Analyze This: Detecting Counterfeit Refrigerant

Counterfeit refrigerants have been in the news a lot lately, as manufacturers contend that record amounts of illegal imports of HFCs are being brought into the U.S. under the radar of customs. While some of these imported refrigerants may be of the correct composition, there is evidence that others may be counterfeit or of low quality.

Mixed refrigerants are another problem that contractors frequently encounter in the field, and they are also a huge concern. Not only can mixed and low-quality refrigerants damage HVAC-R systems, they can pose a safety threat to technicians who are servicing the equipment, particularly if a flammable or toxic component is involved.

In the field, the only way to determine whether refrigerant meets AHRI Standard 700, which specifies the purity requirements for refrigerants, is to test it with an analyzer (reclamation companies have more comprehensive analyzing capabilities). While these can be expensive tools, some say they are worth the investment.

All Mixed-up

The growing number of refrigerants and substitutes now available has significantly increased the chances of a system being charged with multiple refrigerants. Not only can this have an adverse effect on an HVAC-R system, it can make it more difficult for contractors to receive top dollar for their reclaimed refrigerant.

It was for this reason that Geoff Fishel, president of All Mechanical Service Co. in Shavertown, Pennsylvania, decided to purchase a Neutronics Mini ID R-22 analyzer last year. The company, which specializes in commercial HVAC-R and recently branched out into residential add-on/replacement, has a maintenance contract with a firm that owns several high-rise apartment buildings that are more than 30 years old.

Last year, the firm decided to start replacing and upgrading the HVAC equipment, and All Mechanical Service was tasked with recovering the refrigerant and scrapping the old PTAC units. There were 300 units, each containing 2.5 pounds of R-22, and this 750 pounds of recovered refrigerant should have been worth more than $1,400. But there was a problem: some of the PTAC units contained a drop-in refrigerant, and they were not marked as being converted.

Once I did the math, I found that the Mini ID R-22 analyzer would pay for itself… and we have not had a mixed cylinder or a rejected cylinder of R-22 since. - Geoff Fishel, President, All Mechanical Service Co.

“When we were recovering the refrigerant, we were getting one or two units with the drop-in refrigerants mixed in with 50-pound cylinder, and it was contaminating the whole cylinder of R-22, making it worthless,” said Fishel. “We would then have to pay to dispose of it instead of selling it back to a reclaimer at $2-plus per pound. Once I did the math, I found that the Mini ID R-22 analyzer would pay for itself in a very short period of time. That’s when I decided to purchase it, and we have not had a mixed cylinder or a rejected cylinder of R-22 since.”

While Fishel thinks the mini-analyzer was well worth the price he paid, he is not sure about investing in a full-feature, multi-refrigerant model that would cost thousands of dollars. However, he said he could change his mind, depending on what happens in the future.

Worth the Investment

Refrigerant analyzers can indeed be expensive, with premium units costing more than $4,000, said Chris Carroll, HVAC-R sales manager at Mastercool Inc. That is why they are not routinely found in most contracting firms.

“An analyzer is mainly utilized by reclaimers or anyone consolidating large amounts of refrigerants,” he said. “It catches any problem mixtures, avoiding costly cross-contamination or residual mixtures in a stated refrigerant.”

Indeed, A-Gas, a nationwide refrigerant recovery and reclamation company, uses refrigerant analyzers extensively, and each of its Rapid Recovery trucks is outfitted with at least one of these devices. According to Robbie Eddy, plant manager at A-Gas/Rapid Recovery in Peoria, Arizona, analyzers are used daily in the field to identify refrigerant types and record the purity of the refrigerants that are recovered.

“They are used on everything from customer recovery cylinders to refrigeration racks,” he said. “We also utilize the analyzers during check-in at our reclamation facilities to make sure that the purity matches the documentation provided from the technician before the refrigerant goes on to more intense lab testing (gas chromatography).”

Investing in a refrigerant test unit may not be financially practical for most HVAC-R contractors, said Eddy, as the return on investment would take a very long time to achieve.

HVAC technician using Neutronics Mini ID refrigerant analyzer to test R-22.
HVAC technician uses Neutronics Mini ID to analyze the composition of recovered refrigerant.

“Since a lot of contractors only recover gases to service systems, as long as they recover into a clean, empty cylinder (to avoid mixing), they wouldn’t have a high need to test the purity or the identity of the refrigerant, as it should be plainly marked on the equipment they are servicing,” he said.

In a perfect world, this would be true, but as more refrigerants and replacements come to market, contaminated refrigerant will become more prevalent, especially because not all contractors mark what they are putting in the systems they work on, said Zachary Ziegler, refrigerant analysis product manager for Neutronics Inc., a Bacharach company.

And while refrigerant analyzers can be expensive — typically ranging from $900 to $5,500, depending on the complexity of the device — whether they are too costly for contractors to purchase is rather subjective, he said.

“There are many refrigerant reclaim facilities that will pay a defined price per pound for certain refrigerants at 95 percent or greater purity,” said Ziegler. “If contractors use a refrigerant analyzer and verify purity before consolidation, they can make money or receive credits toward their next refrigerant purchase. These same reclaim facilities may bill for impure refrigerant. In this case, every pound of bad refrigerant could cost a contractor more in the long run than a refrigerant analyzer would.”

Using an analyzer in the field is also better for the environment and the industry, he contends, because refrigerants mixed during the recovery process often have to be destroyed at the reclamation facility. By combating the problem on the front line — with the contractor — there will be less environmental impact from destruction, more refrigerant to continue to use for years to come, and lower prices for the consumers as the supply stays stable… Continue Reading


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