Refrigerant Leaks: Let's Get Serious
Refrigerant leakage is too often regarded as more of a nuisance than the more serious problem it actually is. Detecting refrigerant leaks can be highly challenging, and far too many HVAC technicians and maintenance workers would rather keep recharging a leaking system than find and repair leaks. But refrigerant leaks can have costly financial, environmental, and legal repercussions.
Leaking refrigerant is harmful to the environment and increases operating, service, electricity, and replacement refrigerant costs, particularly for older systems still using R-22. The environmental impact of a leak of just 1 kg of refrigerant is equivalent to driving a van 10,000 miles. Even new, more-environmentally-friendly HFCs and HFC blends, such as R410A, contribute to global warming. Section 608 of the Clean Air Act prohibits the intentional venting of refrigerants, and the EPA regulates all appliances with a refrigerant charge of 50 lbs or more. If annual leak rates exceed 35% for industrial process or commercial refrigeration, or 15% of comfort cooling or other appliances, owners must make repairs within thirty days. The EPA can assess fines of up to $37,500 per day for refrigerant violations.
There are a number of methods that can be used to detect refrigerant leaks, and some work better than others depending on the types of refrigerant and system size and configuration. A simple soap solution is a moderately effective, tried-and-true technique that can be used to pinpoint suspected leaks. Fluorescents additives have a number of drawbacks and some manufacturers will void compressor warranties if additives are used. There are several different types of electronic detectors, or “sniffers”, including corona discharge, heated diode, and infrared, which are very effective. Finally, highly-sensitive ultrasonic devices can be used to detect sound waves emitted by leaking refrigerant.
Areas that should be checked for leaks include fusible plugs and pressure relief valves and their vent lines, couplers, inside pressure switches, service valve stem glands, and Schrader valves. It should be noted that there are often multiple leaks of varying sizes, so an entire system should always be inspected.
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