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Refrigerant Transition Highlights the Importance of Leak Detection

Although detecting and minimizing leaks in commercial refrigeration equipment have always been important goals, they’re about to become even more critical. As I discussed in a recent article for Engineered Systems, the transition to the next generation of refrigerants creates important considerations — for both legacy and emerging systems.

In traditional hydrofluorocarbon (HFC)-based systems, refrigerant leaks can cause declining cooling performance and release high-global warming potential (GWP) greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere. As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues to phase down HFC production and consumption, operators of existing equipment will experience rising HFC prices — providing additional motivation to minimize HFC leaks. Further, a recently released HFC Refrigerant Management proposal would re-establish the EPA’s ability to enforce refrigerant management mandates under the authority granted by American Innovation and Manufacturing (AIM) Act of 2020.

In the next generation of commercial refrigeration equipment and system technologies, detecting and minimizing refrigerant leaks will become increasingly important. For example, in emerging refrigeration systems, leak detection will often be required to help identify the presence of mildly flammable A2L refrigerants and ensure proper safety management. In systems that use the natural refrigerant CO2 (R-744), leak detection is required to maintain optimal system pressures and sense toxic concentrations in occupied spaces.

Regardless of refrigerant or system type, effective leak detection should be considered essential for preserving the refrigerant charges needed to ensure optimal performance and minimize replacement costs.

Leak detection strategies with emerging refrigerants

In emerging lower-GWP systems, specific leak detection strategies are needed to address refrigerant characteristics and/or equipment infrastructures. For example, because CO2 has much higher system operating pressures than legacy HFC refrigerants, maintaining optimal refrigerant charge is critical to optimize system performance. Because A2L refrigerants have a “lower flammability” classification, safety standards often require the use of leak detection and other risk mitigation measures in higher-charge remote condensing unit systems.

CO2 booster system

In addition to the potential risks to human health of exposure in excessive concentrations in confined spaces, R-744 leaks can potentially impair system performance, degrade perishable product quality, and negatively impact retail operations by:

  • Reducing energy efficiencies
  • Starving cases at the furthest locations of refrigeration circuits
  • Leading to:
    • Perishable product damage or loss
    • Incurring unnecessary refrigerant replacement costs
    • Shutting down a refrigeration system

CO2 leak detection strategies should be designed for early identification of even small amounts of leaked refrigerant. This is especially recommended in enclosed spaces, near racks in machine rooms, and in walk-in coolers and freezers (WICFs).

Because R-744 is heavier than air and often undetectable by humans, sensors should be located near the ground and connected to leak detection control devices. Leak detection devices should be connected to a CO2 system control capable of generating alarms and performing a variety of system management functions, including providing early detection of slow leaks, activating isolation and safety shutoff valves (SSOVs), identifying the sources of leaks for accelerated issue resolution, and managing system pressures.

A2L refrigeration

Mildly flammable A2L refrigerants have varying degrees of lower flammability limits (LFLs), which become a key factor in determining charge limits and evaluating if leak detection may be required.

Per recent updates to the UL 60335-2-89 safety standard, self-contained, factory-charged systems with more than 150 grams of a flammable refrigerant — such as A2Ls and R-290 — must pass Annex CC testing requirements. Self-contained systems must be factory-charged and follow specific protocols and construction guidelines to prevent flammable refrigerant concentrations from surrounding the appliance in the event of a leak (or releasable charge).

Although leak detection is not required in self-contained equipment that passes Annex CC testing, it may be considered an additional safety measure in applications where gas could potentially form in flammable concentrations and present a safety risk to occupants (e.g., enclosed areas, such as a walk-in cooler).

Per UL 60335-2-89, remote, field-erected distributed systems can have much higher A2L refrigerant charges (i.e., potentially up to hundreds of pounds). Leak detection could be required to meet safety criteria in certain systems depending on the specific refrigerant LFL, application size, equipment and/or system type, the room volume of the installation location, and the use of additional air circulation and/or ventilation measures.

A2L leak detection strategies are designed to identify the early formation of refrigerant concentrations. When required, leak detection will be located near the ground level next to case evaporators — in enclosed walk-in spaces, on a condensing unit, or on a refrigeration rack. Detectors and sensors are typically set to detect the presence of leaked refrigerant per a defined parts per million (PPM) or at 25 percent of the LFL (well below a flammable concentration).

The sensor and/or leak detection device is integrated into the case controller to activate necessary risk mitigation measures, such as triggering audible and/or visual alarms, shutting off or isolating refrigerant flow, turning on fans to improve circulation and dilute refrigerant concentrations, and communicating with the system controller to feed data analytics.

Fully integrated leak detection solutions

Whether you’re trying to preserve legacy HFC refrigerants in your current equipment or make the transition to the next generation of lower-GWP refrigerants, leak detection should be an essential component of your refrigeration strategy — and a system requirement, in certain cases.

To learn more about our integrated leak detection portfolio, visit the Controls & Monitoring Systems page on our website.

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