The ongoing push toward sustainability of refrigeration systems requires the adoption of low global warming potential (GWP) refrigerants to meet the shift in environmental regulations. In 2016, nearly 200 countries signed the Kigali Agreement, a legally binding accord focused on the reduction of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) - the hydrogen, carbon, fluorine based compound that is commonly used in refrigerators and air conditioners. The new class of replacement refrigerants pose various hazards including increased flammability risks.
As new refrigerants are phased in, there are new hazards that emergency responders need to be aware of in order to adjust response tactics. It is essential that emergency response and preparedness is emphasized during the transitional process and that firefighters and others are familiar with the change in material hazards and appropriate response procedures.
The Fire Protection Research Foundation (Research Foundation), the research arm of NFPA, collaborated with NFPA on a two-year research project on flammable refrigerants. Funded by an Assistance to Firefighter Grant from FEMA, the goal of the project was to enhance firefighter safety and reduce potential injury by providing training on the hazards that may exist in appliances with flammable refrigerants. More specifically, the objective was to document key information about the technology and potential hazards so that information could be shared via interactive training modules that include classroom sessions, online learning, and educational videos for the fire service.
As part of this research initiative, the Research Foundation facilitated a workshop in September 2018 with industry stakeholders and members of the fire service. The risks that firefighters will be exposed to during a call involving flammable refrigerants were discussed, and brainstorming about the content and materials needed to inform audiences took place. One clear takeaway was that although firefighting is an inherently dangerous profession, emergency responders need to be trained and educated on the shift in refrigerant materials in order to appropriately adjust tactics and keep safe. Participants also expressed concerns about the products of combustion, and recommended that possible symptoms for exposure during and after an incident be clarified; and that the adequacy of PPE and post-event de-contamination strategies be addressed. Workshop proceedings can be found here.
In May of this year, The Research Foundation published another report documenting the hazards associated with flammable refrigerant technologies. That document contains the results of a literature review, consisting of flammable refrigerants baseline information, existing product usage details, new implementation considerations, potential integration into future technologies, and current response and tactics guidance. Additionally, researchers looked at the current and potential use cases for refrigerants, the various applications in which they are employed, the types of environments in which they might be encountered, and a range of associated threats. These hazards must be balanced against their performance for specific applications, including toxic thermal decomposition, combustion products, increased flammability, explosion risks, and pressure release scenarios.
The report also identified a few existing knowledge gaps, specifically that fire service personnel are not well-versed on the evolving hazards associated with new flammable refrigerants. Although the potential production of hydrogen fluoride and other toxic thermal degradation byproducts exists for all halocarbon refrigerants, further investigation is needed to determine the difference in the toxic quantities produced by existing refrigerants versus the new refrigerants. To date, the variations in hazards have not been completely defined - most likely because the standards governing refrigerant charges are still under review. The gap analysis was intended to inform new NFPA training for the fire service which will debut later this year to assist first responders in recognition, evaluation, and mitigation of any flammable refrigerant related hazards. As part of this research, demonstrative tests were also conducted to support the development of these training materials.
The transition to this new class of refrigerants is already underway and being led by the countries that signed on to the Kigali Agreement. Thus, it is critical that firefighters and others are aware of the potential fire hazards that may occur in various applications such as retail food refrigeration units or air conditioning systems.
More information on the NFPA and the Research Foundation resources on this topic is available at www.nfpa.org/refrigerants.