It did not take long for the HVACR industry to respond to reports from overseas about rogue refrigerants used in hundreds of transport HFC-134a refrigeration systems, which allegedly were responsible for a number of explosions and at least three deaths.The NEWSfirst reported on these developments in its Jan. 9 issue.

In a statement issued Jan. 24, Polar Technology, a Nashville, Tenn.-based refrigerant management company that specializes in reclamation and recycling, said it “has developed a series of 18 repeatable testing and recovery procedures to be used on potentially contaminated shipping containers that are believed to have been serviced in Vietnam.”

The statement went to note that after that servicing, the units were shipped to “their respective worldwide destinations” where “several of such units have experienced fires or flashing and have been associated with at least three known deaths.” Polar said that “a number of national and international operations have negotiated or are in the process of negotiating agreements with Polar Technology to work with them on individual situations.”


The Polar statement also provided an update on the extent of the possible contamination and the contaminants (information that was more speculative in the
Jan. 9 report).

“A conservatively estimated 1,600 refrigerated shipping containers have apparently been compromised with possibly counterfeit refrigerants that are flammable and that have caused flashovers. Instead of using the normal mixture of polyolester and R-134a (1,1,1,2-tetrafluoroethane), a noncombustible combination, it is suspected that methyl chloride may have been used instead. The result has been the closure of ports across the globe and a fear about the status of unaccounted for reefer units.”

The statement then went into more detail about how the explosions may have taken place.

“Data available prior to the development of the standard operating procedures indicated that the pyrophoric liquid (which burns in contact with air) is possibly trimethyl aluminum (Al2(CH3)6). The explanation is that the system has been contaminated with a counterfeit refrigerant containing methyl chloride (chloromethane, CH3Cl). This gas works as a refrigerant but reacts with the aluminum in the compressor forming trimethyl aluminum, which is a liquid at room temperature.”

At the same time, Polar Technology said such comments are still preliminary.

“We have no way of knowing which containers have the counterfeit refrigerants in them until they are individually tested,” said Ted Atwood, president and owner of Polar Technology. “Therefore, we must consider each one as contaminated and potentially dangerous until proven otherwise. Additionally, given how dangerous each situation could possibly be, we want to make sure we have things right before we roll these procedures out.”

Testing Procedures

Atwood noted that Polar has a recovery plant in Ontario, Calif., “close to many of the affected port operations, and has been working with an unofficial consortium of related groups and first responders, to help determine how the reefers can be handled and rendered safe.”

He added, “Polar has developed a series of repeatable testing protocols that will safely extract sample refrigerants from suspect containers and safely transport them to laboratory facilities where they will be confirmed as safe or compromised. Initial tests will be conducted on benign refrigeration containers to make sure the equipment and procedures are sound and perform to standards before being conducted on potentially compromised units.”

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Publication date: 03/05/2012