Wheeler On HVACR: The Unusual R-123 Story
I don't know if you sell the stuff or not (R-123). Its only application is as a refrigerant for large centrifugal compressors, and primarily those manufactured by Trane. But the history and eventual demise of this interesting refrigerant (an HCFC) is a story worth telling, because it points up the foolishness of federal phaseout legislation and some of the silly industry ideas that have resulted from EPA guidelines.
I think it was back in 1990 that I first heard of this refrigerant. I had attended a conference sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency in Baltimore and R-123 was mentioned as a possible replacement for the soon-to-be-banned CFC, R-11.
Initially I didn't like what I heard about the refrigerant and I wrote an article or two condemning its unusual properties. First, it is an aggressive solvent, which means that any compressors on existing installations will have to be totally rebuilt before employing R-123 as a drop-in replacement to keep the seals and the varnish on the motor windings from dissolving. However, it is a drop-in replacement.
Second, because a lot of this stuff would be used in schools, I was opposed to the fact that in large doses (20,000-ppm) it becomes an anesthetic. I could visualize students sneaking into mechanical rooms to sniff the stuff. However, despite all the above, as I learned more about the refrigerant, my viewpoints started to change.
It was at that meeting in Baltimore that I learned the first interesting fact: Despite its HCFC makeup, the EPA pointed out that its findings showed that use of this refrigerant would contribute to virtually ZERO DAMAGE to the earth's protective ozone layer. So, putting it on a federal phaseout list would be pointless. Nevertheless, within a few years, via the supposed environmentally friendly Clean Air Act, this refrigerant is now listed among other harmless HCFCs which are planned for phaseout in 2015. In other words, a lot of expense and worry about nothing.
Unfortunately, there is no approved drop-in replacement for R-123 (or R-11). So, all the thousands of installations that use the Trane equipment - including those companies, universities, and hospitals that spent thousands to upgrade their R-11 systems - will have to replace their compressors in just a few years. And these compressors are often situated in places where replacement is difficult or impossible, because centrifugals are designed to last indefinitely.
Then comes the kicker. Laboratory tests of the refrigerant on rats showed that its constant exposure at anesthetic doses of 20,000-ppm provided the following results:
-- They had lower cholesterol.
-- They had lower triglycerides.
-- They had lower body weight.
-- They lived longer.
-- Many developed nonmalignant tumors in their pancreas.
Now, according to the EPA, nonmalignant pancreatic tumors are common with people who have low cholesterol, low triglycerides, and low body weight - and they are harmless (remember, the rats lived LONGER). However, in response to the test results, the EPA guidelines limited exposure to R-123 to 10-ppm.
Common BeliefsI was talking to my brother-in-law the other day. He does maintenance at a children's hospital in Chicago, and he mentioned that they use this “highly toxic and cancerous” refrigerant (R-123) in chillers at the hospital. He said that his instructions were to evacuate the hospital in the event of a major leak.
Yes, it's all kind of silly, but such thinking is common when discussing this environmentally friendly and perhaps beneficial refrigerant. Yet, perhaps the needless fear keeps kids (or employees) from sniffing the stuff to get high.
So, what's the point? No, I'm not encouraging people to start sniffing R-123. I don't know if any other harmful effects have been discovered, and there may have. However, once again what I'm trying to do is point up the foolishness of federal legislation when it comes to the phaseout of HCFCs and some of the silly rumors that have resulted.
Will any of this be changed? Likely not, because R-123 is primarily used by just one manufacturer, and even they have a lot to gain by eventually replacing all the compressors that use R-11 and R-123. All I am saying is that you shouldn't be worried about its toxic effects if you store it in your warehouse. Just try to keep your employees from sniffing it to get high (or to lose weight, lower their triglycerides or lower their cholesterol).