I was reading a story the other day on how the General Motors company is facing a class-action lawsuit due to faulty air conditioning systems installed on their newer model vehicles. (2014-2017.) The alleged suit states that the compressor as well as the condenser lines prematurely fail and cause refrigerant to leak out. This leaking refrigerant is ether leaked out under the hood, or worse, leaked into the cabin.
The two plaintiffs that started this lawsuit are suing due to the faulty systems and they are also claiming that General Motors knew about the failures in the first place but chose to ignore them and to get the cars on the marketplace. This all started when the two plaintiffs in this suit noticed that their air conditioners were no longer working at all or were blowing hot air. After taking their vehicles to the dealerships a repair was done and extra bracket was installed to secure the system. (Why wasn’t the bracket part of the system int he first place?) To top it off both plaintiffs had to pay for their air conditioning repairs out of their own pocket. In both instances their vehicle was barely out of warranty.
As I mentioned above there are two main defects that are being claimed in this lawsuit. The first is the line leading from the compressor to the condenser. The aluminum tube either becomes disconnected from a rubber hose connect or the aluminum simply began to degrade and eventually rupture causing refrigerant to leak out. The other problem and or complaint was that the condenser ‘could’ crack after only a short amount of use. Again, this would cause refrigerant to leak out of the system.
At this time the lawsuit is still pending and I have not been able to find an official word from General Motors on the topic.
In this General Motors example the only thing that was lost here the customer’s hard earned money. While that is never a good thing it is important to realize that things could have been much worse. When something like this happens, no matter how small it is, I always find my mind wandering to the what if scenarios. What if these faulty lines or condensers were using R-717 refrigerant instead of R-134a or R-1234yf? R-717, or Ammonia, is rated as a ‘Class B,’ on the toxicity levels for refrigerants. What that means folks is that Ammonia is toxic if breathed in. So, now let’s pretend we have this minor leak or fault in the air conditioning system but with an Ammonia based system. This minor failure has turned into a huge problem and may even endanger people’s lives.
This is what scares me so much about toxic refrigerants such as R-717. Yes, I understand that it is one of the most efficient refrigerants on the market but is the efficiency and cost savings really worth the risk? Now, I know that at this time there isn’t an automotive/mobile application that is using Ammonia but I wanted to point this out nonetheless. There are other applications on the market today such as ice rinks that do and have been using Ammonia for decades. In fact just last year there was a leak on an Ammonia based system up in Canada. The leak occurred due to component failures, just like they usually do. The difference here is that in this scenario three people lost their lives. On top of that large swaths of a city block had to be evacuated due to the leak. I won’t get into all of the details on the article but if you are interested in reading more please click here. This example is exactly why I fear Ammonia. Maybe I am wrong in my fear but to me it just doesn’t seem safe.
So with all of that in mind let’s now think about this. HFC refrigerants such as R-404A, R-134a, and R-410A are slowly being phased down or out across the world. But what alternative refrigerants will we be using? Is there a set plan yet? There are many people who are looking at Hydrocarbon refrigerants such as Ammonia for a solution. After all it’s very energy efficient and has a very low Global Warming Potential. But, do we really need refrigerants like this in use, especially in public places like an ice rink?
I understand that we are being environmentally friendly here by using low GWP refrigerants but is our health worth saving the climate? I know what I would say when given this choice. We could develop the safest system in the world to go with Ammonia refrigerant but even the safest and most reinforced units will eventually fail either due to wear and tear over time, a faulty component, or negligence. It just takes one engineer or mechanic to miss something on a system like this and then tragedy could occur. In this case, the culprit could be General Motors.
While I am a fan of hydrocarbon refrigerants and other alternatives I feel we should all be vigilant and aware of any toxic refrigerants gaining popularity especially in larger markets. R-717 is used extensively today on the industrial refrigeration side of the market but there are also some more visible applications as we discussed above. In some circles of the world R-717 is seen as viable alternative to R-22. If you ask me, I think we should stick with CO2.
The other side of this coin is R-290, or Propane. While Propane isn’t toxic it is, as you know, highly flammable especially to novices who are not familiar with the product. R-290 is becoming more popular just like Ammonia is. We’re seeing Propane in home air conditioning units, super market freezers, and vending machines. While it is not as dangerous as a toxic refrigerant the danger is still there.
I will ask this question again. Is it worth the risk? Or, should we stick with HFC refrigerants that are tried and true until there is a better and safer alternative? In a few years time I would predict seeing a whole host of options and alternatives from the HFO refrigerant line and these will be much safer WHEN a leak does occur.