CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. — A consortium of 13 Virginia HVACR contractors and two wholesalers have partnered with the nonprofit organization Substance Abuse Free Environment (SAFE) to address the escalating national trend of teenage refrigerant huffing.

Through the program, local HVACR contractors in Chesterfield County, Va., installed free locking caps on accessible outdoor condenser refrigeration ports to stop unauthorized access to refrigerants. According to Wayne Frith, executive director of SAFE, this is the nation’s first community-wide program of its kind. It was created in response to a 2005 survey SAFE conducted of 4,500 middle and high school youths that sought specific data about what substances young people were abusing. SAFE executives were surprised to discover 8.2 percent of students had used inhalants, substances that produce chemical vapors that can produce a high when sniffed or huffed, which was twice the national average.

Huffing refrigerant in particular caught the attention of SAFE executives when they met Mona Casey, the founder of United Parents to Restrict Open Access to Refrigerant (UPROAR). UPROAR is a parental activist group with members who have lost children to refrigerant huffing. To address the refrigerant huffing problem in Virginia, SAFE and the Chesterfield County
government took a proactive stance and created the locking cap program.

During the initial program, which kicked off in March and continued through May, the contractor consortium installed more than 2,500 refrigerant locking caps free of charge on residential air conditioning condensers. The caps were provided by Airtec Products (Falls River, Mass.), and the majority of locking cap installations were retrofits. “The building industry is amidst a recession, so most contractors are proactively installing them as retrofits,” said Frith. Both the International Mechanical Code (IMC) and the International Residential Code (IRC) now mandate locking caps on new construction.

Recently, the consortium members pledged to continue the program indefinitely by providing locking caps at a nominal price for companies partnering with SAFE, according to Frith. Consortium service techs now hand out SAFE-produced postcards on every service call to explain that the national trend of refrigerant huffing has resulted in hundreds of tragic teenage deaths worldwide.

Dominion Service Co. Heating & Air Conditioning (Richmond, Va.), a founding member of the consortium, provided one of the largest commitments by spending more than $30,000 in TV, radio, and print advertising promoting the SAFE program. President Chase Tunnell said his firm has installed over 1,000 locking caps. Most consortium contractors offered and installed free locking caps during routine service calls; however, Dominion also went to some residences for the purposes of locking cap installation only. “We really believe in this program because if it prevents just one huffing death, it’ll all be worth it,” Tunnell said.

According to Tunnell, contractors had suspected teen huffing all along because of a rise in low refrigerant service calls or huffing paraphernalia found near outdoor condensers. The locking caps and their special keys are only available to the trade at HVACR wholesalers. They not only deter refrigerant theft, but also include an internal O-ring gasket that prevents accidental refrigerant leakage through the Schraeder valve.

Subsequently, SAFE recruited the consortium and launched a media print advertising and radio/TV publicity campaign that snowballed into a success, according to Frith. SAFE also spoke at a local Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) meeting to reach more contractors. SAFE’s 2010 survey of students found inhalant use had dropped significantly below the national average.

SAFE is also expanding the program awareness to building inspectors, police department home safety inspectors, state-wide media, and more HVACR contractors throughout the state. Frith believes other counties and states may establish their own awareness programs based on Chesterfield’s initiative.

Sidebar: Parents Unite

United Parents to Restrict the Open Access to Refrigerants (UPROAR) was founded by Florida resident Mona Casey, after losing her son, Charles Ian Gray, to refrigerant inhalation. Casey and her spouse often spoke about the dangers of drugs, alcohol, and tobacco to Charles, but never considered an a/c unit’s refrigerant. Ironically, refrigerants are licensed throughout their complete lifecycle from manufacturing, distribution, contracting, and servicing; however, a teenager needs only a toothpick to get it from an a/c unit’s Schraeder valve. Besides founding the Naples, Fla.-based organization, Casey has spoken at national conferences, is the proponent of numerous code proposals to lock up refrigerant (two of which have passed), has made numerous media appearances, and has spoken to various anti-drug organizations. Visit to find out more about the teenage huffing trend.

Sidebar: On the List

The following contractors are participating in the Chesterfield County initiative to fight teenage huffing:

• Dominion Service Co. (Richmond, Va.)

• James River Air Conditioning (Richmond, Va.)

• Woodfin (Mechanicsville, Va.)

• Flanagan Heating and Air Conditioning (Midlothian, Va.)

• Robinson Heating and Cooling (Amelia, Va.)

• Hale’s Heating and Air Conditioning (Richmond, Va.)

• Griffith Heating & Cooling Inc. (Midlothian, Va.)

• Bowman’s Heating and Air (Chester, Va.)

• Air Excellence Inc. (Richmond, Va.)

• R.E. Strang Heating & Air Conditioning LLC (Chesterfield, Va.)

• Universal Heating and Plumbing Inc. (Richmond, Va.)

• Midlothian Mechanical (Midlothian, Va.)

• Lin Jarrett Heating and Air Conditioning Co. (Petersburg, Va.)

The following distributors are also participating:

• Virginia Air Distributors Inc. (Midlothian, Va.)

• R.E. Michel Co. (Richmond, Va.)

Publication date: 08/29/2011