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Home / ANALYSIS / Special Report: The perils of black market refrigerants

Special Report: The perils of black market refrigerants

by Rajiv Ravindran Pillai on Aug 1, 2017


Stuart Corr, techno commercial director of refrigerants manufacturer and supplier, Mexichem.
Stuart Corr, techno commercial director of refrigerants manufacturer and supplier, Mexichem.

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The rise of counterfeit refrigerants

Although it is notoriously difficult to put hard figures on the problem, historically, counterfeit refrigerants have been just as large a problem in the Middle East as in the rest of the world. This was demonstrated in 2013 by the seizure of almost 3,500 cylinders of counterfeit refrigerant by Saudi Arabian authorities. Similarly, in 2011, 6,000 cylinders of dangerous toxic and flammable chemicals, labelled as refrigerants, were seized in the UAE.

In 2015, a survey revealed that eight out of 10 residents of the UAE would prefer to use brand-name refrigerants in order to minimise the risks posed by counterfeits. The same survey also revealed the worry and threat posed by counterfeit refrigerants, as 73% of people are aware that counterfeit refrigerants can cause serious and costly equipment failure. Furthermore, 71% believe that refrigerants can be toxic and 67% know that they can be flammable.

Chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) and hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) refrigerants have been used in refrigeration and air conditioning systems. However, when their ozone depleting potential came to light, the Montreal Protocol was established to limit the environmental impact.

The phase down of these popular refrigerants led to the development and introduction of a new generation of substances, the hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). Whilst HFCs have zero ozone depleting potential, many are perceived to have high global warming potential (GWP). The industry is now moving away from higher GWP refrigerants on a global basis with a new international agreement: the Kigali amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which will now see an HFC phase down in some countries from 2019. This agreement supplements measures already in place in both Europe, the US and Japan.

In the move away from higher GWP refrigerants, companies are looking to alternatives including hydrofluorolefins (HFOs) and non-halogenated ‘natural’ refrigerants. Although the newly developed refrigerants can have a lower direct global warming impact and zero ozone depleting potential, they present other concerns to system operators in characteristics, cost and safety.

Because counterfeit refrigerants are not made to the same exacting specifications as the genuine branded products, they could be contaminated, diluted or even a completely different substance from what is advertised. Unlike when buying from a reputable supplier, there is no guarantee that the refrigerant will meet that specification or Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI) standard 700, which details the acceptable purities and compositions of refrigerants. A refrigerant that does not match specification can negatively impact the equipment in the system and can become a health and safety hazard.

System damage and performance

The most common result of using a counterfeit refrigerant is decreased system performance. This can be either because the refrigerant is not compatible with the system or because it has different characteristics to the ones expected, for example, different operating pressure. However, contaminated refrigerants can cause a range of issues including increased energy consumption, reduced equipment operating life, system failure and even dramatic incidents such as fires and explosions, which can result in injuries or death.

Introducing a refrigerant of poor quality or of an incompatible type to the system can also lead to equipment damage resulting in unwanted maintenance costs or downtime.

Safety

One major safety problem is that some counterfeit refrigerants have been found to contain a flammable compound, methyl chloride, which reacts with the aluminium in HVAC systems to generate reactive, toxic compounds which can burn violently when exposed to air.

An example of such an incident happened in 2011, where refrigerated shipping containers exploded in Vietnam and Brazil, subsequently killing three dockworkers. This was a result of methyl chloride contamination in the refrigerant, which was used in up to 8,000 containers.



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