Analyze This: Refrigerant Purity Is an Ongoing Industry Concern
Refrigerant analyzers can detect low-quality, mixed, and counterfeit products
Counterfeit refrigerants have been in the news a lot lately, as manufacturers contend that record amounts of illegal imports of HFCs are being brought into the U.S. under the radar of customs. While some of these imported refrigerants may be of the correct composition, there is evidence that others may be counterfeit or of low quality.
Mixed refrigerants are another problem that contractors frequently encounter in the field, and they are also a huge concern. Not only can mixed and low-quality refrigerants damage HVACR systems, they can pose a safety threat to technicians who are servicing the equipment, particularly if a flammable or toxic component is involved.
In the field, the only way to determine whether refrigerant meets AHRI Standard 700, which specifies the purity requirements for refrigerants, is to test it with an analyzer (reclamation companies have more comprehensive analyzing capabilities). While these can be expensive tools, some say they are worth the investment.
ALL MIXED UP
The growing number of refrigerants and substitutes now available has significantly increased the chances of a system being charged with multiple refrigerants. Not only can this have an adverse effect on an HVACR system, it can make it more difficult for contractors to receive top dollar for their reclaimed refrigerant.
It was for this reason that Geoff Fishel, president of All Mechanical Service Co. in Shavertown, Pennsylvania, decided to purchase a Neutronics Mini ID R-22 analyzer last year. The company, which specializes in commercial HVACR and recently branched out into residential add-on/replacement, has a maintenance contract with a firm that owns several high-rise apartment buildings that are more than 30 years old.
Last year, the firm decided to start replacing and upgrading the HVAC equipment, and All Mechanical Service was tasked with recovering the refrigerant and scrapping the old PTAC units. There were 300 units, each containing 2.5 pounds of R-22, and this 750 pounds of recovered refrigerant should have been worth more than $1,400. But there was a problem: some of the PTAC units contained a drop-in refrigerant, and they were not marked as being converted.
“When we were recovering the refrigerant, we were getting one or two units with the drop-in refrigerants mixed in with 50-pound cylinder, and it was contaminating the whole cylinder of R-22, making it worthless,” said Fishel. “We would then have to pay to dispose of it instead of selling it back to a reclaimer at $2-plus per pound. Once I did the math, I found that the Mini ID R-22 analyzer would pay for itself in a very short period of time. That’s when I decided to purchase it, and we have not had a mixed cylinder or a rejected cylinder of R-22 since.”
While Fishel thinks the mini-analyzer was well worth the price he paid, he is not sure about investing in a full-feature, multi-refrigerant model that would cost thousands of dollars. However, he said he could change his mind, depending on what happens in the future.
Refrigerant analyzers can indeed be expensive, with premium units costing more than $4,000, said Chris Carroll, HVACR sales manager at Mastercool Inc. That is why they are not routinely found in most contracting firms.
“An analyzer is mainly utilized by reclaimers or anyone consolidating large amounts of refrigerants,” he said. “It catches any problem mixtures, avoiding costly cross-contamination or residual mixtures in a stated refrigerant.”
Indeed, A-Gas, a nationwide refrigerant recovery and reclamation company, uses refrigerant analyzers extensively, and each of its Rapid Recovery trucks is outfitted with at least one of these devices. According to Robbie Eddy, plant manager at A-Gas/Rapid Recovery in Peoria, Arizona, analyzers are used daily in the field to identify refrigerant types and record the purity of the refrigerants that are recovered.
“They are used on everything from customer recovery cylinders to refrigeration racks,” he said. “We also utilize the analyzers during check-in at our reclamation facilities to make sure that the purity matches the documentation provided from the technician before the refrigerant goes on to more intense lab testing (gas chromatography).”
Investing in a refrigerant test unit may not be financially practical for most HVACR contractors, said Eddy, as the return on investment would take a very long time to achieve.
“Since a lot of contractors only recover gases to service systems, as long as they recover into a clean, empty cylinder (to avoid mixing), they wouldn’t have a high need to test the purity or the identity of the refrigerant, as it should be plainly marked on the equipment they are servicing,” he said.
In a perfect world, this would be true, but as more refrigerants and replacements come to market, contaminated refrigerant will become more prevalent, especially because not all contractors mark what they are putting in the systems they work on, said Zachary Ziegler, refrigerant analysis product manager for Neutronics Inc., a Bacharach company.
And while refrigerant analyzers can be expensive — typically ranging from $900 to $5,500, depending on the complexity of the device — whether they are too costly for contractors to purchase is rather subjective, he said.
“There are many refrigerant reclaim facilities that will pay a defined price per pound for certain refrigerants at 95 percent or greater purity,” said Ziegler. “If contractors use a refrigerant analyzer and verify purity before consolidation, they can make money or receive credits toward their next refrigerant purchase. These same reclaim facilities may bill for impure refrigerant. In this case, every pound of bad refrigerant could cost a contractor more in the long run than a refrigerant analyzer would.”
Using an analyzer in the field is also better for the environment and the industry, he contends, because refrigerants mixed during the recovery process often have to be destroyed at the reclamation facility. By combating the problem on the front line — with the contractor — there will be less environmental impact from destruction, more refrigerant to continue to use for years to come, and lower prices for the consumers as the supply stays stable.
Tim Wagaman, senior product manager of Robinair at Bosch, agrees that refrigerant analyzers can be pricey, but they can also save contractors both time and money by quickly and accurately determining the refrigerant type and purity.
“This reduces the potential for human error, prevents contamination of bulk refrigerant supply in system recovery, and helps technicians determine the next step of a service call,” he said.
QUICK AND ACCURATE
Refrigerant analyzers are handheld devices that use non-dispersive infrared (NDIR) technology to determine the purity of the refrigerant (refrigerant identifiers, on the other hand, only identify the refrigerant and do not do analyze for purity). Once the device is connected to a system or cylinder (see sidebar), it takes two to four minutes for the analyzer to identify and analyze the purity of the refrigerant, said Ziegler. The results are indicated on the device’s display panel and/or printed out. They are capable of identifying and analyzing many types of refrigerants, including CFCs, HCFCs, HFCs, and some HFOs, such as R-1234yf.
“The refrigerant analyzer is designed to verify that the refrigerant expected to be in a system or cylinder is the expected refrigerant,” Wagerman said. “It can display a complex analysis of refrigerant, simply verify the refrigerant, or show levels of contamination that occur if refrigerants are mixed or counterfeit. Depending on the model, the analyzer can provide purity percentage results, identify if noncondensable air is present in the sample, or break down the multicomponent refrigerant composition for some R-400 Series refrigerants.”
Refrigerant analyzers are designed to detect certain refrigerants, and those that don’t fall within the scope of the analyzer are typically placed into an unknown category, with that percentage of refrigerant displayed, said Wagaman. The percentage of each refrigerant detected — which will equal 100 percent — will be displayed, with noncondensable gases measured separately.
“If the refrigerant analyzed is 98 percent pure or greater, the refrigerant is deemed suitable for standard recovery and reuse,” he said. “Should the refrigerant be less than 98 percent pure, the refrigerant is not suitable for standard recovery and should not be reused.”
Refrigerant analyzers are not 100 percent accurate, noted Ziegler, but accuracy is usually within +/-2 percent for the refrigerants the analyzer was designed to test. They also do not detect moisture, acidity, or other compounds outside of refrigerants and air as contaminants. The only device that is near 100 percent accurate for refrigerant analysis is a gas chromatograph (GC); however, these machines must be used in a laboratory setting and operated by a certified technician.
For HVACR contractors, investing in a refrigerant analyzer makes sense, said Ziegler, because the device could help diagnose problems with a system; alert a technician to possible safety concerns; identify the use of counterfeit gases; and help prevent additional cross contamination when recovering refrigerant into designated cylinders.
“There are new refrigerants offered all the time, and the number of gases in the industry will continue to grow,” he said. “Without refrigerant analysis, contamination levels will continue to increase; more refrigerant will be destroyed instead of recycled; prices will increase as supplies reduce; flammable gases will put technicians at risk; and counterfeit gases will continue to plague the industry. Refrigerant analysis helps the industry sustain the refrigerant supply, protects the technicians and the environment, and ultimately ensures the service job is done right.”
Obtaining the Best Results From a Refrigerant Analyzer
Like any tool, there are some key steps and processes to consider when using a refrigerant analyzer. According to Zachary Ziegler of Neutronics, following these steps will result in the most accurate results:
- Connect the hose to the analyzer before completing an air calibration. The hose should never be connected to a refrigerant source during calibration but must be connected to the analyzer. This allows the internal pump to accurately purge the lines and create a required back pressure during calibration. Without the hose connected to the analyzer, the calibration may fail or be slightly out of specification.
- Operate within the ambient operating temperature range of 50° to 120°F.
- Refrigerant must flow into the analyzer for the full duration of testing. Don’t close the cylinder valve or disconnect the hose from the refrigerant source while the analyzer is completing an analysis. The analyzer requires a constant flow of refrigerant to accurately analyze the gas.
- Always sample from the low-side vapor port. Liquid refrigerant can damage the refrigerant analyzer and should never enter the device. Sampling from the vapor port on a system or cylinder will help reduce the likelihood of ingesting liquid refrigerant.
- Verify there is refrigerant pressure in the sample before testing. If there is no refrigerant in the system or cylinder, the analyzer will not be able to receive an adequate sample, which will negatively affect the analysis. Each refrigerant analyzer requires at least 30 psig vapor pressure to accurately analyze the refrigerant.
- Know the limitations of the device. Each analyzer is built to identify or analyze specific refrigerants. If a refrigerant is sampled outside the specifications, the results may not be accurate. Have an idea of what refrigerant is expected before analysis. If it is within the specifications of the analyzer, go ahead and test it.
- Always wear the proper safety equipment, including gloves and eye protection to prevent any refrigerant burns when analyzing a system or cylinder.
- If the analysis yields anything besides what is expected, handle that refrigerant with caution, as there are counterfeit refrigerants on the market that can cause great harm.
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