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Are our fridges safe?

Published: 21 August 2009 - 00:00
SERIOUS questions are being asked about the safety of domestic fridges after a number of frightening explosions, have left a trail of devastation in homes across the UK.
Are our fridges safe?
Although the incidences appear to be relatively rare, industry experts are pointing the finger of suspicion at the hydrocarbon refrigerants used in modern fridges.

On Tuesday, the Yorkshire Post broke the story of Kathy Cullingworth of Normanton, West Yorkshire who was woken in the early hours of the morning by an explosion 'like a bomb'. The source of the explosion was found to be the family's Creda fridge freezer. Luckily no one was injured but the explosion ripped a radiator from the wall, shattered windows, damaged cupboards and other kitchen appliances and cracked the ceiling and walls.

Investigations into the cause of the explosion are ongoing but the Cullingworth's case was not an isolated incident. In May of this year, a family in West Bromwich was woken by the sound of its fridge-freezer exploding 'like an earthquake', smashing windows and doors, blowing holes in the ceiling and ripping the roof off the conservatory. Again, no-one was hurt but this time the incident involved a four-year-old refrigerator, according to the local Express & Star newspaper.

In June 2006 in Newcastle, Ilene Callaghan was fortunate to be in her bathroom when the 18-moth-old fridge-freezer in her utility room exploded, blowing the wall out, the door off and lifting the floor. According to Mrs Callaghan's husband Dennis, the fire brigade said they suspected a build up of gas.

Also that year, the fire brigade was called to a house in Truro, Cornwall, after reports of a refrigerator explosion. The brigade reported that the explosion 'was probably due to a build-up of hydro carbon (sic) natural gas (refrigerator gas)'. Again, no one was injured.

The refrigerator manufacturers mentioned have promised to respond to ACR New's' requests for details of their investigations. These were ongoing at the time of going to press.

A spokesman for AMDEA (the Association of Manufacturers of Domestic Appliances) said that they were aware of the problem and that a new amendment to the safety standard is due to be published later this year.

The problem may involve the leakage of the flammable isobutane refrigerant gas into the interior of the fridge which is then ignited by an arc, possibly from the thermostat.

A similar effect could be caused by the householder storing flammable substances or aerosols with hydrocarbon propellants in the refrigerator or by using an aerosol cleaner on the interior.

Hydrocarbons were almost universally adopted by manufacturers after the phase-out of CFCs in the 90s.

While many in the industry preferred R134a, environmental groups and Greenpeace in particular, championed hydrocarbons as the natural alternative as they are non-ozone-depleting and non-global warming. Despite industry concerns as to its flammability, isobutane has become the standard domestic refrigerator gas and has become popular in certain plug-in commercial refrigerators. Only last month Waitrose announced that it was to use hydrocarbons in the refrigeration systems of all its new stores and refurbs.

Greenpeace developed Greenfreeze technology in 1992 utilising isobutane and propane as refrigerants and cyclopentane for producing the insulating foam. According to the environmental group, the technology is currently used in over 300 million refrigerators worldwide.

While these incidents involve fridges in the UK, ACR News is also investigating similar incidents in Europe and as far away as Iceland and South Africa.

ACRIB said it was monitoring the situation in association with all refrigeration manufacturers.

Have you any knowledge of similar incidents or any information relating to this story? ACR News wants to hear from you. Contact the editorial team on +44 (0)20 8651 7100 or email acreditorial@fav-house.com


To read Graeme Fox's blog about exploding fridges click here

Comments

Published prior to March 2014
By Annie Linux
There are numerous reports that the cooling system/compressor does not work well with these particular HC's (isobutane for example) and that their reliability is in question. When there is a leak of gas it presents and explosion hazard. Also the cyclopentane contained in the insulating foam which a fridge is filled with is highly flammable which once ignited requires CO2 or other non-water based extinguisher. Not only that but these gases are toxic and long term low level cyclopentane exposure may be harmful to health. We know greenpeace invented this stuff but they care more about the animals and the environment than they do about people it would seem.
Published prior to March 2014
By Alexander Pachai
Paul Skeet
"Your statement: This is of course the worry about using R600 as a refrigerant in them, because it's propane, which is flammable" is wrong in the sense that R600a is iso-buthane and R290 is propane and they are very different in many ways.

All refrigerants are flammable if you know how to do it and that goes for HFC as well

Published prior to March 2014
By Tony Owens, Building Projects
This is a new story on an old theme I believe.

Quite a few years ago there were some major concerns when propane / methane / butane gases and their derivatives were first being used in commercial refrigeration applications.

The investigations that were made at the time, were concerning the flammable and explosive nature of the refrigerants when mixed with air. The conclusion of these investigations, I seem to recall, were that the problem of an explosion only occurred in a very specific concentration of say between 10 and 15% of the volume of the space concerned.

Above and below that concentration no ignition took place.

Because of the low risk potential in commercial air-conditioning applications, the use of these gases was allowed because the spaces were relatively large.

Since the relative volume of domestic refrigerator spaces are so small, the surest solution to this problem is therefore in the use of sealed electrical contacts, thus eliminating the potential ignition source.

Leaks will regrettably always happen, even if we believe they should not.
Published prior to March 2014
By Component Manufacturer

While this is a very serious topic and certainly cause for industry attention, it was unfortunate to see ACR's dramatization into an attention-grabbing sub-headline about a "trail of devastation in homes across the UK". Four incidents over the course of three years in a country of 60 million lets us know there is some real cause for concern, but it hardly warrants use of headline language which seems meant to stoke fear toward flammable refrigerants.

The rest of the report appears fair and balanced.
Published prior to March 2014
By Paul Skeet


This is of course the worry about using R600 as a refrigerant in them, because it's propane, which is flammable!

When Calor announced that they were going to release R600 (or their equivalent of it) and do a big push, saying that hydro-fluorocarbon gases were perfectly safe, I and everyone else in the room at the launch I think, were sceptical.

Commercially, it was proffered that if you were concerned about leakage, then get leak detectors in the room. These devices were fitted in most caravans, and have been around for years for safety reasons, but few incidents were reported.

Is the explosion problem caused by hot compressors operating with that gas though?

Whose fridges have been exploding? Is it one particular manufacturer's units?
Published prior to March 2014
I would be very surprised that a leak has somehow found a spark and exploded.

It sounds more like the refrigeration pipework/system was not properly evacuated before filling with refrigerant - a situation for the manufacturer.

Oxygen in the refrigerant could cause a bang.

Kenneth Duckett
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