It’s always sad news when you see a story like this. This came up on my alerts earlier this morning and I felt that I had to take some time and write about it. There have been three confirmed fatalities after an Ammonia refrigeration leak at an ice rink arena in Fernie, British Columbia on Tuesday night. The ice rink and arena is now closed and to top it all off people have been forced to evacuate their business, homes, and even a retirement center due to the leak. The sight is more or less secure now but there are still emergency services on hand along with refrigeration consultants trying to figure out what went wrong. The news article can be found here.
This tragic event happened in the small town of Fernie, British Columbia. Fernie has a population of just over five-thousand and is located just north of Montana. When events like this happen in a small town it amplifies them because you know the victims. You know their families. The town suffers along with the victim’s families. I’m from a small town myself and this hits too close to home. I pray for the town and hope that they can recover quickly.
Ammonia, or R-717, refrigerant is rated as a B on the toxicity scale from ASHRAE. The Class B toxicity signifies refrigerants for which there is evidence of toxicity at concentrations below four hundred parts per million. Most refrigerants in today’s world are rated as an A toxicity, or no danger of toxicity, but there are exceptions out there like R-717 that are still widely used across North America and Europe.
Symptoms of Ammonia poisoning can include coughing, shortness of breath, difficult breathing or tightness in your chest. Severe exposures can cause immediate burning of the eyes, nose, throat, and respiratory tract. Ending results being blindness, lung damage, or even death as in the case in this story.
Way back in the day about one-hundred years ago Ammonia was used widely as a refrigerant. In fact Ammonia is more or less the founding refrigerant. It goes as far back as mid 1800’s when the very basic principles of refrigerant were being tested and theorized. In fact the first Ammonia ice rink goes all the way back to the year 1870 in New York. Along with ice rinks Ammonia was used in a variety of other applications including refrigerators, food processing, and industrial facilities.
In the 1930’s when the coming of R-12 and R-22 Freon began the use of Ammonia in refrigeration and air-conditioning began to lessen as CFC and HCFC refrigerants provided a non-toxic solution. No one wanted a potential lethal refrigerator in their home. There were a few industries however such as food, beverage, and chemical that embraced Ammonia and have stuck with it throughout the past one-hundred years. Chances are that the meat or milk you are buying went through an Ammonia refrigeration system at one point in it’s supply cycle. Besides food and beverage industries ice rinks also stuck with the use of Ammonia. Manufacturers favored it over other refrigerants due to it being the most cost effective and energy efficient refrigerant out there. The downside as I mentioned above is the toxicity. Remember folks, there is no perfect refrigerant. Each one has it’s Pros and Cons.
Over the years R-22 chipped away at Ammonia’s dominance in the ice rink industry as well as food and drink processing. When the phase out of R-22 and other HCFCs were announced alternative refrigerants were introduced into ice rinks such as HFCs R-134a and R-404A. But now, here we are again with HFCs being phased out and 134a and 404A going away. So, what is left for ice rinks besides Ammonia? Is there a safe alternative that will stand the test of time?
CO2 to the Rescue
Carbon Dioxide refrigerant, or R-744, is now starting to compete with Ammonia on the ice rink market as well as many other applications. This is mainly due to the other competitors such as R-404A and R-134a being phased out across the world due to their high Global Warming Potential. That’s not even mentioning the old standby of R-22 which is practically completely phased out. There really wasn’t much left out there folks. I’m waiting for an HFO alternative from Honeywell or Chemours to be marketed towards ice rinks but so far I haven’t found one. (Maybe 1234yf?)
The first CO2 ice rink was installed in 1999. Since then the pace has been very slow. This is mainly due to the efficiency of Carbon Dioxide. In the 2000’s a R-744 (CO2) ice rink would require fifteen compressors to operate. The Ammonia counter part only needed two. Fifteen compressors to two. The Carbon Dioxide was extraordinary expensive and just impractical. Can you imagine diagnosing that fifteen compressor monster if something went wrong?
The good news is that with most things all it takes is time. Over the years the new and better technology allowed R-744 refrigerant to be more competitive against Ammonia. Now, with each passing year the cost of R-744 refrigeration is shrinking and shrinking. While it is not at Ammonia energy and efficiency levels yet CO2 is non-toxic and the technology is only getting better.
Now, in 2017, there are more and more CO2 ice rinks opening up. Sourcing from Ammonia21.com there are approximately twenty-five to thirty CO2 ice rinks installed and running across the world with twenty of them being in Canada. Europe has been resistant to the change and has still been going strong with Ammonia but here in the United States and in Canada many new arenas have opted for the CO2 refrigeration. I can predict only more CO2 rinks in the future.
It’s hard to say if CO2 will take over the reigns of ice rink and other commercial refrigeration needs or if we will be using Ammonia for decades to come. While I agree Ammonia is a efficient refrigerant I feel that we need to put as much research and money that we can into CO2. It’s a safe, non-toxic, and non environmentally damaging refrigerant. The risk of Ammonia, albeit small, is still there. If it was me I’d worry about toxicity first and then the environment. It’s time we get away from the toxic refrigerants for everyone’s safety.