By Elvis L. Hoffpauir, President and COO MACS Worldwide
Last December, MACS circulated a press release from member company Neutronics Inc’s. Refrigerant Analysis Division, warning about counterfeit R-134a refrigerant contaminated with significant quantities of R-40 (aka methyl chloride or chloromethane). R-40 is extremely toxic, flammable and highly reactive when exposed to aluminum. In some cases R-40 may react with aluminum to form a third, highly unstable compound (trimethylaluminum or TMA) that ignites in contact with air.
This counterfeit R-134a mixed with R-40 and other refrigerants has apparently been purposely designed to mimic pure R-134a at a substantially reduced cost, the likely motivation of the counterfeiters. Current refrigerant identifiers, certified to SAE J1771, are not designed to directly identify R-40.
Prior to issuing the warning, Neutronics had been engaged by the oceangoing shipping industry to assist with an R-134a refrigerant contamination problem involving R-40 that resulted in three deaths in three separate incidents. Since that time Neutronics has been working with the Army, which positively identified R-134a contaminated with R-40 in Army depot supplies. Ground combat and tactical vehicles serviced in Afghanistan and Iraq have been affected, and while the Army does not currently know the depth of contamination, it suspects that vehicles and reclaimed supplies may be contaminated.
At an April 25 meeting of Society of Engineers Interior Climate Control Standards Committee, Peter Coll, MACS director and vice president of Neutronics Refrigerant Analysis, provided field test data from 30 samples of recovered refrigerant from both vehicle and commercial applications. R-40 contamination levels of the samples ranged from less than one percent to 10.1 percent. All of the samples tested also contained other refrigerants including hydrocarbons, R-22 and R-12.
Army representatives asked that the SAE Committee form a working group to develop procedures to identify and isolate contaminated vehicles and equipment, as well as ways to safely service vehicles to return them to mission-ready status.
It should be noted that these contaminated refrigerant systems can pose a major safety issue to those working on them. Currently the industry is working on, but has not determined, the best service procedures to be used. Contaminated systems can damage recovery and recycling equipment, and can result in the requirement to replace all vehicle refrigerant circuit components.
At an April 24 meeting on R-40 in Australia organized by Michael Bennett, general manager of Refrigerant Reclaim Australia, industry representatives discussed the discovery of the counterfeit refrigerant in newly manufactured equipment imported from China. Very high levels of corrosion were said to be present in these systems, and it is thought that rapid corrosion takes place once a contaminated system is installed and operated. Like the SAE and others, this group is working to gain a better understanding of the potential extent of the contamination in order to develop an appropriate plan to manage the threat.
Ron Henselmans, vice chairman of Mobile A/C Partners Europe and editor-in-chief at “Automotive A/C Reporter,” first reported R-40 contamination found in Europe in his March, 2011 issue.
In December, 2011 R-40 contamination had not yet been discovered in North America, but in April 2012 lab tests confirmed the presence of R-40 in a number of containers of recovered refrigerant in the U.S. With the confirmation from the military that infected vehicles have invaded our shores, containment actions are of paramount importance. This problem has been seen in many parts of the world having much smaller mobile A/C fleets, so there is the potential for the same problem in the North American market.
While there is no reason to believe that this contamination is currently widespread in this market, its existence serves as one more reason service shops should remain vigilant and purchase their refrigerant from authorized distributors of their chosen refrigerant manufacturer.
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When having your mobile A/C system professionally serviced, insist on proper repair procedures and quality replacement parts. Insist on recovery and recycling so that refrigerant can be reused and not released into the atmosphere.
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