Detecting and tackling industrial refrigeration risks

Detecting and tackling industrial refrigeration risks

By Stonegate Instruments

Increasing safety and environmental concerns have led to a number of regulations in the UK industrial refrigeration industry. This has put emissions and sustainable operations high on the agenda, with all service providers needing to minimise leakages, improve safety and reduce spoilage. SHAUN EVERS, managing director of Stonegate Instruments, discusses the pivotal role regulation has had on industrial refrigeration, the risks associated with it and the technology available to support businesses

Identifying a leak as quickly as possible is absolutely vital, as exposure to such gases can be extremely harmful, with symptoms ranging from irritation of the throat, eyes and skin to frostbite, chemical burns and even lung or brain damage. Meanwhile, the Carbon Trust estimates that a leak of 1kg of refrigerant gas can have the same impact as a van driving continuously for approximately 10,000 miles.

For businesses, gas leaks also lead to spiralling energy costs. Refrigerant gas leaks are the foremost contributor to energy loss in modern heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, because when a leak occurs the system has to work harder to maintain the temperature, using more costly energy.

Safety concerns

While being highly valuable assets, there are a number of safety concerns with HVAC and refrigeration units. The primary issue is with gas leaks. According to The Carbon Trust, refrigeration systems within the UK have an average annual leak rate of up to 20%. With 60% of leaked gas escaping before detection, this poses a serious risk to personnel. Some refrigeration gases are toxic while the flammable nature of some class A2L refrigerants means leaks present a threat of ignition.

As a result of these concerns, companies now have to comply with increasingly stringent regulations. Since January 2020, the F-Gas regulations prohibit the use of any refrigerant with a GWP (Global Warming Potential) of more than 2,500. At the same time, the topping up with new fluid of systems that use some hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerant gases, such as R404a and R507a, has been banned.

The new F-Gas regulations have also raised the requirements for regular gas leak checks on refrigeration systems. EU regulations now stipulate that systems with 300kg or more of refrigerants be fitted with a leak detector, a shift that will affect operators of stationary refrigeration equipment, air conditioning, heat pumps and refrigeration units on refrigerated trucks and trailers. Where gas leak detection systems aren’t installed on apparatus, the frequency of mandatory gas leak checks will of course increase.

Additionally, to prevent the risk of ignition posed by the flammability of some class A2L refrigerants, operators will be required to maintain in-room concentration levels below the lower flammability level (LFL). This requirement is reinforced by safety legislation and standards such as ISO 5149 and EN 378.

Further regulations, such as the DSEAR (Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002) signify a stronger safety stance from the government and put more responsibility on to building and facilities managers to control the risks from fire and explosions.

A leak can occur for a number of reasons, from mechanical damage to equipment failure or poor maintenance work, but thankfully equipment exists to help building and facilities managers.

The development of technology

State-of-the-art technology that ensures the safe and efficient use of HVAC and refrigeration systems is constantly being developed. Building and facilities teams now have access to innovative tools to help them meet their obligations. These technologies don’t just help with gas leaks, which are the biggest cause of energy loss, inefficient cold store performance and product degradation, but also with the detrimental effects of poor temperature control.

The latest thermometers and temperature displays, for example, enable the monitoring and optimisation of refrigeration systems so that they function at the optimal temperature for the specific items they store. Should any temperature anomalies occur, the system will alert staff so that spoilage can be prevented. Open door alarms bring similar benefits.

The most advanced of these appliances are compact yet sophisticated detection systems which are designed to provide cold storage facilities with maximum storage space. These offer a valuable advantage for the 75% of warehouse operators that are concerned about the lack of available space.

Innovation is also to be found in safety equipment. New gas detection systems can be configured to detect an array of both toxic and non-toxic gases, including HFCs. Audio and visual alarms have also been developed that alert staff members to any sensed gas leak. These feature coloured LEDs that indicate the presence and status of each gas sensor, ensuring problems can be swiftly rectified.

New products have also been developed to cover the A2L refrigerants in harsher environments, while the safety of staff has been improved by the development of trapped personnel alarms.

HVAC systems remain one of the largest energy consumers in many commercial facilities, making them prime targets for improving energy efficiency and reducing operating costs. Even though systems can vary, by concentrating on the most common HVAC energy wasters such as refrigerant gas leaks, temperature control and equipment management, operators can maximise energy savings and ensure energy efficiency.

If sufficiently serious, those who deliberately allow a gas to escape may face a criminal prosecution instead of being ordered to pay a civil penalty. Fines of up to £100,000 apply for less serious offences, for example contravening procedures for minimising emissions or if non-certified individuals are found to be handling F-gases.

Even the most sophisticated devices on the market have a return on investment time of just two years, therefore installing technology to monitor leaks in cold storage offers a simple yet effective solution for operators in any sector.

Despite coming a long way since the early days of volatile, toxic and dangerous coolant gases, such as ammonia and methyl chloride, there are still risks present to individuals and the environment. When modern day refrigerants are managed in a controlled environment such as a closed system of tubes and coils, these gases can provide effective climate control, and when coupled with the right safety and monitoring equipment they can operate at their most efficient level.

Business and environmental benefits

New technologies have the potential to significantly reduce energy consumption, prevent breaches in regulatory compliance, whilst minimising carbon emissions, and more importantly, they mitigate the risk to personnel within buildings, whether it is commercial/retail property, a warehouse or a large residential complex.

Today, many facilities and health and safety managers are seeing the value in these innovative monitoring and intervention solutions. Their adoption helps companies comply with obligations to employees and residents with regards to health and safety while also providing a much-needed answer to the problem of unnecessary energy wastage.


Detecting and tackling industrial refrigeration risks