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Flammable gases - the contractor's dilemma

An excellent editorial in this month's magazine highlights the very real likelihood that in the very near future we contractors will be getting used to having to install, service, maintain and repair air conditioning and heat pump units containing flammable gases. OK they may be considered "mildly flammable" by some but, as I've said before, flammable is flammable as far as my insurance underwriters are concerned and my premiums will undoubtedly rise once they cotton to this fact.

But more worryingly - if there is anything more worrying than rising costs during these times of such economic uncertainty - is that I raised another aspect of this issue and as far as I can see nothing has been done about it. There is currently only one recovery machine certified for use with flammable gases and it designed for use by domestic fridge engineers recovering small amounts from domestic fridge freezers - typically 60 to 100g. It is very heavy to lift due to the safety features necessary for compliance with certification bodies and has a very slow recovery rate - not thought to be a problem by the manufacturer because it is only recovering small amounts.

However, if we are to be installing, servicing and repairing air conditioning heat pump systems, including VRFs, with flammables such as R32 or L41 then surely we need tools that we can legally use. What happens if we use our standard recovery machine and there's an accident? Alright I understand it's unlikely that the gas would burst into flame by the sparking of an on/off switch or fan capacitor on our machines, but since when did insurance companies need to apply common sense? I fear some poor contractor will use his standard machine, an accident will occur - quite possibly nothing to do with the flammability issue - and their insurers will jump on a non conformity and refuse to pay out leaving the contractor out of pocket at best; out of business, house and home at worst.

I raised this issue a year ago when I realised the inevitability of the rise of the flammable air conditioning heat pump system and yet there appears to be no progress at all. In all likelihood the existing equipment we use will be acceptable under testing for use with these gases, but until the tool and equipment manufacturers get their systems tested and certified we contractors are being left out on a limb: it is illegal to vent to the atmosphere, and I firmly believe that most of us no longer want to do this anyway, but we won't be able to legally recover the gas either because to do so would entail using tools that are not for use with "flammable" gases, thereby rendering us working without insurance.

Other standard tools many of us use daily now - electronic manifold sets, electronic leak detectors, etc. - all need to be tested and certified as well before we see a proliferation of installations which nobody has the tools to work on.

Will nobody sort this anomaly out?
View User Profile for GraemeFox Graeme Fox is an RAC contractor based in Dundee. He is a director at AREA (Air Conditioning & Refrigeration European Contractors` Association) and a Fellow of the Institute of Refrigeration.
Posted by Graeme Fox 04 February 2013 17:13:37 Categories: Fox's Tales


By Graeme Fox
04 February 2013 17:27:37
Hi Mike,
Thanks for the support and especially for the comments and contribution you've been making to the ever lengthening thread on Steve's last blog.

I haven't got firm plans yet about next year's show but I'm sure I will be there at some point during the 3 days. If you contact me nearer the time I should know when I'll be there. You can either connect with me on LinkedIn (Graeme Fox FInstR) or contact me at to let me know your email address.
Some of the dinners are very good for networking by the way, but it can be an expensive evening I know!
Cheers, Graeme
By Mike
04 February 2013 17:26:37
Hello Graeme, I hope you will be at the show next year as I would like to meet you and personally say thank you and well done for all the good work you are doing.
I don't attend dinners and the like, so the show next year may be the first opportunity to meet you. Hope you will be there
By Graeme
04 February 2013 17:25:37
Neville, you are correct that ATEX can be a concern. The UK has not interpreted ATEX as rigidly as some other EU countries thus far, but that could always change. Maybe it's the case that with the so called "mildly flammables" then ATEX wouldn't apply as the gases tend to burn slowly rather than explode? My interpretation please note, not an official one!

You are indeed a star! If only all tool and equipment manufacturers were as proactive as you guys at REFCO are. I look forward to hearing more about the flammable certified recovery machines in due course. As you know, I already use REFCO digimon gauges and can vouch for their quality and ease of use with a whole range of gases. Isn't it a great position to be in when your French rep asked for a specific tool and you already have it out there? More power to REFCO I say. Maybe there will be a frantic catch up now by your competitors prior to the ACR Show in Birmingham, England next March and then Chillventa in October? Personally I applaud those who lead the way rather than follow.
By Sheb Powell
04 February 2013 17:24:37
Hello Graeme,

I wanted to chime in on the issue again. Just yesterday our sales rep in France was asking for some R-32 "certified" tools. I can comfortably say that our new Digimon SE manifolds are suitable for use with R-32. REFCO has also just released a new electronic leak detector that works great finding R-1234yf leaks down to 0.9g/yr. It also works well finding R-32 & R-410a leaks.

With regards to vacuum pumps and recovery machines we are still in the R&D stages. Try to imagine designing a tool for, "mildly flammable" use that complies with numerous government regulations. Actually, I would like to have the highly flammable refrigerants in there as well, so you in the contractor base will only need one explosion proof tool to use with R-290, R-600a,R-32, and R-1234yf(ze).

Stay tuned,
Sheb Powell
By Neville Gardner
04 February 2013 17:23:37
Graeme, You have raised some serious points that I believe will open a huge can of worms.
when it comes to flammable gases, we need to be standing back and considering more than the tools we use when serving.
If we're likely to be penalised by Insurers for using unsuitable test equipment then, as you rightly state, we need to use the correctly certified equipment to be safe. However, would we also be at fault for working on systems that didn't have similar safety certification.
there is an EU directive ATEX that covers the realm of explosive atmospheres.
Anything marketed in the EU has to carry a CE mark to signify the product complies with the EU rules. If then a refrigeration system has flammable gases within and was considered a risk from explosion etc. Then surely it should fall under ATEX regs and be certified accordingly as also for service tools?
I would then be very interested to see how our insurers responded when we explain that we work with ATEX certified equipment. As we know Insurers are very risk sensitive and not shy when it comes to declining cover in such cases.
By Graeme
04 February 2013 17:22:37
David, There are similarities - particularly in their "low" flammability rating as ammonia is only flammable in a fairly narrow band of concentration. I guess the real difference is that nobody handles ammonia or works on those systems without very specific training to prepare for the health and safety implications, whereas there is no such requirement for working with R32, for example.
As for the tools suitable for ammonia use - you don't need electronic leak checkers for ammonia because you know straight away if you have a leak by the smell. I don't know about recovery equipment for ammonia - perhaps someone could enlighten me? My Dad says they just used to vent it through water! Even with the low GWP level of ammonia I'd hope that doesn't still go on. I think the range of systems using HFCs have very different characteristics from those using ammonia so that brings with it a different set of circumstances and problems.
The funny thing is that now we have an F Gas regulation that wishes to ensure people are trained in the specific issues surrounding these "alternative" gases, we have a number of people complaining that F Gas isn't the place for ensuring compliance on ammonia or CO2. People have complained that F Gas hasn't been working as well as it should, and yet they only complain when measures are taken to improve its effectiveness! If we waited for a different regulation to govern alternatives it would be another 6 years at least before we saw legislation through Brussels.
By David Greenwood
04 February 2013 17:21:37
Graeme, an issue well worth bringing to the fore, I was wondering if we haven't been this way before, in our handeling of ammonia whilst the specific characterisics are different they have similarities ?
By Graeme
04 February 2013 17:20:37
Pat, Good points.
Do you have the wrong idea about flammables? I don't think so. I've seen a lot of presentations by various companies showing how "safe" their products are and beeing told that it is "acceptably safe". However, their idea of acceptable and mine differ somewhat!
I think the issue of tooling is the same for you guys in the auto sector as it is for us in stationary sector: I don't think there will be many tools not suitable but the problem is that none are being tested and certified as suitable yet. Meaning that if we use them and there's an incident then our insurance will be void for using "inappropriate tools".
The good news is that Sheb Powell of Refco (who posted comments here earlier) and I have been in contact privately since this blog first aired and they are beginning to put together a case for manufacturing and testing their products for use with these gases. Watch this space....!
I agree with your concerns about your sector though - even more than in my sector.
By Pat foster
04 February 2013 17:19:37
Graeme, excellent point, i am active in the automotive sector, and with the impending use of YF1234 in MAC applications, once again will there be sufficient safe tools available to the trade outside main dealer level with in the next few months?
Once again there is to be a change in refrigerant, YF1234 which is suggested to be "mildly flammable" as was the case back in 2000 when there was a number of R12 substitutes that some were blends of propane & butane with some work shops using halide torches to leak trace with excellent if alarming detection abilities.

it would not be out of the realms of possibility once again for our current tools to be hazardous to the un-informed, would it not?.
Or am i to assume that there will have to be a complete re-tool required for the MAC engineer to perform work using YF1234 on vehicles?
Your comments would be of great interest as there is little to on at this moment, as manufactures sometimes forget that although vehicles are covered by a manufactures warranty so any remedial work would be carried out by the main agent, they do forget body shops and salvage services that will almost certainly get to grips with there product within days of a launch, considering that a vehicle has a number of "flammables" in the first instance its not to difficult to imagine the carnage that could occur by someone carrying out his duties in accordance with the most recent F-gas directive standards un-knowingly with tooling and procedures that could possibly be lethal or have i got the wrong idea about "flammable" ?
By Graeme Fox
04 February 2013 17:18:37
Karl, thanks for the follow up - I will contact you directly. Sounds like we are getting somewhere!

Mr Powell,
Good question! The easy answer is that in Europe we are having to face the reality of working with flammable (maybe highly/ definitely slightly flammable) over the next couple of years - all the manufacturers are moving over to gases like L41 or R32 in their air conditioning and reverse cycle heat pump equipment, and the European Government is ramping up a phase down of HFCs which will result in more widespread use of alternatives that include flammables in commercial refrigeratiopn applications. So we will all be using these gases by 2015/2016 at the latest - some are using them now. So the answer is, Yes! Whether we want these gases or not is for a different forum but we will need the tools within the next 2 years.
I assume there will be some lead time in developing & testing? Can you give some indication of how long this is please? I have more meetings at the Euro Parliament in a couple of weeks - some answers would be nice
By Sheb Powell Product Development REFCO
04 February 2013 17:17:37
Hello Mr. Fox,

I found your article quite interisting. Part of my job here at REFCO is to help design, build, and sell tools for the HVAC\R industry. Here is my question to you, if we make it, would you buy it?
By Karl Roberts
04 February 2013 17:16:37
Part of the issue with this is the different sensor technologies required to detect the different constituent gases, meaning that it is extremely difficult to offer a 'one size fits all' leak detector. The Informant 2 is available as a dual gas detector, with interchangeable sensor tips for HC's & HFC. Also, the 'Detect-f' is due for launch in the coming weeks and this will offer dual detection of CO2 & HFC's. Drop me an email ( for further details
By Graeme Fox
04 February 2013 17:15:37
Thanks Karl,
I did see a leak detector last year that was suitable for HCs but it wasn't suitable for picking up HFC leaks I was told. Are these ones you talk about able to detect HFC leaks? One of the big problems I feel we face as contractors is that there will be a proliferation of different gases and we need to have tools suitable for all ideally. The most likely "new" gases will be HFC based.
By Karl Roberts
04 February 2013 17:14:37
Great article Graeme and certainly some poignant questions. I can't speak for suppliers of recovery machines and other tools, however can confirm that there are suitably (IS) rated electronic leak detectors readily available on the market. Bacharach & Inficon to name but 2 manufacturers, have IS certified HC detectors available.
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