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Replacement refrigerant confusion

By Richard Hawkins, MACS contributor

My last two blogs illustrated the level of confusion that can exist when it comes to the use of replacement refrigerants.  After an extensive conversation, it finally took comparing charging an A/C system from a barbecue grill to charging with the highly flammable refrigerant a customer was considering buying to convince that customer that using highly flammable refrigerant was not in his best interest.

While writing those two blogs, I recalled another encounter with a customer who had started using a replacement refrigerant.  It was an interesting encounter and is worth sharing.

At the time I was working as a territory manager for a national company.  I was out making sales calls with an outside salesman who worked for an auto parts store in my territory.   It was late spring in the mid 1990s.  R-12 was still king, but the price had risen dramatically, retrofitting was becoming popular, and several replacement refrigerants had hit the market. 

There was a group of several refrigerants which were blends with a high percentage of R-134a and a smaller percentage of R-142 that seemed to be the most popular.  These were not flammable refrigerants.  I prefer not to indentify brands so, we will just call the one involved here XYZ refrigerant.

As we were talking to the shop owner about the A/C specials, I noticed a couple of 30-pound cylinders of XYZ refrigerant sitting on the floor.  I had read about it but had not seen any of it or encountered anyone who had used it yet.  As a result, I was anxious talk to him about it.

The conversation went something like this:

Me:  I see you have a couple of cylinders of XYZ refrigerant sitting there in the floor.  I’ve seen quite a bit written about it, but this is the first time I’ve seen any of it. Have you had a chance to use any of it?

Shop owner:  Yes, I’ve almost used up one cylinder, so I ordered two more.  It is a lot cheaper than R-12.

Me:  How does it perform?

Shop owner:  Almost as good as R-12.

Me:  Are the adapters for the service ports and XYZ refrigerant labels pretty reasonably priced?

Shop owner: What adapters and labels?

Me:  There are special adapters that are made to be used with XYZ refrigerant and special labels to be placed over the original R-12 labels.  The labels are to advise whoever might be working on a system in the future that it contains a different refrigerant. The adapters prevent it from being connected directly up to a manifold gauge set and/or recovery recycling machine and contaminating the refrigerant in them.

Shop owner:  The place I bought it from didn’t say anything about that.

Me:  It would be a good idea to ask those folks about them.  Federal law requires their use.  Did they explain that a separate dedicated recovery machine was required, and the refrigerant should not be recycled and used for recharging?

Shop owner:   Why can’t it be used for recharging after being recovered?

Me:  It is a blend composed of two refrigerants.  When there is a leak, the lighter refrigerant leaks out first and that changes the composition and performance characteristics.  

Shop owner:  Then what do you do with it when you recover it?

Me:  It is supposed to be sent back to the supplier so they can process it and get the composition back to the original percentages.  What are you doing about recovering it?

Shop owner:  I haven’t had to recover any yet.

Me:  No doubt at some point in time it will be necessary to recover some due to a leak or other problem with a system.  What do you plan to do when that time arrives?

Shop owner:  I’ll just take my regular machine and remove the tank that is on it and substitute an empty tank in its place and recover the XYZ refrigerant into it.  Then I’ll remove the tank with the XYZ refrigerant in it and label it, so it doesn’t get mixed up with the other tanks.  Then I’ll put the original tank back on the machine.

Me:  That would not be advisable.  It will create problems for you.

Shop owner:  How’s that?

Me:  A recovery/recycling machine holds a certain amount of refrigerant in the compressor and internal plumbing.  So that means when you start recovering the XYZ refrigerant, R-12 will initially be pumped into the tank. Then the XYZ refrigerant will be pumped into the tank. So, you will end up with a mixture of R-12 and XYZ refrigerant in the tank, but that isn’t the worst part.  You are going to take the original tank which contains R-12 and place it back on the machine. 

The internal plumbing and compressor in the machine now contain XYZ refrigerant.  When you recover from the next vehicle, that XYZ refrigerant if going to be pumped into the tank.  So that tank of R-12 refrigerant is going to be cross contaminated with XYZ refrigerant. 

Depending on the percentage, cross contamination can cause performance problems.  This is because it throws the temperature/pressure relationship of the refrigerant out of whack and causes elevated head pressures.  I’m hearing prices of $300.00 to $400.00 dollars for a 30-pound cylinder of R-12 these days so that could be an expensive mistake.

Shop owner:  You’re just trying to use scare tactics to try to sell me another machine.

Me:  I can promise you that I’m not trying to scare you or tying to sell you another machine.  I’m just trying to fill a void and supply you with information that the seller of the XYZ refrigerant didn’t provide. Hopefully this will prevent a valuable tank of refrigerant from being contaminated.

We had some more discussion and the shop owner calmed down and finally seemed to realize that he wasn’t being targeted for the sale of a machine and expressed some appreciation for the information before we left. 

With the price of R-134a having increased so dramatically this year, the likelihood of other refrigerants beside R-134a being introduced into R-134a systems is increased.  This reinforces the need for a refrigerant identifier in a shop and the need for it to be used on every vehicle that comes in for service.

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