In response to evolving regulatory standards, the HVACR industry is navigating a pivotal shift towards the integration of flammable refrigerants across all new refrigeration systems by 2025. This article will review several of the steps necessary for manufacturing plants to comply with these new changes as well as our recommendations moving forward.

Overview – The Transition to Flammable Refrigerants

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) introduced guidelines in 2023 that direct manufacturers towards low-GWP, mildly flammable refrigerants such as R-454B, R-32, R1234YF, and R1234ZE. This directive aligns with global efforts to mitigate climate change impacts by reducing the carbon emissions of refrigeration systems. Leading manufacturers, including Johnson Controls and Carrier, have started adopting R-454B for its notably lower GWP in comparison to conventional refrigerants like R-410A and R134A.

Class A1 – non flammableClass A2L – Mildly FlammableClass A3 – Highly Flammable
R134AR454BR290 (propane)
R410AR1234yfR600 (butane)
R-407CR1234zeR-600A (isobutane)
R-22R32
Examples of refrigerant classes. For a more comprehensive list, checkout the CA Air Resources Board List.

What does this mean for a manufacturing facility?

Manufacturing facilities are required to comply with a complex web of fire safety regulations at the national, state, local, and county levels to ensure their operations are up to standard. These regulations are designed with stringent guidelines for the detection and mitigation of flammable refrigerant leaks.

A key element of these safety protocols involves the implementation of containment systems, either partial or full. Partial containment focuses on the segregation of refrigeration units within designated zones, fortified with safety components to prevent the spread of any leaks for A2L refrigerant charging systems. Conversely, full containment encapsulates the entire refrigeration apparatus in a purpose-built room or structure, complete with ventilation and additional safety features to curb the leakage scope for A3 refrigerant charging systems.

The deployment of sophisticated leak detection systems marks another crucial component for manufacturing sites. Utilizing cutting-edge sensors and monitoring devices placed across the charging area, these systems are adept at swiftly identifying leaks of A2L and A3 refrigerants.

Let’s explore examples and schematics of what this looks like for charging systems.

Example of a HC Systems Installation

  1. iRockall HC ( Vacuum and flammable refrigerant charging system)
  2. Medusa ( Safety Monitoring and Mitigation Controller)
  3. Air ducts for Eolo (Variable Speed Extraction system with DPS feedback)
  4. Non flammable panels (and door sensors)
Flammable Refrigerant Systems Installation

Vacuum and Flammable Refrigerant Charging System

The most obvious shift to becoming compliant with your new A2L / A3 setup is the charging system itself. For this example, we created the iRockall HC Hydrocarbon Refrigerant Charging System to be able to charge both A2L and A3 Refrigerants. The iRockall HC is a versatile evacuation and charging station designed for use with various classes of refrigerants, including A2L, A2, A3, and non-flammable types. It is highly accurate and efficient, making it ideal for both domestic and commercial refrigeration production lines. The machine supports the latest refrigerants like R1234yf and R1234ze, and is especially optimized for isobutane (R600a) and propane (R290). Featuring microprocessor or optional smart OS control, high-speed charging capabilities, and comprehensive safety features in compliance with ATEX Directive for explosive atmospheres, iRockall HC is tailored for high-throughput environments needing precision and safety.

Adopting a system like the iRockall HC helps manufacturers remain compliant with evolving environmental regulations and safety standards for handling flammable refrigerants. By incorporating such advanced equipment, facilities can ensure precise refrigerant charging, adhere to ATEX directives for explosive atmospheres, and maintain high safety levels.

Medusa Monitoring System

The Medusa system serves as the control and command hub for the entire facility’s refrigerant gas management. With an electronic control unit, alongside gas concentration detection sensors strategically positioned within the charging area and many other safety components, this sophisticated setup acts as the brains for your safety environment.

Medusa MS8 - Flammable Refrigerant Charging Controller
Medusa SR - Flammable Refrigerant Charging Controller

This system is crucial for managing the operation of a forced ventilation system (referred to as the EOLO system), effectively increasing airflow rates when hazardous gas concentrations are detected. It also controls the Vacuum and Charging unit as well as the associated Refrigerant Transfer pumps connected to the delivery line. This regulation is dynamically adjusted based on continuous sensor feedback on refrigerant concentration levels and ventilation efficiency.

Medusa plays a critical role in safety protocols, alerting operators and enhancing ventilation when gas concentrations hit 15% of the Lower Flammability Limit (LFL). Should concentrations surpass 30% of the LFL, it automatically shifts the vacuum and charging system into standby mode to mitigate risks, while enacting an array of safety valves and alarms to prevent explosion. The system is equipped with warning sound and lighting signals, complemented by remote columns, to instruct operators to vacate the area promptly in emergency situations.

Additionally, once the gas concentration levels recede below the safety threshold, the system necessitates a manual reset by the operator to resume operations, ensuring a high degree of safety and control in the handling of refrigerant gases.

Gas Sensors

Gas sensors play a pivotal role in ensuring compliance and enhancing safety within environments where flammable refrigerants are handled, such as in HVACR systems. These sensors are crucial for detecting the concentrations of refrigerant gases, which, if leaked, could pose significant safety hazards due to their flammability.

flammable refrigerants
flammable refrigerants gas sensor and air duct Eolo

The primary function of gas sensors is to continuously monitor the air for specific gas concentrations. When integrated with systems like the Medusa controller, they form an advanced safety mechanism. It uses this information to manage the operation of related equipment, such as vacuum and charging units and refrigerant transfer pumps, ensuring they operate safely and efficiently.

Gas sensors work on various principles, including electrochemical, infrared, semiconductor, and ultrasonic, each suited to detect different types of gases and concentrations. For instance, electrochemical sensors are widely used for their sensitivity and specificity to gases like ammonia or carbon dioxide, which are common refrigerants. In contrast, infrared sensors are ideal for detecting hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and other greenhouse gases.

Upon detecting a gas concentration that approaches a predefined threshold, the sensors can trigger a series of safety protocols. These may include activating ventilation systems to dilute the gas concentration, alerting operators with visual and auditory warnings, and, if necessary, shutting down equipment to prevent ignition in the case of highly flammable gases.

The integration of gas sensors into refrigerant handling systems not only ensures operational safety but also aids in compliance with environmental and workplace safety regulations. These regulations often specify maximum allowable concentrations of different gases in the air to protect workers’ health and prevent environmental damage. By providing real-time monitoring and control, gas sensors enable facilities to maintain these standards, avoid penalties, and ensure the safety of their operations and personnel.

Air Ducts Extraction system

Proper ventilation is critical for maintaining compliance as well as safety. Potential leaks and spills during flammable refrigerant charging must be mitigated quickly and safely. This is why it is required for A2L partial enclosures and A3 full enclosures to have proper ventilation. Because A2L and A3 refrigerant gasses are heavier than the air, ducts with intake vents must be placed on the floor along the inside perimeter of the non-flammable panels. These ducts must be connected to an EOLO fan that safely vents out of the building and into the atmosphere. Because of the environmentally safe nature of A2L and A3 refrigerants this is best practice and required to maintain compliance.

EOLO Extraction System Fan
EOLO Fan Connects to a Duct System

Non Flammable Panels

In areas where flammable refrigerants are handled, the implementation of flammable panels is a critical safety measure. These panels serve as a physical barrier, designed to contain any accidental leaks of refrigerants within a designated safety zone. Since many flammable refrigerants are heavier than air, the panels do not necessarily need to extend to full ceiling height. Instead, they are constructed to a height sufficient to contain gases that tend to settle closer to the ground, preventing the spread of flammable concentrations to adjacent areas and reducing the risk of ignition.

The strategic height of these panels is based on the understanding that heavier-than-air refrigerants will accumulate at lower levels in the event of a leak. By containing the spread of these gases, the panels significantly mitigate the risk of a flammable gas reaching an ignition source, thereby enhancing workplace safety. This containment approach aligns with safety regulations and compliance standards, ensuring that facilities handling flammable refrigerants adopt effective measures to protect personnel and property from potential hazards associated with gas leaks.

Flammable Refrigerant Systems Technical Drawing
Flammable Refrigerant Charging Example Layout

Next Steps

The adoption of flammable refrigerants this year requires a lot from manufacturers. At Airserco, we have continued to offer critical assistance during this transition, equipping companies with the necessary tools, knowledge, and expertise for seamless integration of the new standards. Through our provision of specialized equipment and support, we help your compliance with the regulations, ensuring operational excellence amidst these changes. Airserco provides in-depth experience and consultation to help you determine the most suitable and regulatory compliant “system(s)” for your facility. Contact us if you would like to know how we can help with your transition to flammable refrigerants this year.