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Phase down sparks rise in illegal sales

EUROPE: With the F-gas regulations beginning to bite and higher GWP refrigerants becoming expensive and scarce, evidence of illegal imports and sales is increasing.

Despite a recent EC-sponsored report finding no evidence of large-scale illegal HFC imports, reports received by the Cooling Post and a general search of online auction sites suggests the problem is more widespread than some would admit. A search of country-specific auction sites reveals evidence of refrigerant being offered for sale without ensuring the buyer is F-gas registered and sales of refrigerant in illegal disposable cylinders.

While there are many reputable suppliers selling refrigerant over the internet, who follow the F-gas regulations and ensure all purchasers have the appropriate F-gas certification, there are many who don’t. The Cooling Post has uncovered instances of sellers ignoring the regulation completely or merely paying lip-service to the licence requirement.

An Italian seller, for instance, offering R404A drew customers’ attention to the F-gas regulations but merely stated: “By purchasing a refrigerant, you confirm that you are knowledgeable in the sense of the above-mentioned regulations and thereby the use of the refrigerant by a knowledgeable person.”

The CNA, Italy’s national confederation of SMEs, has expressed concern at the ease with which refrigerants can be ordered on the internet. This was exposed by the Canale 5 TV programme Striscia la Notizia earlier this month when the presenter successfully bought an 800g bottle of R410A from a seller on Amazon. While the website advert suggested an F-gas licence was required, the presenter Jimmy Ghione was assured by the seller over the phone that this wasn’t needed.

In a joint statement, CNA president Giuseppe Napolitano and regional head Vittorio Schininà said: “The satirical transmission has shown, in fact, as on Amazon anyone can, easily, buy a container of F-gas, when the same can be sold only and exclusively to persons and companies that have a specific license.”

The situation is by no means restricted to Italy. The problem seems to extend across all the European member states, including its largest members the UK, France, Germany and Spain. Not surprisingly, the majority of activity centres on the refrigerants most affected by the price increases – R404A, R410A and R134a.

While some of the refrigerant may have been legally imported under a legitimate F-gas quota, the large amount being offered in disposable cylinders suggests that much of it is illegal. Non-refillable, disposable have been banned in Europe since 2007.

In Ireland, two of the countries largest refrigeration wholesalers, RSL and FSW, have both recently warned customers to beware of refrigerant being offered for sale in disposable cylinders and questioned the purity of the contents.

The overt nature of the internet should make it very easy for the authorities to police but this is clearly not being effective. More worryingly, illegal internet sales may be the thin end of the wedge – there is evidence that offenders are avoiding the internet altogether by contacting contractors directly. 

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