The equipment was an old commercial split air conditioning system that had been installed well after the building was constructed. The building and its equipment were very old.
Since the building is in the Center City area of Philadelphia, there had not been a lot of room to install the units. The condenser was mounted on a steel frame off the side of the building’s fourth floor, just outside a window and directly above a parking lot. (Try changing the compressor in one of those units.)
Of course, the window was located in a room that was meant to be a mechanical room, but became a storage area as well. We had to clean the room out to gain access to the window, then struggle to get the window open, just to work on the condenser.
To make matters worse, it was very hot on this particular day. But that’s life in the air conditioning biz.
Loud and crankyWe eventually accessed the unit. The air handler was located above the ceiling in the middle of the floor, and it was on. The condenser was on as well, and the compressor was running. It was rather loud and cranky.
We felt the refrigerant lines; both were warm. We hooked up our manifold set and, sure enough, the system was extremely low on refrigerant, almost at 0 psig on the suction side. We added about 3 lb of R-22 to bring our pressures up, so that we could leak-check the system and the line set. That was when we could still legally use refrigerant to leak-check a system that we knew had a leak.
My partner, being the bigger of the two of us, decided he would check the condenser area while I checked the line set and evaporator. I didn’t find a trace of leakage or refrigerant oil anywhere.
I moved the ladder to be as close to the air handler as possible. I was almost under it and to the left of it. The air handler is a horizontal type with a slant-type evaporator coil.
I started the leak detector just as I was going up the ladder. I leaned over a ceiling light fixture toward the air handler. The ladder jiggled slightly, throwing off my balance and causing my weight to fall toward that air handler.
With my right hand, I grabbed the line set where it turns into the evaporator coil; both refrigerant lines blew off the evaporator. All 3 lb of refrigerant blew against my face.
I turned my face and closed my eyes, but I could not move from the ladder. My partner rushed over and helped me down, but by that time the system had emptied into my face.
Live and learnIf I had remembered what my teachers had taught me, I would have worn eye protection glasses, and maybe even a pair of gloves.
I should have been aware that, at any point in leak detection, you may run your hand directly up against the refrigerant, which we all know can cause freeze burn, rash, or irritation, not to mention the loss of some skin or maybe even an eye.
We did find the leak in the system and we did fix it. I also got to find out what refrigerant oil tastes like. (I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.)
For the most part, this accident could not have been prevented. What was preventable was the long-term impact that occurred: the scar across my eye that tends to burn every once in a while, like when I sweat.
Another scar is across the top side of my right index finger, which had been leaning against the tubing when it blew apart. The skin is dry and rough, and when it is cold, the pain is something I have to live with — that and the knowledge that it could have been prevented.