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Beware of Fake Refrigerants

August 15, 2016

Counterfeit and illegally imported refrigerants have existed in the HVAC industry for years. With R-22 increasing in price due to the government phase out (see previous post An Update on the Refrigerant R-22), people are doing anything they can to get their hands on cheaper solutions. Some refrigerants coming into the U.S. from other countries are not just imported illegally, but they are counterfeit, posing safety and health concerns to technicians and consumers. If you are having your air-conditioning system serviced, be alert to the various scams out there!

Unapproved Substitutes

Several companies have been penalized by the federal government for illegally marketing and selling other hydrocarbon products such as ES 22a as a replacement for R-22. (see  EPA vs EnviroSafe and EPA vs Northcutt).  According to the EPA,  use of ES 22a –  a refrigerant meant for window air conditioning units – creates the potential for explosion and fires, and is a serious risk to human health and the environment. R-22 air conditioners weren’t built to handle the level of pressure or flammability these substitutes pose. In particular, R-22a, which uses propane, creates a fire hazard. Approved alternatives to R-22 do exist, such as R-422D, so check with your HVAC contractor.

Unapproved Additives

Some vendors have blended the refrigerant with flammable substances such as propane and butane, or with a pine-scented odorant (see R-22a Safety). These have been sold under the names OZ-12®, HC-12a®, and DURACOOL, to name a few. Use of flammable refrigerants as a retrofit in equipment that was designed for non-flammable materials presents risks to consumers, equipment, and service technicians, and will void your equipment’s original manufacturer’s warranty. There are stories where the compressor burst into flames, the technician sustained serious burns, and the siding was melted off the house!

Counterfeit Refrigerants

Some counterfeit or contaminated refrigerants have counterfeit labels on the cylinders and packaging, so you can’t tell what’s actually inside. Contaminated refrigerants can cause a variety of issues, ranging from increased energy use and decreased cooling performance, to significantly reducing the operating life of your system, and causing injury and equipment failures.  Plus, many counterfeit  products contain ozone-depleting substances which are illegal. In China, 18 people were arrested from 4 criminal gangs, and 5 illegal production facilities were found, along with 11 storage warehouses and 2 sales offices. Over 28,000 canisters of fake R-134a and other refrigerants were confiscated along with 20 tons of raw materials (see report here).

Contaminated Refrigerants

Many refrigerants, including R-22, R-134a, R-404A, and R-410A, have been found to be badly contaminated (see report here). One of these contaminants is methyl chloride (also called R40 or chloromethane). It reacts with the aluminum and metal alloys used in the internal components of your HVAC system, causing corrosion and a volatile by-product that burns on contact with air. Exposure of the system’s contents to air and/or moisture could result in production of a strong acid and violent chemical reaction. This contaminant was responsible for a fatal apartment fire in 2014.

In our next post, we’ll tell you what the HVAC industry is doing to fight back and what you can do to avoid becoming a victim of fake refrigerants.