Refrigerants: Environment In Trade for Safety?

Hello everyone! I hope your Labor Day is going well. We just got back from our city’s parade and I’ve got a few hours before our barbecue so I thought I’d take some time and get an article out there. I’m going to preface this article with the disclaimer that this is an opinion piece. Take it how you want, but it has been on my mind over the past year or so.

As we all know refrigerants have been phased out or phased down for decades. We started it way back in the early 1990’s with R-12 and other CFCs. Then we focused on HCFCs and now the world is looking at HFCs. With CFCs and HCFCs the goal of the phase out was to stop using Ozone damaging refrigerants. These refrigerants contained Chlorine which did not break down in the atmosphere and ended up harming the Ozone layer.

HFCs were the replacement for these Ozone damaging refrigerants. HFCs did not contain Chlorine and did not harm the Ozone layer. They were also non-flammable and non-toxic. Yes, I am aware there are always exceptions out there, but the most commonly used HFC refrigerants were non-flammable and non-toxic. These HFCs seemed to be the perfect substitute for HFCs and HCFCs.

Fast forward to the present and the world is now looking to phase down or phase out HFC refrigerants across the globe. This time though instead of them damaging the Ozone these refrigerants are contributing to Global Warming. Refrigerants are measured on a scale known as Global Warming Potential, or GWP. The zero scale for GWP is Carbon Dioxide (R-744) with a GWP of one. Popular HFC refrigerants, such as R-134a, have GWP as high as one-thousand four-hundred and thirty. There is an obvious problem here and the continued use of HFC refrigerants will speed up Global Warming. The question now though is what alternatives are out there?

Natural Refrigerants

For a lot of companies and countries the answer has been Hydrocarbons such as R-717 and R-290. These natural refrigerants have a very low Global Warming Potential and they do not deplete the Ozone layer. In fact, R-717 is widely seen as one of the most efficient refrigerants out there. Both of these refrigerants are great for the environment. The downside though is that these refrigerants can be dangerous.

Yes, just like with anything, if the refrigerants and machines are handled correctly and maintained properly then there is little chance of problems, but the chance still persists nonetheless. Let’s look at R-717, or Ammonia, as an example. Ammonia is a great refrigerant but it is toxic if inhaled. In today’s world it is mostly used industrial refrigeration such as meat packing plants and in ice rinks. When a leak does happen it can be deadly. Notice, how I said when? Ammonia leaks occur quite frequently across the Americas. There was a particularly bad one around one year ago in Canada that ended up fatally harming three workers. (Source) When an Ammonia leak occurs an evacuation has to occur. Depending on the size of the leak the evacuation could be a couple of blocks surrounding the facility. It can be that dangerous.

The alternative for Ammonia based systems was R-22. In the 1980’s and 1990’s companies could pick between these two refrigerants for their plants. (Yes, there were more, but I believe these were the main players.) The choice for R-22 is now gone due to the phase outs. Depending on the application, some were using R-134a as an alternative to Ammonia. But now, that too, is being phased out. While R-22 and R-134a were damaging the Climate they were safe. If a leak occurred it wasn’t the end of the world.

Now with the shrinking list of alternative refrigerants more and more companies are leaning towards Ammonia. Yes, there are new HFC and HFO alternatives being developed by Chemours and Honeywell but these have not been perfected yet. You may get one that has a low GWP but has a higher flammability rating. Or, you may get one that still has a somewhat high GWP and it just wouldn’t make sense to base a new machine off of a refrigerant that is only going to be around for a few years.

R-290, or Propane, has a similar story. While yes, it’s not near as deadly as Ammonia, it still has it’s risks. Instead of toxicity being a problem we now have to deal with flammability and flame propagation. If an inexperienced technician attempts to work on an R-290 unit and is not sure what they are doing they could end up igniting the refrigerant. (The worst is the guys who smoke when working on a unit.)

Now picture this, what if we start using R-290 in home based air conditioners? It doesn’t even have to be a split system, it could be a mini-split or even a window or portable unit. Let’s say Mr. Homeowner, who has no idea what he’s doing, decides to tamper with the unit because it’s not blowing cold air. Maybe he thinks it just needs ‘more Freon.’ If the unit was using Puron then the homeowner would recharge, waste his money, and think he did some good. However, if the unit contained R-290 the results could be far worse.

HFOs and Alternative HFCs

In my opinion, HFOs are much safer then Hydrocarbons, but there is still that safety risk out there. Let’s look at everyone’s favorite HFO target, 1234yf. Now, I know this horse has been beaten to death, but I’m going to bring it up one more time. YF is rated as an A2L from ASHRAE. That 2L means that YF is flammable and has a chance to ignite. What kills me here is that there was such a push to get YF rolled out to new vehicles that instead of rating it as a standard A2 refrigerant they instead created a whole new flammability called 2L. (Lower Flammability.) So, they’re admitting to it being flammable, but only slightly.

The whole controversy on YF started years ago when the European Union was looking for a suitable alternative to R-134a. There were hundreds of tests conducted across Europe and the World to view the viability of 1234yf. In one of these tests the Daimler company out of Germany found that after the vehicle suffered an impact and the compressor cracked open the HFO YF refrigerant ignited when it was exposed to the hot engine. (For more on this check out our YF fact sheet by clicking here. The video of the ignition is at the bottom.)

Needless to say, this test result shocked Daimler and they published their findings to the world. The other companies and countries stated that Daimler’s test could not be reproduced and that it was a non-issue. The world moved forward with the somewhat dangerous 1234yf. Daimler, being the innovators they are, decided to instead move forward with a completely different automotive refrigerant, R-744.

While 1234yf is by far one of the most popular HFC alternatives on the marketplace today there are others that have similar problems. One that comes to mind right away is R-32. R-32 is an HFC refrigerant that is beginning to see more popularity for it’s usage in home and commercial air conditioners. R-32 is an alternative to the standard R-410A that is found in most home units. The goal of R-32 was to reduce the GWP number when compared to R-410A. 410A has a GWP of two-thousand and eighty-eight while R-32 has a GWP of six-hundred and seventy-five. This is a significant reduction, but the GWP is still quite high when comparing to Hydrocarbons or HFOs. Another very important point is that R-32 is rated as an A2 refrigerant. There’s that 2 again. 2 means flammable except with this one we don’t even get the L for lightly flammable.

So again, I’m going to illustrate the similar scenario we mentioned above. Picture a homeowner, who doesn’t know what they are doing, trying to either retrofit his existing R-22 over to R-32 or perhaps he just wants to recharge his R-32 machine. Without the proper training and knowledge this can end in disaster.


So, now here we are sacrificing technician and public safety for the betterment of the Climate and environment. I understand that Global Warming is a crisis and that it needs to be dealt with, but is it really worth increasing possible risk and danger of everyday workers and people? It appears that in everyone’s haste to move away from HFC refrigerants and to save the environment the thought of safety has taken a backseat.

I mean, if we wanted to get really aggressive in the fight against climate change why not start using Ammonia in nearly every application? After all, it has a GWP of zero and is extremely energy efficient. (I’m being sarcastic here, if you couldn’t tell!)

Thanks for reading,

Alec Johnson


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