Frequency and Detrimental Effects of Refrigerant Leakage in Apartment Complexes

Aaron Waldorf and Eric Kightley Department of Evolution and Ecology, the Ohio State University, Columbus OH 1 June, 2007

Abstract Current research in the field of aerobiology suggests that the release of chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s) into the earth’s atmosphere results in free-radical oxidation of ozone. Alternative refrigerants (eg. HFC-134a) are non-oxidizing, but contribute to the greenhouse effect. The global contribution to climate change of these coolants will match that of motorized vehicles by 2050. In this review we summarize one mechanism by which these pollutants escape into the stratosphere; through common air conditioning units. Leakage during servicing, filling, and use allow for these compounds to escape into the atmosphere. We show that, under certain circumstances, the personal use of air conditioning within an apartment unit is individually and directly contributing to the release of these harmful gases, relative to the use of the unit, and thus is environmentally unsustainable. Preliminary data suggest that these circumstances are present for a specific apartment complex – namely, the one we live in. Introduction Almost all of what we would like to describe as consumer culture has occurred within the last one hundred years in the United States. Starting with the creation of middle class wealth, the desire for consumer products has grown without limit and now defines our very lives. Of these creature comforts, many of them contribute to an overall greater problem of global environmental alteration. Whether through emissions, pollution, mining, logging, or over hunting, these products have created a negative impact on our planet’s biosphere. When focusing on the condition of the earth’s atmosphere, several culprits come up as vandals of the air. In light of the current attention given to climate change, a discussion of a potential contributor to this phenomenon is pertinent. We all know the common ones – cars, coal plants, large grazing fields – but what about air conditioning? Ever since its invention in the 1930s1, a/c has been keeping people cool in areas where mugginess was the norm. It wasn’t long; however, until we realized that all the comfort we were experiencing was coming at quite a detriment to ecological health. Since then, we have tried a variety of refrigerant methods so that we might have our cake and eat it too, but so far this has proven elusive. This has not slowed our usage of air conditioning, however. Detrimental Effects of Air Conditioning Common refrigerant usage in the United States employs compounds called chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs. These compounds consist of at least one carbon, fluorine, and chlorine atom, but often times more of each. Used in both refrigeration and air conditioning, they comprise the majority of coolants used in the world. In 1973, and expedition by Lovelock into the earth’s poles revealed that CFCs were collecting in the atmosphere, most prominently in those locations2. Later, scientists Sherry Rowland and Mario Molina confirmed that the presence of these gaseous

was harming the ozone layer. The long-lived compound oxidizes ozone in the atmosphere, hindering its ability to block harmful ultraviolet radiation. Said radiation causes mutations in organic material, leading to skin cancer in humans. Banning of CFCs began in 1975 in Oregon, and while it is now permanently banned in aerosol cans, it is still allowed to be used in refrigeration and air conditioning. The Montreal Protocol of 1987, a treaty between several nations including the U.S., banned the production of CFCs as of 2000 in developed countries, and 2010 in developing ones3. This does not prevent the continued use of CFCs, which can be recycled, but rather ends only their production.
Chloroflourocarbons commonly used in air conditioning CFC-12 HCFC-22 HFC-134a 100 Year Global Warming Potential (1,000 metric tons) 6,650 1,350 1,300 Estimated U.S. Emissions of Halocarbons and misc Green House Gases, by year (1,000 metric tons) 1988 110 74 0 1989 114 76 0 Table 1 1990 112 82 1 1991 108 82 1 1992 102 86 3 1993 99 89 6 1994 71 91 10 p1995 66 91 16

Meanwhile, other less harmful alternatives for air conditioning have been sought. By the 1940s, hydrochloroflourocarbons (HCFCs) were already being used4. HCFCs break down much faster than CFCs, preventing a larger percentage of them from entering the earth’s atmosphere. This produced a false sense of security however, as increased use of HCFCs only chlorinated the atmosphere further. Finally, in the early nineties a chlorine free refrigerant called hydroflourocarbon (HFC) was developed, which claimed to be completely environmentally harmless. Seen as a breakthrough, the compound HFC-134a quickly replaced the still common CFC-22 in automotive air conditioners, which tend to leak the most of any system5. The jubilation proved short however, as studies soon found HFCs are greenhouse gases, with effects similar to that of carbon dioxide6. Since then, continuous surveys have been taken on the amount of these gases that are entering the atmosphere, and their potential for greenhouse effect. Table 1 shows a presence and increase of greenhouse gases in all refrigerants, including HFCs, from 1988 to 199578. Currently, there is little doubt as to the harmful effects of the release of these refrigerants into the atmosphere, but the question still remains: How did they get there?

Estimated U.S. Emissions of Halocarbons and misc Green House Gases
120 100 80 60 40 20 0
19 88 19 89 19 90 19 91 19 92 19 93 19 94 p1 99 5

1,000 metric tons

CFC-12 HCFC-22 HFC-134a


Figure 1 p1995 is predicted values for 1995 (the data is from 1994)

Refrigerant Use and Leakage in Air Conditioning Air conditioning systems are all very similar in how they operate. The basic system consists of an evaporator, a condenser, a compressor, and an expansion valve9. The air is cooled by transferring heat from the inside, via the evaporator, to the outside, in the condenser. Both evaporation and condensation are common physical reactions, but it is the thermodynamic component that makes them valuable in cooling off. Think about how our bodies sweat when we heat up. The evaporation of the water is an endothermic process, i.e. it takes heat work. Thus, the heat from your body is transferred to the water as it evaporates. In a similar fashion, the evaporator in your housing unit takes heat by evaporating Freon (a common name for fluorocarbons) in tubes and passing air over them. The tubes, cooled by the evaporation of the Freon, cool down the air and thus your living space. Meanwhile, this warmed up gas exits the unit and enters a compressor, located outside. The compressor compresses the gas, making it very hot, and sends it through a condenser. As the gas condenses through these series of tubes, it turns back into a liquid and thus cools, passing through an expansion valve back into the interior of the complex, as shown in Figure 3. This process of Freon transfer only occurs while the air conditioning unit is on. While idle, Freon remains in a non-pressurized phase within the pipes. Yet, in both of these operations the Freon gas can leak into the air. According to McCulloch et al, the majority of air Figure 1 Cumulative emission function for CFC-22 or HFC-134a from refrigeration; open bars represent emissions from commercial air conditioning units and refrigeration systems, conditioning units while dark bars represent emissions from hermetically sealed systems. are not hermetically sealed10. This means that they are not airtight, and are frequently subject to leaks. Figure 2 shows a graph of estimated leakage rates over a twenty year period. The white bars are leakage rates of short term systems, like our air conditioners. When compared to the hermetically sealed unites represented by the black bars, they appear to leak far more, however both exhibit similar leakage rates by the 20th year. Average refrigerant life in air conditioning units with these leakage rates is estimate at four to five years11.

McCulloch et al. then go on to say that the majority of the refrigerant leakage occurs during the filling of the conditioning system. Afterwards, however, most leakage comes from operation and servicing. Zhao (2002) has similar findings, indicating in his report that “during operation, pressure from compressor outlet to expansion valve in the refrigeration system is much higher than the pressure from expansion valve to compressor inlet. Thus the leak rates are 12 correspondingly higher, if they occur .” We already know from McCulloch et al.’s studies that refrigerant does leak from air conditioning systems, thus we can conclude that the operation of those systems contributes significantly to the amount of refrigerant being released into the air. Zhao continues on however to say that even while dormant, refrigerant can still leak from air conditioning systems, although the rate is described as “intermediate”. Air Conditioning Units within the 1866 North High St. Pella Complex The next question that needs to be answered is how is air conditioning delivered to units within the complex? We know that refrigerants are dangerous to the environment, and that they leak with significant increase while the air conditioning unit is operating, yet all efforts to prevent this by abstaining from air conditioning use will be futile if the system operates constantly and “turning on” the a/c simply redirects that cool air to your establishment. To answer this question, a call was made to Pella maintenance to confirm the status of the unit in each apartment. Michael, one of Pella’s maintenance employees, answered and informed me that in the 1866 N. High St. apartment block, each unit is provided with its own individual air conditioner, the compressor of which is located on the roof of the complex13. Thus, as each individual unit uses its air conditioning, it must activate that specific unit. When the air conditioning is idle within the apartment, the unit is off. I did not bother to gather information on updated maintenance or leakage rates of the units, for the data I have collected demonstrates a statistical certainty that refrigerant leakage is occurring. Conclusions It is common knowledge that refrigerant released into the atmosphere is environmentally damaging. Through oxidation by chlorine radicals, ozone is dissipated and ultraviolet radiation allowed to pass. This radiation causes cancer in most living things through the process of genetic mutation, more specifically the dimerization of thymine nucleotides, which leads to errors in base pairing throughout the genetic code. Even chlorine free refrigerants, such as HFC-134a, are detrimental to the earth, because they are green house gases similar to carbon dioxide. While in the atmosphere, they block radiation from leaving the earth, which leads to increasing temperatures on the scale of tenths of a degree per year. This is the most alarming increase in temperature our planet has experienced that we know of. As developing countries grow wealthier, the use of HFC-134a has increased, and Greenpeace estimates that the level of greenhouse gases put out by this refrigerant will match that of cars by 205014. But how can we help this? Air conditioning has become so common in our society that we take it for granted. Yet as this paper shows, if people refrain from using their air conditioners, they can significantly reduce the amount of refrigerant that leaks into the atmosphere. It is import to remember too that most air conditioning units today still use chlorofluorocarbons that not only destroy the atmosphere but contribute to global warming as well15. Even corporations,

such as Coca Cola and McDonalds, which are typically unaffected by current environmental research, are changing their means of refrigeration in order to reduce the future impact of greenhouse gases16. While refrigeration is necessary for the maintenance of food products, air conditioning for most can be considered a luxury. Therefore, it is an unnecessary damaging component of our society, to which alternatives can be sought. Action Ohio summers can be muggy and uncomfortable, this is no doubt, and with global warming they are only going to get worse. We are not on the equator however, and temperatures rarely go above 100. There may be those who still do not find these conditions tolerable. If the heat is too intense, there are more efficient and environmentally sound solutions to keeping one cool than air conditioning. According to Consumer Power Incorporated’s website, the average window air conditioner uses 134 kWh per month. This energy usage is in conjunction with the Freon release17. A ceiling fan, which can cool a room as well, takes only 85 kWh, and it does not put out extra harmful gases. Even 24” box fans, something common in college residences, put out a relatively minimal 30.6 kWh per month. It would take more than four of these fans to equal the power taken by one air conditioning unit, and once again they would not release harmful gases. While power generation does continue to come from unsustainable coal powered sources in Ohio, utilizing fans can use less of this power than air conditioning, thus utilizing less of these fossil fuels as well. It is my hope that in the near future more energy will come from wind farms and other more sustainable sources.


McCulloch, Archie, Pauline M. Midgley, Paul Ashford. Releases of Refrigerant Gases (CFC-12, HCFC-22, and HFC134a) to the atmosphere. School of Chemistry, University of Bristol, UK 2 Wikipedia, Tab 7, Environmental issues 3 See 2 4 See 1 5 See 2 6 See 1 7 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks, 1990 – 1994. EPA-230R-96-006 Washington D.C., November 1995, pp. 37 - 40 8 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 1995: The Science of Climate Change. Cambridge University Press 1996. Cambridge, UK. 9 Zhao, Yang. "Study of Refrigerant Leakage in Refrigeration System." Journal of Fire Sciences 20.3 (2002), 237-245. 10 See 1 11 See 1 12 See 9 13 Michael, Pella Guy 14 Greenpeace. Companies, NGOs, and International Organizations Join Forces to Fight Climate Change. 15 See 8 16 See 14 17 Consumer Power Incorporated. Online Usage Calculator.

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