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Safety concerns grow over surge in use of flammable refrigerants

Concerns have been raised over the flammable nature of next-generation refrigerants such as R32 and the continued lack of purchasing enforcement.

It follows an inquest in New Zealand which heard that the refrigeration industry there does not have enough skilled staff to deal with the imminent growth of flammable hydrocarbons.

Graeme Fox, president of contractor association AREA, believes that the potential growth in flammable and explosive refrigerants will be a recipe for disaster without a corresponding effort to ensure they are purchased by qualified engineers.

Mr Fox said: “There have already been accidents involving service technicians using volatile refrigerants, and though these have been in the minority, the problem will only get bigger.

“F-Gas was the perfect excuse to ensure that all engineers were versed in refrigerant handling and properties,” he added.

Experts have previously voiced concerns over the flammable nature of new refrigerants. Mr Fox pointed to market leader Daikin and its ambitions for the R32 refrigerant in the coming years as an example.

“Though this refrigerant is flammable there has been a lack of information put out in the industry. We are not against new refrigerants; however, we are against introducing gases that are life-threatening without any training or information. There has been no consultation with the industry and very little thought as to the wider implications,” he warned.

In New Zealand, a recent inquest into the death of fireman Derek Lovell,who died in 2008 after an explosion at a store in Tamahere, near Hamilton, was told that the country’s refrigeration industry was completely unprepared for the use of flammable hydrocarbons in refrigeration systems.

Brian Jackson, a refrigeration engineer and a representative of the Institute of Refrigeration, Heating & Air Conditioning Engineers of New Zealand, told coroner Peter Ryan that the industry was completely flummoxed by the sudden pressure to use hydrocarbons.

He added that current legislation was overwhelming and there were not enough qualified staff coming up through the ranks to safely use or install hydrocarbons.

“We have been confronted by huge change and recent complexities at a rate most people can’t absorb and it’s a bit like the evolution of computers.

“Not only has the amount of stuff you need to learn to keep up but the complexity has to a point where it’s not immediately obvious so you can’t absorb it and learn it and carry on as we have… so if there isn’t any compulsion to go and find that stuff in the busy lives that people lead, it just doesn’t happen.”

Mr Jackson said the industry had been pleading with the government for some form of regulation to cut out the “cowboys” for years, without success.

He said he could understand how Warren Cook, of Mobile Refrigeration Specialists who designed and built the Tamahere site, did what he did and how he thought it was right.

QC Chris Gudsell said in Mr Cook’s submission he wrote, he didn’t know he wasn’t complying with relevant legislation.

Refrigeration systems are not included under under the New Zealand Building Act,so there was currently no formal checking or approval procedures in place, which he said was “disgraceful”.

“There’s nothing the equivalent in New Zealand industry.”

Readers' comments (2)

  • It's true that the industry needs to make doubly, triply, and quadruply sure that the service technitians who handle flammable are well skilled, trained and certified.

    One thing though, this article is a bit biased and misguiding people with a possible affect of causing unnecessary panic.

    We have to bear in mind that it is not about the danger of flammable refrigerants. It is about precautions. This is what industries have to make sure and it is certainly not about regulating the flammable refrigerant itself because sometimes the options include flammable refrigerants and certainly not R22 if we think about protecting the environment.

    The Tamahere plant did not have either a gas detection system or gas ventilation system in place, which obviously rendered to this fatal accident. And the leakage issue is also another problem wtih any refrigerants. What we should be focusing on here is to have certifiled skilled technitians for handling flammable refrigerants.

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  • Even with skilled technicians, risks from toxic or flammable refrigerants will remain, since thedy are INTRINSICALLY less safe than fluorocarbons - which themselves are INTRINSICALLY potentially harmful to the environment.

    You cannot attack fluorocarbons on this while forgiving flammable refrigerants for that.

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