Cylinders of gas with safety warnings.

Are Refrigerant Leaks Dangerous?

In Articles by Elizabeth Ortlieb2 Comments

You might ask, are refrigerant leaks dangerous? The answer is yes, and that’s the focus of this post. In fact, refrigerant leaks are dangerous from an environmental, health and safety perspective.

Nearly every refrigerant today poses some kind of danger. That’s because there is no “ideal” refrigerant, and the likelihood of developing an “ideal” one is low, according to the EPA. Thus, no matter what kind of refrigerant you choose and use, there will be upsides and downsides to it.

The point is, refrigerant leaks entail the possibility of danger. And, you need to be aware of the different facets of this danger, so that you can truly protect your facility in the near- and long-term. Let’s get started.

Environmental Hazard

First and foremost, it’s a well-known fact that the most common refrigerants in use today are harmful to the environment, and the types of refrigerants that fall under this category include chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

CFCs and HCFCs are considered ozone-depleting substances (ODS), while HFCs are considered fluorinated gases with high global warming potentials (GWP).

CFC Refrigerants

CFC refrigerants have high ozone depleting potential (ODP) and high global warming potential (GWP). They are considered the refrigerant type with the most environmentally harmful properties, and they have been banned worldwide since 2010 per the Montreal Protocol. An example of a popular CFC refrigerant that used to be widely in use is R-11, which has a GWP of 4,660.

HCFC Refrigerants

While HCFC refrigerants have less ODP than CFC refrigerants, they have very high GWP. Since the late 1980s, these refrigerants have been under a phase out per the Montreal Protocol, like CFCs. For instance, R-22, with a high GWP of 1,760, is considered one of the most widely used HCFC refrigerants in the United States, and it will be phased out in the country by the end of the year (i.e., 2020).

HFC Refrigerants

More recently, HFC refrigerants have also been looked at with increased scrutiny for their high GWP values; in fact, they have recently come under a global phasedown through the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which went into effect January 1, 2019. (It’s important to note that, while the United States has not ratified the Kigali Amendment and the status of that ratification remains unknown, HFC refrigerants are still regulated by various regulatory bodies in the country, including by the U.S. EPA 608 and California Air Resources Board (CARB)’s Refrigerant Management Program (RMP).)

As a whole, CFCs, HCFCs, and HFCs are considered the most environmentally harmful refrigerant types, and that’s why they are significantly impacted by environmental regulations. In general, such regulations may call for leak testing and reporting, so, if you’re looking for a way to make your job easier, check out our range of portable gas leak detectors capable of finding leaks with these common refrigerants.

Nonetheless, because of the fact that these common refrigerants are under a phase out or are undergoing a phasedown across the world, there has been a greater push towards the next generation of refrigerants—that is, environmentally friendly alternative refrigerants—with lower GWP, including hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs) and natural refrigerants (e.g., hydrocarbons and ammonia).

However, as previously mentioned, there is no perfect refrigerant, and this next generation of refrigerants is no exception. While not as environmentally harmful, these alternative refrigerants, as they become more widely accepted, necessitate an an even greater awareness to the health and safety aspect of HVAC-R.

Health and Safety Hazard

Traditionally, refrigerants, such as CFCs, HCFCs, and HFCs, have been non-flammable and low-in-toxicity. However, with the ascent of alternative refrigerants, this is no longer the case. Yes, indeed, natural refrigerants, such as hydrocarbons and ammonia, pose flammability and/or greater toxicity concerns.

Hydrocarbons

Hydrocarbon (HC) refrigerants include R-290 (propane), R-600a (isobutane), R-170 (ethane),  R-1150 (ethene / ethylene), R-1270 (propylene or propene), and blends of these substances. These refrigerants have no ODP and low GWP; they are also nontoxic.

But, the caveat with these refrigerants is that they are flammable. Indeed, if there is a refrigerant leak with a hydrocarbon-based HVAC system, a fire or explosion could occur. Hence, HC refrigerants have special labeling, charge size limits, and use conditions.

Even more, these fire and explosion concerns give an entire new meaning to the danger of refrigerant leaks. Not only do you have to worry about environmental and toxic hazards with refrigerant leaks but you now also have to worry about flammable hazards with them, too. For this reason, combustible gas leak detection has become all the more important.

In fact, according to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturer’s “Safe Servicing of Household Appliances with Flammable Refrigerants” guide, it is recommended that you use “a certified and calibrated combustible gas leak detector to test for leaks if the system is charged with an A2L or A3 refrigerant.” Thus, if you own, manage or service a hydrocarbon-based HVAC system, check out our combustible gas leak detection portfolio, including our Informant 2, Leakator 10, and Leakator Jr.

Ammonia

Ammonia as a refrigerant (R-717) is increasing in popularity again, as the world shifts away from CFCs, HCFCs, and HFCs. In fact, ammonia is a popular refrigerant choice (and has been for quite some time) in industrial and food processing refrigeration applications.

However, while environmentally friendly with a GWP of 0, ammonia is very toxic, flammable (at concentrations of approximately 15% to 28% by volume in air) and a significant health hazard. According to OSHA, exposure to 300 parts per million (ppm) is immediately dangerous to life and health. That’s why there are numerous, federal regulatory requirements related to process safety, accident prevention, emergency planning, and release reporting for ammonia.

The point is, if your facility uses ammonia as a refrigerant, there is little room for error. It’s recommended that you maintain a leak-free ammonia system, and Bacharach’s MGS-400 Gas Detection Series can help. With MGS-400 gas detectors, refrigeration safety compliance has never been more intuitive. Even more, using the MGS-400 app, users can intuitively use, commission and maintain their gas detection system without the need for specialty training or tools.

How to Mitigate the Danger of Refrigerant Leaks

Ultimately, a program of fixed refrigerant gas monitors and portable leak detectors will help you ensure you are alerted the moment a leak occurs, so you can deal with it promptly and properly.

As discussed in this post, there are different facets of danger that come from refrigerant leaks, and this includes from an environmental, health and safety perspective.

The good news is that Bacharach provides a wide range of gas detection systems to suit your needs, and you can learn more here today.


What are you most concerned about when it comes to refrigerant leaks? How are you best mitigating the danger of them? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

Comments

  1. Good article. You forgot to mention that that refrigerants, even if not poisonous, are asphyxiants and will displace air in enclosed spaces. Having a door or window isn’t enough to mitigate the hazard. Oxygen level sensors, such as the Safety Protégé are another safety device that may be appropriate.

    1. Thanks for your comment. You’re right; the displacement of oxygen by leaking refrigerant can pose a serious hazard in confined spaces. (We’ve addressed this concern is several of our other articles, including “Advances in Refrigerant Detection Instruments for Safety Compliance” and “Room with a Leak: the Need for VRF Leak Detection”.)

      While personal safety devices may play a role in protecting personnel in some applications, they should be viewed as a part of the broader solution and not as a replacement for fixed gas detection.

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