Special Report: The perils of black market refrigerants
Mexichem's Stuart Corr talks to MEP Middle East about the risk accompanying counterfeit refrigerants, and how to tackle the issue
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.
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.
Counterfeit refrigerant is often smuggled between countries and operates outside the purview of environmental and other legislation. The reported incidents of methyl chloride contamination have been associated with counterfeit R134a refrigerant. However, R134a has also been contaminated with banned refrigerants such as R22. Not only can this have legal consequences such as severe fines, but buying refrigerant containing ozone-depleting substances is also undermining regulations designed to protect the environment.
Even when the identity of the refrigerant is the same as that of the branded product, the supply of black market material also acts to undermine the environmental regulations; there is little point in having controls on what can be placed on the market by authorised suppliers when there is little or no control on the supply of under-the-counter products. If the environmental regulations are to work in the way they were envisaged, refrigerant importers need to be licensed in the same way that they were to control the use of CFCs and HCFCs. Policing of refrigerant import and placing on the market will help ensure that that the end-user will source refrigerant from reputable suppliers who abide by the rules.
As discussed, counterfeit or poor quality refrigerant can also lead to decreased system efficiency, which increases the power consumption. In addition to greater running costs, the majority of a refrigeration system’s carbon footprint comes from its power consumption and anything that acts to decrease efficiency is clearly bad news for the environment.
Fraudulent suppliers often plagiarise the packaging of reputable brands, which means the appearance of the packet is not enough to ensure the purchase of a genuine product. Although it’s not always possible to detect a counterfeit refrigerant from its packaging, it is possible to test a purchased product. One such refrigerant test is halide torch testing, which can be used to check for chlorinated compounds.
Equipment capable of detecting the unsafe refrigerant methyl chloride at low quantities has been available since 2012. This equipment can also be used to test for other contaminants including CFCs and hydrocarbons. Companies should use a combination of detection methods to safeguard the system from multiple contaminants. However, AHRI does not recommend pressure testing alone as a method of counterfeit detection, since a contaminant refrigerant blend could have similar pressures to the in-specification products but still result in unsatisfactory performance.
Tackling the issue
One of the biggest challenges of tackling the counterfeit refrigerant problem is that imitation products are marketed and sold in copied packaging, meaning that an inexperienced purchaser may easily be fooled. To avoid this, buyers should work together with original refrigerant manufacturers to understand how to differentiate between reliable original refrigerants and potentially dangerous imitations.
AHRI has published a white paper that explains four steps to avoiding counterfeit refrigerants. These include knowing your supplier, verifying refrigerant in cylinder, checking refrigerant before repairing or servicing and isolating contaminated systems. Following these steps helps purchasers and system operators protect themselves from the problems associated with counterfeit refrigerants.
At the end of the day, the best way that end users can be certain that they are purchasing a genuine product is to buy from a reputable supplier. By purchasing from a trusted supplier, you can ensure you don’t unwittingly end up with the equivalent of a knock-off handbag.