Ammonia a 19th Century Solution to a 21st Century Problem ?

Problems aren’t solved by people who don’t question…well…everything.

And, sometimes, the answers to the questions aren’t necessarily new. This week Kathy Jackson brought us her thoughts on a new/old solution to a relatively recent issue.

If you’ve been working in the HVAC service industry for a while,  you’re probably (SHOULD BE!) well aware that the EPA is phasing out Freon (HCFC-22 or R-22) and plans to ban it completely by 2030. What will replace Freon? It’s a question on a lot of technicians’ minds. When looking to the future of refrigerants, it might be worthwhile to consider the past.

Ammonia could experience a renaissance as Freon disappears from the market. Since the 1850’s ammonia has been an efficient and effective refrigerant. If ammonia is so great, why did it fall out of favor to Freon in the 1920s?
One word; Toxicity. Ammonia can be as dangerous to humans as Freon is damaging to the environment.
Mitigating the risks of ammonia could prove less challenging than you’d think. The benefits might be well worth it. Check out the quick facts below to see why ammonia might become more widespread in the HVAC industry.

                                                                                  Ammonia Quick Facts

Ammonia: A Natural Coolant

Consisting of nitrogen and hydrogen, ammonia has a lower boiling point than water and can be mixed with water to create refrigerant, notes RSI. Ammonia is a naturally occurring element in and doesn’t contribute to ozone layer depletion or global warming in its refrigerant form.

Ammonia Refrigerant Health Risks

Ammonia won’t damage the environment, but it could certainly hurt you on the job. High concentrations are harmful to human health. The eyes become irritated at between 100 and 200 parts per million (ppm). At 400 ppm, the throat becomes irritated; a cough develops at 1,700 ppm. If breathing air with an ammonia concentration of 2,400 ppm, death may occur after 30 minutes. Fortunately, ammonia’s pungent odor is noticeable at 5 ppm, so an HVAC technician could get help before suffering any harm.[1]

Cost of Switching to Ammonia Based Refrigerant

The modular R-22 systems often found in warehouses, blast freezers, and food factories are excellent candidates for replacement with ammonia systems. But it won’t be cheap. Industrial construction makes ammonia systems highly durable and, consequently, pricier than Freon-404A (R-404A or HFC-404A) units. HVAC owners could save in the long run, though.  Ammonia units may consume 30% to 50% less electricity than Freon-404A systems. Designing ammonia systems with a lower charge and placing them outside can address toxicity and flammability risks.

Climate Control for a Warming Planet

Freon was the refrigerant that kept us cool for decades. Sadly, Freon has increased our exposure to the sun’s harmful rays and warmed the planet. If we can move past the toxicity risks and equipment costs; Ammonia, it could prove to be an excellent eco-friendly replacement for Freon.

What is ZenHVAC’s takeaway on Kathy’s idea? If a refrigerant from the past can make a comeback, and save the day, then so can bell-bottoms and mustaches!mustache


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Patrick is Zen HVAC’s diagnostic and training guy. Patrick started in the trade the day he left technical school and never looked back. He's served in various technical and training roles in the HVAC industry but specializes in system troubleshooting and diagnostics, retro commissioning, and technical training. His moto: If I can understand it, anybody can. Patrick uses the Zen common sense approach to teach Patrick’s Likes- His Wife, kids and dog. Old pickup trucks. Hiking. The industrial Revolution. Patrick’s Dislikes- Taking work too seriously. Anything unintuitive. Emoticons :( Patrick’s Favorite famous person- Theodore Roosevelt “I am only an average man, But I work harder at it than the average man" Famous Patrick Quote- “Well, that was stupid of me”

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