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Beware of Hydrocarbons

Hydrocarbons in your vehicle air-conditioning system are dangerous, with fires a real risk.

We say – don’t go there. Should anyone propose using a ‘green’ or ‘environmentally friendly’ refrigerant that isn’t the approved refrigerant for your car –– be very concerned.

The approved refrigerants are Freon R12, R134a or R1234yf.

If you are told the refrigerant being used is a hydrocarbon, more efficient than the proper stuff or just cheaper, be on guard and ask if it is one of the approved refrigerants noted above.

Your air-conditioning system is not designed for hydrocarbons, such as a blend of isobutane and propane. There is evidence from the growing use of hydrocarbons in air-conditioning systems that they are not the effective ‘drop-in’ replacement claimed by some, and that they can cause damage to your air-conditioning system.

Of greater concern, hydrocarbons mixed with air are highly flammable or explosive. If released into the cabin of a vehicle, there is a very high risk of the hydrocarbons igniting, causing injury or even death.

Those in favor of hydrocarbon use in motor vehicle air-conditioning claim the refrigerant is safe. They say that because there are other flammable substances in motor vehicles, like petrol and LPG, the flammability of hydrocarbons is not a concern. However, the flammability of petrol and LPG is essential as a fuel. It is not a desired property of refrigerant to ignite, just that it transfers heat.

Current air-conditioning systems lack the necessary engineering controls to reduce the risks that retrofitting a system to hydrocarbon brings to vehicle owners. Also at risk are technicians carrying out the work, other people working on the vehicle, and members of the public.

From the Australian experience, there are numerous anecdotal cases of fire and injury caused by hydrocarbon retrofit in vehicle air-conditioning. These cases are often not reported when it becomes clear that the action of adding hydrocarbon has endangered worker safety and that insurance claims may not be successful because the vehicle was modified in a way that caused the loss.

In April 2014, two workers were injured in Western Australia when hydrocarbon in the vehicle they were driving escaped from the air-conditioning into the vehicle following component failure. The refrigerant ignited as it came out of the vents, burning hands and faces.

It has been formally investigated and recommended that hydrocarbon use in this setting be stopped, pending proof that re-engineering the system means it can be used safely. When cost plays a significant part in the decision to use a hydrocarbon instead of the recommended refrigerant it is unlikely this will take place for existing makes and models.

  • Please check that the company you are dealing with has appropriately qualified staff who have an Approved Fillers Certificate for compressed gases under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996. This is a good indicator of whether the party you are dealing with is up with the play.


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