Explosive hydrocarbon refrigerants
R-22 replacement has its pros and cons.
Has it come to this? Well, not yet, but possibly soon! I recently read an article telling of how some companies are marketing a hydrocarbon refrigerant to replace R-22 in air conditioners, and they are marketing it to consumers, not HVACR supply houses.
Is this product dangerous? Yes, since it is a blend of flammable and explosive propane and isobutene gases. But, does it work? Yes! In fact, it may be the only viable drop-in replacement refrigerant available for R-22 systems in just a few years.
As I’ve been writing for about 18 years now, our industry will soon experience huge rises in the price of R-22 (I know, they’ve already started) and extreme shortages due to EPA regulations limiting production of this refrigerant and its own lack of enforcement of current laws requiring the recovery and recycling of the HCFC refrigerant.
How do I know that the product works? Because engineers for a particular residential A/C manufacturer told me about the tests that they successfully ran with propane in one of their units more than a decade ago. They told me how they performed the tests behind bunkers, just in case there was an explosion. However, anyone with knowledge of these gases should realize that they can’t explode in sealed systems due to the fact that when no oxygen is present, even in the presence of a spark there’s no way to create a flame, since such gases aren’t combustible over about a 25% concentration in the atmosphere.
So then, what makes it dangerous? The main concern is when there is an indoor refrigerant leak, such as in the refrigerant lines or the evaporator coil, which probably isn’t too worrisome when there’s a tiny leak. However, a typical residential A/C system can hold between 5 lb. and 10 lb., and that’s about the same as a third of a tank of propane that you use on your barbeque grill!
Will regular refrigerant manufacturers ever start using these gases? They already have in Europe. I am told that some companies have started using these propane mixtures in their domestic refrigerators. And why aren’t they worried? Because such systems are sealed and not prone to leaking. The few ounces of the flammable material that’s used in household refrigerators creates little danger of fire or an explosion.
What is the “upside” to using hydrocarbons as a refrigerant? Cost and availability. Also, they have no ozone depletion potential, they are natural gases and they have negligible “global warming” impact (they’re already in the ground and leaking naturally into the atmosphere).
Would I be willing to use these gases in the A/C in my own home if I had an R-22 system that needed it as a refrigerant when the correct product is no longer available? I guess I’d have to see how desperate I would become for cool air if I couldn’t afford a whole new system (which is the only other option).
Understand that R-22 systems were still being manufactured, sold and installed past 2009, and many of these came with a 10-year warranty. However, I seriously doubt that R-22 will be available in usable quantities beyond 2016. So, expect to see people starting to use what may now sound unthinkable, since no other “drop-in replacements” look like they’re going to work satisfactorily.