigerant. However, huffing is not a rampant problem in the industry, because it only takes once to have a very lethal experience. To say the least, huffing is not popular among service technicians.

So, where else could this stuff be going?

It would be nice to think that a/c systems simply don’t leak, but the truth is that almost all of them do, at least at some point toward the end of their life span. However, the systems seldom release an entire charge before a slow leak is detected by a service company. Right? At the tender age of 18, I do remember standing on my father’s back porch yelling at him to get off the phone because his air conditioner was on fire. He stormed outside, first enraged that I had interrupted his phone conversation; then, laughed himself silly watching me run for the garden hose to douse his outdoor unit. Hmmm, perhaps he needed a better service contract.

A cadre of assorted thieves with hacksaws and crowbars will no doubt show up at a few apartment complexes in metropolitan areas in search of precious metals - mostly copper. The scoundrels are never concerned with the affect of cracking the lines open to the atmosphere, but still, it doesn’t seem that millions of pounds of refrigerant are escaping at the hands of those thieves. OK. Let’s give the bad guys the benefit of the doubt - a million pounds.

HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH?

So, if huffing is minimal, and not many units are catching on fire (escaping gas looks like smoke to an 18-year-old Neanderthal), and the thieves are having a slow year because of the recession, then where is the rest of this stuff going?

If I were a technician, reading through the EPA’s website, I might think it is OK to allow a leaking system to continue operating without repair, given certain conditions, such as “acceptable leak rates.”

According to the EPA website: “Owners or operators of refrigeration and air conditioning equipment with refrigerant charges greater than 50 pounds are required to repair leaks within 30 days when those leaks result in the loss of more than a certain percentage of the equipment’s refrigerant charge over a year. For the commercial (e.g., grocery stores and warehouses) and industrial process refrigeration sectors, leaks must be repaired within 30 days when the equipment leaks at a rate that would release 35 percent or more of the charge over a year. For all other sectors, including comfort cooling (such as building chillers), leaks must be repaired when the appliance leaks at a rate that would release 15 percent or more of the charge over a year.

The leak repair regulations do not apply to refrigeration and air conditioning equipment with refrigerant charge sizes less than 50 pounds (such as residential split air conditioning systems). However, smaller equipment is not exempt from the refrigerant venting prohibition. EPA regulations prohibit the intentional release of all refrigerants during the maintenance, service, repair, or disposal of air conditioning and refrigeration equipment.”

I understand what the EPA is getting at, but maybe it is not such a good idea to allow a little bit of system leakage. My experience is that a little always leads to a lot.

Hmm, maybe that’s where all that stuff is going?

MURPHY’S LAW: Give somebody an inch, they might take a mile.

Publication date: 07/12/2010
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