While awareness of the need for refrigerant reclamation seems strong, the numbers prove that widespread adoption of reclamation has not yet taken root. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) put HCFC-22 reclamation at 8.3 million pounds last year, about 10 percent of the 80 million pounds of virgin refrigerant then available.

But this year, the EPA proposed to drop virgin supplies down to 55 million pounds. That step down, while still a proposal, has been adhered to by refrigerant manufacturers pending a final ruling later this year.

In anticipation of a greater reliance on reclamation, those providing such reclaim services have been looking at ways to serve contractor customers faster and with the ability to bring more submitted refrigerant back to ARI-700 purity levels.

An example of what’s happening in that sector is the announcement from Airgas Refrigerants Inc. of what it calls “a new approach and new technology for its reclamation business.”

Airgas provided The NEWS with a first look at its new reclamation system, dubbed Airgas Refrigatron™. At full capacity, this combined analytical and recovery system can enable Airgas to reclaim 4 million pounds of refrigerants a year, the company said.

While Airgas was testing the system and working out accommodations on its 95,000 square foot Smyrna, Ga., factory floor, the company processed more than 1 million pounds of refrigerant over 280 operating days. (The facility handles CFCs, HCFCs, and HFCs; focusing primarily on R-22, as well as the HFCs -410A, -134a, and -404A. Other gases such as CFCs -11, -500, and -502 are processed as well.)

So the new approach demonstrates a sizeable bump up in pounds processed per year.

Figuring It Out

To address the cost and processing issues, Airgas assembled an R&D team, based out of the Airgas, Cheshire, Conn., location, and evaluated the processes that hampered reclamation and thereby led to increased costs. They examined the handling, testing, reclaiming and bulking processes, and automation while also looking to apply LEAN and KANBAN principles, both process improvement approaches originally developed in Japan.

“We looked 15 years down the road to when there is no virgin R-22 and we thought, ‘How do we fix 98 percent pure then?’” said Randy Perry, director of technical services and project administration for Airgas Refrigerants. “The answer is with high-purity reclaimed gas.”

As a result, R&D came up with Airgas Refrigatron, which the company described as a technology-based solution that rapidly tests cylinders and enables the safe and rapid reclamation of refrigerants. “We want to pay people the best price we can for their gas,” Pat Kitchin, director of operations for Airgas Refrigerants, said. “So we test each cylinder with a mass spectrometer that matches a library of 375,000 items. We’ve got 100 percent certainty of what’s in those cylinders. We pay customers the rate they’re owed within 30 days and get those cylinders back to our customers or into our fleet immediately.”

He added, “Every returned cylinder represents a huge risk. Without proper testing, there’s no way to ensure that the purity of a refrigerant has been accurately quantified.” Airgas operations staff recognized that handheld testing could produce incorrect results through coelution — where R-410A can appear to be R-22, giving the false impression of higher purity R-22. This could lead to the contamination of large quantities of gases. “That’s potentially a six-figure mistake,” said Kitchin, “That’s a call I don’t want to have to make.”

Airgas saw this reclamation market looming for R-22. But the question was how to move more refrigerant through the process. According to Ted Schulte, president of Airgas Refrigerants, “The challenge was all these little cans — and how in the world do you handle all the volume?”

The challenge was solved by integrating two Agilent gas chromatography mass spectrometers to test the gas in each cylinder twice before bulking it into large tanks. The process takes about eight minutes — a savings of about 45 minutes over the old lab testing process — and produces a 100 percent accurate ARI-700 result. It stores the result for labeling, graphing, and future customer access.

Airgas said it reviewed the reclamation process with an eye for economic benefit through process efficiency. The company analyzed the process and sought ways to eliminate risks and safety issues while saving time and labor, Schulte said. The 11-step process was eventually reduced to three steps, largely through the use of automated technology.

Making It Work

Airgas employees can connect 16 cylinders at one time. Eight of them will be in testing or evacuating at a time. Two employees then rotate in the other ready cylinders as two screens prompt them through the connection, testing, and evacuation process, automatically evacuating the gas into the proper holding tank, or alerting an employee to take action, such as when a cylinder has failed. Wheeled carts and zero gravity lifts enable the employees to move up to 125-pound cylinders to the machine. The employees know there is an ideal mix of 125-pound and 50-pound cylinders necessary to gain the best efficiency over a shift, which typically reclaims about 6,500-7,000 pounds of refrigerant from roughly 130 cylinders.

The test results also tie directly into the company’s check-in and payment system, ensuring faster, more accurate payments by eliminating additional order entry, the company said. “We’re buying from the same people we’re selling to,” Schulte said. “Ensuring fast, accurate payment to our customers was a key to this initiative. We’re turning around cylinders and payment within 30 days.”

With reclamation hinging on contractor acceptance, Airgas hopes its customer focus will drive customers to submit more refrigerant into its pipeline.

Publication date: 8/27/2012