Recent reports from overseas have revealed that rogue refrigerants were used in hundreds of transport HFC-134a refrigeration systems, which resulted in a number of explosions and at least three deaths. World trade press, industry manufacturers, and watchdog websites have been issuing statements in recent weeks as part of this ongoing story. While details are still sketchy, the dramatic events have demonstrated the importance of knowing that the refrigerant a contractor works with is what it says it is on the label and the dangers of “topping off” with anything other than that refrigerant.

Questionable Blends

The London-based ACR News (no relation to The NEWS or BNP Media) reported on its website that there were “indications that methyl chloride is the rogue refrigerant responsible for three deaths and the grounding of hundreds of reefer containers.”

The report said not all the “constituents of the rogue blend used in the R-134a refrigeration systems” have been identified. But it was reported that investigators “have confirmed the likely involvement of methyl chloride, an extremely flammable toxic compound.”

The report went on to say that the German compressor manufacturer GEA Bock had identified methyl chloride “as a constituent in fake refrigerants responsible for an increasing number of compressor breakdowns.” The compressor issue has not been linked to the transport explosion aspect. But according to ACR News, “GEA Bock has pinpointed bogus refrigerant purporting to be R-134a which they have found to consist mainly of R-22, -30, -40 (methyl chloride) and -142b.”

The publication World Cargo News issued a statement in early December stating, “Hundreds of refrigerated containers have been quarantined in various locations around the world following reports of compressor explosions and incidents of spontaneous combustion that have resulted in at least three fatalities.” It said the Maersk Line, a Denmark-based ocean carrier, reported “three cases in which refrigeration units had exploded for no apparent reason.”

World Cargo News continued, “Maersk said it had ascertained that all three refrigeration units had received gas repairs in Vietnam.” The publication said, “The introduction of contaminated or otherwise unsuitable refrigerant gas into the system causes a chemical reaction when it comes into contact with R-134a, oil, or air, creating a flammable/explosive mixture.”

World Cargo News also reported there have been “compressor ruptures in separate incidents in Brazil, China, and Vietnam.” At least a half dozen container shipping lines “had identified at least 900 refrigeration units that they suspect may contain contaminated refrigerant and have quarantined those units.”

The publication Lloyd’s Register issued a safety alert stating, “There have recently been a number of incidents, some fatal, involving explosion of the compressor units fitted to refrigerated (reefer) containers. The cause of the explosions is still under investigation but it appears that the servicing of the refrigeration system is a common factor in each case. It has been reported to Lloyd’s Register that refrigerant gas in refrigeration and air conditioning plants is being recharged or ‘topped up’ with different types of gas. This may have been a contributing factor to the explosions.”

Know What You Are Using

The importance of knowing what refrigerant a contractor is dealing with was stressed by Jay Kestenbaum of Airgas Refrigerants, a wholly owned subsidiary of Airgas Inc. In comments to The NEWS regarding the reefer explosions, he said, “While they don’t know yet what exactly was in the containers, it was not what it was supposed to be. It was not 134a.”

He noted the importance of a contractor buying refrigerant from reputable, known manufacturers and suppliers. He said, for example, that Airgas-packed products undergo testing to ensure that they meet or exceed AHRI Standard 700. This practice, he said, is used for both virgin products as well as the refrigerants returned for reclamation.

Gordon McKinney of ICOR, a refrigerant manufacturer and supplier, agreed. “All reputable refrigerant producers certify each and every batch of refrigerant to the current AHRI Standard 700. A certified sample of each batch is then recorded and placed into inventory for future reference if needed.”

McKinney continued, “Traditionally, quality issues have been found more often in the refrigerant brokerage sector. Several companies sell imported, prepackaged refrigerant and neglect testing it to the AHRI standard. Contractors should always question the purity and keep track of who they are buying all of their gas from. Sometimes, like most things in life, cheaper isn’t always better.”

Publication date: 01/09/2012