What Facilities Managers Need to Know About Refrigerant Safety for HVACR Systems
With all the safety risks that are lurking around your building, you may not think of your air conditioning system as dangerous. Yet most air conditioning systems, VRF systems that provide heating as well as cooling, and commercial refrigeration systems rely on refrigerant chemicals that can be deadly if an accident happens.
When you are responsible for building systems and the safety of your building’s occupants, you’d better understand refrigerant safety guidelines to make sure a tragic accident doesn’t happen on your watch.
Here’s what you need to know about refrigerant safety and your HVAC equipment.
What dangers do HVACR refrigerants pose?
Although many of today’s newer refrigerants are safer than the Freon used in older system, there are still refrigerant safety risks to think about. For one thing, there are plenty of older systems still out there containing Freon. And even the newer, safer refrigerants are dangerous if mishandled.
If a large amount of refrigerant gas is released into the air, anyone breathing it in can suffer breathing problems and even death, since the refrigerant deprives the body of oxygen. In addition, a technician working on your air conditioning system can suffer severe burns or blindness if even a small amount of liquid refrigerant touches the skin or eyes.
(For more information, read Facility.net’s refrigerant safety guidelines for proper handling and disposal of refrigerants.)
DANGERS TO THE PLANET
Beyond personal safety, refrigerants pose significant dangers to our planet. When refrigerant is mishandled or leaks from air conditioning systems and refrigeration equipment, it escapes into the atmosphere where it wreaks havoc on the ozone layer and contributes to the greenhouse effect and global warming.
The industry standard for many years was Freon (also known as R22), a hydrochlorofluorocarbon gas, or HCFC. Back in the 1970’s it was discovered that HCFC gases were quickly depleting the Earth’s ozone layer, and an international environmental treaty called the Montreal Protocol called for a worldwide phase-out of HCFC refrigerants by the year 2020. That’s why only old air conditioning systems still use Freon today—it’s expensive and won’t be around much longer.
Since then, new refrigerants called fluorinated gases, or F-gases have been developed to replace HCFC refrigerants. While these newer refrigerants are non-flammable, recyclable, energy efficient and less damaging to the ozone layer, it has been discovered that they are among the longest-lasting greenhouse gases. F-gases hang around in the atmosphere for hundreds and even thousands of years, intensifying and speeding up the process of global warming.
Whichever refrigerants you use, there is no cause for alarm as long as they stay where they belong, inside your cooling equipment. The problem comes in when the systems develop slow leaks, or are serviced by technicians who don’t use the right equipment and refrigerant safety techniques.
As a Facilities Manager, it’s your job to ensure the safe handling of refrigerants in your building. Are you aware of EPA regulations and how they affect your building, and even you personally, if you are responsible for refrigerant safety? You could face hefty fines if found to be in violation of the EPA’s Clean Air Act. The EPA does random inspections and responds to tips and reports from the public, and can assess fines of up to $37,500 per day for violations.
To learn more about EPA regulations and how to protect yourself, read this related post: What You Need to Know About F-Gases and HVAC Service.
Refrigerant safety tips to prevent accidents and injuries
Even though all of this may seem alarming, there are some simple steps that all but eliminate the risks from refrigerants in your HVAC system.
Refrigerant safety tip #1: HIRE ONLY CERTIFIED TECHNICIANS
Due to refrigerant safety risks, it’s required by law that any HVACR technician who works on your system has EPA 608 certification. This means they have completed an educational program and passed a certification exam that is required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for technicians who perform maintenance and repair services and disposal of refrigerants. Hiring technicians with this training minimizes your risk of accidents as well as liability. Ideally, you should hire technicians who hold Universal Certification, which means they can work on all types of HVAC and refrigeration equipment.
It’s important to be aware that the EPA 608 certification does not expire. That means you must make sure the service provider you choose is not only certified, but committed to keeping up with the latest regulation changes and refrigerant safety best practices.
Related article: Your Hairdresser Has More Licensing Than Your NYC HVAC Vendor.
Refrigerant safety tip #2: RESTRICT ACCESS
It’s essential to restrict access to mechanical equipment rooms to authorized personnel only. In addition, make sure any areas where refrigerant is used are well-lighted and free of debris, to ensure safe access to equipment and allow technicians to see what they are doing.
Refrigerant safety tip #3: INSTALL SAFETY EQUIPMENT
In areas where refrigerants are used, be sure to install safety equipment nearby, including eye wash stations, fire extinguishers, first aid kits, and emergency telephones or communication devices.
Refrigerant safety tip #4: MONITOR THE AREA
Install a monitoring system in your mechanical rooms that provides visual and auditory alarms that alert personnel in the area in the event of a release of refrigerant.
Refrigerant safety tip #5: USE WARNING LABELS
Place warning labels on all equipment that uses refrigerant to prevent anyone who is not a trained expert from touching HVACR equipment.
Can you count on your HVACR service provider for refrigerant safety?
In addition to EPA 608 certification, another way to verify a service provider’s qualifications in refrigerant safety for commercial HVACR systems is to look for MSCA Star Certification, one of the most respected certifications in the industry, awarded to outstanding contractors who have demonstrated industry-leading practices in HVACR safety and training. This certification needs to be renewed every 5 years.
Are you concerned that your current HVACR service company is not up to the task and might be putting you and your building occupants at risk? If so, now is the time to make the move to a service provider with the skills and experience to do the job safely and correctly. To find out more about making the switch easily and painlessly, get a free copy of our helpful guide to Contract Confidence: Transitioning to a New HVAC Service Provider.