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Truck AC explodes due to uncertified hydrocarbon refrigerant

The metal filter access panel of the air conditioning system deformed by the blast

AUSTRALIA: A hydrocarbon refrigerant in the air conditioning system of a truck is thought to be the cause of an explosion which caused serious burns to the driver.

According to a safety alert issued by the Queensland Mines Inspectorate, the incident on January 11 occurred while a mine worker was driving a truck in an underground mine. There was an explosion in the truck cabin causing serious burns to the worker’s face, hands and chest. Fortunately, the worker’s eyes were protected from the blast by safety glasses.

The force of the blast dislodged some of the windows of the truck’s cabin, which were blown clear of the truck.

Investigation are said to be on-going, but initial findings are said to indicate that the truck’s air conditioning system was charged with a refrigerant containing propane and isobutane that had originally been designed for R134a.

As such, the air conditioner was not certified for the use of the hydrocarbon refrigerant and the personnel servicing and charging the air conditioning system did not hold the necessary Queensland Gas Work Licenses for working with hydrocarbon refrigerant.

While the release of the hydrocarbon refrigerant from the air conditioning system into the cab created an explosive atmosphere, the source of the ignition has not been identified.

A similar incident occurred in Australia in 2014 when a drill operator in a coal mine suffered burns to the face, hands and torso in an explosion after hydrocarbon refrigerant leaked from the AC system and ignited.

Hydrocarbon refrigerants are widely used in Australia and it is reported to be not uncommon for some after-market repairers to re-gas refrigeration systems using cheaper, hydrocarbon-based refrigerants instead of the HFC gas they were designed for.

The inspectorate recommended that the mines’ authorities inspect all refrigeration plant and equipment including MAC plant to verify they comply with the equipment manufacturer’s guidance with regards to refrigerant. It recommends quarantining any plant or equipment not charged with the refrigerant specified by the OEM.

Mine operators are also reminded that if an alternate refrigerant is used, the refrigeration system must be inspected and certified for the use of that alternate refrigerant. In the case of hydrocarbon refrigerants, this is certified by Australia’s Petroleum and Gas Inspectorate.

In addition the safety alert also re-emphasises that any refrigerants may only be charged or drained by persons that are specifically licensed for those refrigerants.

Europe

The news comes as the UK and European air conditioning industry and environmental groups push for the inclusion of mandatory training and certification of engineers working with hydrocarbons and other “natural refrigerants” in the up-coming F-gas revision. While HFC gases are now strictly controlled, there are currently no similar safety restrictions in the UK and Europe on the use of hydrocarbon refrigerants.

Related stories:

Truckers warned of hydrocarbon safety risks12 March 2015
AUSTRALIA: The Australian Trucking Association has warned of the safety risk associated with the use of cheap, hydrocarbon-based refrigerant gases. Read more…

Calls for ban on hydrocarbon retrofits27 May 2014
AUSTRALIA: A leading industry body has called for action to stop the use of hydrocarbons in vehicle air conditioning systems after two people are said to have been seriously injured in an explosion in Perth recently. Read more…

Pressure mounts to add alternatives to F-gas regs6 January 2020
BELGIUM: Pressure is growing on the European Commission from both industry and environmental groups to include alternative refrigerants within the F-gas training and certification process. Read more…

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