By Jamey Hale & David Callender
For more than 50 years, refrigerant recovery was done by cooling a cylinder so liquid refrigerant would transfer into it from the equipment. In the 1970s the mechanical recovery machine was developed, and changed the face of the recovery industry.
Today, recovery machines are lightweight and have high recovery rates, refrigerant recovery is mandated by the federal government, and recycling and reclaiming have joined the lexicon for refrigerant users.
Here’s what you need to know in the field. Let’s start with some quick definitions.
Recovery: remove refrigerant in any condition from a system and store it in an external container without testing or processing it in any way.
Recycling: reduce contaminants in used refrigerants by separating oil, removing non-condensables, and using devices such as filter-driers to reduce moisture, acidity, and particulate matter. This term usually applies to procedures implemented in the field or a service shop.
Reclaiming: process used refrigerant to new product specifications. This requires a chemical analysis of the product to ensure that it meets the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute’s Standard 700 for purity. This term usually implies the use of processes or procedures available only at a reprocessing or manufacturing facility.
You and Your Customers
For most service technicians, the focus is going to be on the recovery aspect. All refrigerants, including hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), must be recovered. By federal law, venting of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) (Class I) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) (Class II) refrigerants was prohibited as of July 1,1992. Venting substitute refrigerant was prohibited November 15, 1995.
YOU KNOW HOW. HERE’S WHY.
“I’m not an environmentalist, I’m a capitalist,” Atwood says. “But I’m also an outdoorsman. I like to hunt and fish. And as an outdoorsman, I want to do the responsible things to help protect the environments that I enjoy.”
Atwood suspects that he’s not alone in his feelings. “I think most technicians choose this profession because they like working with their hands and being outdoors. There are some miserable days on rooftops or in hot boiler rooms. I don’t think you do this unless you like being outdoors. So we probably have a pretty large percentage of outdoorsmen in this industry.”
These outdoorsmen (and women) will recover refrigerant not only because it’s the law but also because they truly feel that it’s the right thing to do. They put in extra time and effort pumping out systems and hauling cylinders, and Atwood would like to see them rewarded for that with a type of proverbial “white hat.”
“I’d like to see people like the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute, and the U.S. Green Building Council create awareness around this issue so that the system owners take some ownership of it, and insist that their gas isn’t vented,” Atwood says. “I think we need to create a brand for the technicians who do the job right and honor our stewardship responsibilities. We need to make sure the system owners know who they are, and want them to work on their systems.”
Atwood admits this might seem a little “touchy feely” to some. It’s not as if many people make a direct connection between venting refrigerant and seeing the fish die in their favorite lake, or their duck hunting wetlands dry up. However, doing the right thing is important to those who enjoy the outdoors. “It’s a mental reward,” Atwood says. “It makes the extra work feel less hollow or empty, and shows some value for the effort. There’s not an EPA cop hiding behind every piece of equipment. So it comes down to believing in doing what you can to making sure the environments you enjoy will be protected and will be there for you when you take off your technician hat and put on your fishing hat.” — by Ron Rajecki, contributing editor
In addition, there are leak repair requirements. Section 608 of the Clean Air Act Amendment of 1990 states that when an owner or operator of an appliance that normally contains a refrigerant charge of more then 50 pounds discovers that refrigerant is leaking at a rate that would exceed the Environmental Protective Agency’s (EPA) applicable trigger rate, the owner or operator must take corrective action. That means they’ll be calling you.
If a leak is discovered, equipment owners must repair the leak within 30 days from when it was discovered, or develop a dated retrofit or retirement plan within 30 days. (In some cases when industrial equipment is required to shut down, 120 days may be substituted for the normal 30.) Actions under the dated plan must be completed within one year.
Owners must also make sure initial and follow- up tests are conducted at the conclusion of any repair effort. It’s essential to prove and document that the repairs were successful.
In addition, under the Clean Air Act, it’s the owner’s responsibility to maintain repair records for three years on their HVACR equipment. Do your customers know this? Do they do it? Does your company have a written refrigerant compliance policy and procedure? If so, it could be a big help to your customers, especially if your customer is notified of an EPA audit and calls you for service records.
Contractors’ Requirements Of course, contractors and technicians who deal with refrigerants have requirements of their own to follow. For example, contractors must keep copies of EPA certification on file for all technicians. They must also ensure that their companies are in compliance with EPA rules regarding documentation of the vacuum levels achieved in recovery, and pounds and ounces of refrigerant recovered from (or added to) their customers’ systems.
The EPA requires that persons servicing or disposing of air conditioning or refrigeration equipment certify to the agency that they have acquired recovery and/or recycling equipment and that they are complying with the applicable requirements. Owners of recovery and recycling equipment are required to list the number of trucks based at their shops, although they are not required to have this equipment on every truck.
The rules are much stricter for refrigerant reclaiming companies.
Reclaim companies are required to return refrigerant to the purity level specified in ARI Standard 700-1993 and to verify this purity using the laboratory protocol set forth from the same standard. Also, reclaimers must release no more than 1.5% of the refrigerant during the reclamation process, and must dispose of waste properly.
Reclaimers must certify to the Section 608 Recycling Program Manager at EPA headquarters that they are complying with these requirements. Certification must also include the name and address of the reclaimer and a list of equipment used to reprocess and to analyze the refrigerant.
Leak Testing and Recovery
Given all this background, let’s take a look at the hands-on aspect of leak repair and refrigerant recovery.
The tools you’ll need include leak detection equipment (such as soap bubbles, ultrasonic, electronic, or ultraviolet leak detectors) a refrigerant recovery unit, a recovery cylinder, a refrigerant scale, a vacuum pump and hoses, a micron gauge set, and recovery and charging hoses.
Make leak checks while the system is still pressurized with refrigerant whenever possible. On a system that has been evacuated, a trace charge of HCFC (such as R-22) can be added, then nitrogen added to pressurize the system. Do not exceed the low side test pressure (150 psi). This mixture doesn’t have to be recovered.
The recovery procedure is as follows:
- Fully evacuate empty cylinders to at least 1,000 microns before using
- Check refrigerant type to prevent mixing different refrigerants in the recovery cylinder
- Connect gauges to the system and to the recovery machine
- Connect recovery machine to the recovery cylinder
- With the system not running, and using self-contained recovery equipment, operate recovery equipment and draw from both the high and low side of the system
- Recover until proper recovery levels are reached.
- Properly label the recovery cylinder.
- Remove piercing valves that were added for recovery to prevent future leaks.
Ambient temperatures around the system and recovery equipment will affect recovery time, as will the size and type of recovery machine.
To speed recovery:
- warm the compressor and other low spots in the system to be recovered
- remove Schrader valve cores and use short hoses with as large a diameter as possible
- cool the recovery tanks and machine to reduce their pressure.
The procedures and tips presented here will help you do an efficient job recovering refrigerant in the field, and will help ensure your company’s compliance with federal standards. In short, they’ll put you on the “road to recovery.”
Jamey Hale and David Callender are technical support supervisors for ICOR International, Indianapolis, IN. The information in this article is excerpted from ICOR International’s “The 3R’s of Refrigeration,” a NATEapproved two-hour credit course. For more information, contact Gordon McKinney at ICOR International, 317/826-3200, ext. 14.
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