Few developments in recent months concerning refrigerants have stirred up such intense interest as the efforts to introduce a product called Frost-22a to the farm-supply distribution market.

The refrigerant is mostly a blend of propane and isobutene, which are A3 safety-rated hydrocarbon (HC) refrigerants. In Europe, propane is used in residential refrigeration, but not yet in the U.S. Propane, of course, is widely used in gas grills in most red-blooded Americans’ backyards. And liquid propane is sitting in huge tanks near homes in much of rural America.

The fuss with this product is the implication that it can be used to top off or be retrofitted into an air conditioning system designed for, and running on, hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC)-22. Here is some of the terminology used in a flyer: “Replacement refrigerant: 12 pounds of Frost 22A is equivalent to 30 pounds of R-22,” “do it yourself,” “no license required,” “less than half the price of R-22,” and “government phasing out R-22.”

From what I have read, the promoters of the product do not specifically say you should use it to top off or retrofit, but it was all that previously noted terminology that raised concern within the HVACR sector.

I don’t know if the product actually works efficiently as a top-off or retrofit option for existing R-22 systems. Some anecdotal information I read seems to indicate that some folks have tried it and say it works OK.

The big concern in HVACR is the danger of working with this product because of its flammability potential. One argument is that when installed in a residential air conditioning system, the refrigerant could end up settling in the piping near the furnace when the a/c is off. Should that piping have a leak, the refrigerant could drip near the ignition system of the furnace. When the furnace is turned on, the ignition flame could ignite the refrigerant.

Eventually the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued general warnings against the misuse of refrigerants.

This is not the first time that an A3 safety-rated refrigerant had found its way into the HVACR industry with less than complete information. About eight years ago I was at a trade show conference where an afternoon seminar was billed as “new refrigerant trends.” Ends up the presenters were a couple of local distributors for a pure HC refrigerant — I can’t remember if it was propane or isobutene, or a mix of both, but
it had some fancy name that said nothing about what the refrigerant really was. The guys promoted it as a great refrigerant for the HVACR industry in the U.S. What they never said was that it was a flammable refrigerant. Looking back, I suspect they may not have known. Fortunately, there were several folks in the audience who asked what was in the product. The presenters actually had to find a material safety data sheet to look up the info. One of the persons in the audience happened to be an HVACR teacher who pointed out the dangers of working with the HC being promoted.

Two points need to be made.

First, there is nothing wrong with HC refrigerants. As I noted, they are used in Europe and they are making inroads into the U.S., and will continue to do so. But on both sides of the Atlantic they are being used in equipment designed for a specific HC. And there are procedures in place to guide the installer and servicing technician.

But the furor over Frost-22a demonstrates a more important second point. Contractors and technicians need to know everything they can about any refrigerant they are working with — and not rely on one-sided wording on a flyer or the sales pitch of clueless presenters at a ‘technical talk.’ Contractors and techs need to know what a system was designed for, and then if they opt to try something else — as is the case these days with hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) retrofits for HCFC-designed systems — they need to understand how it is done. That means checking with the equipment manufacturer as well as the refrigerant supplier.

Misapplications of f-gas refrigerants like HCFCs and HFCs can lead to system efficiency questions and possible mechanical malfunctions with dangers there.

But, when you are dealing with flammable refrigerants, misapplications can be deadly.

Publication date: 8/26/2013 

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