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Benefits of gas detection technology

Author : Shaun Evers, Managing Director, Stonegate Instruments Ltd

01 December 2022

Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are an integral part of modern facilities. However, these systems come with inherent risks, with refrigerant gas leaks posing a threat to people, profits, and the planet. Shaun Evers, Managing Director of Stonegate Instruments, highlights how smart technology can help minimise these risks.

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

(Click here to view article in digital edition)

HVAC systems play a vital role in creating safe and healthy buildings – they control temperature, improve air quality, reduce humidity, and enhance the overall comfort of the indoor environment.

However, should these systems develop a leak, it could result in the release of toxic gases which can endanger building occupants, increase energy consumption, drive operational costs higher, and impact the environment.

Harmful effects of refrigerant leaks

Refrigerant gas leaks are the foremost contributor to energy loss in modern HVAC stores. When a leak occurs, the system becomes inefficient and needs to work harder to maintain capacity. This in turn will increase electricity consumption and accordingly, monthly energy bills.

According to The Carbon Trust, the average leakage rate in UK systems is around 20% per year. This equates to a reduction in efficiency of around 11%, which directly translates into increased energy costs. In fact, according to several studies, a leaking air conditioning unit consumes almost 20% more electricity than a fully functioning one and it has been suggested that a small continuous leak, left unrepaired for three months, could use an extra 10kW in electricity once the leak becomes critical. Amid the current energy crisis, with prices skyrocketing, this is an unnecessary and unaffordable expense.

Additionally, if coolant leaks from a system, it can rapidly evaporate into a lethal gas which can cause asphyxiation. More commonly, however, it can cause breathing difficulties, coughing, nausea and vomiting, skin and eye irritation, and headaches.

Of course, as gas gets released into the atmosphere, it causes ozone depletion and contributes to global warming. This means that undetected leaks may also have regulatory consequences.

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

A look at regulations

An understanding of F-Gas regulations – established in 2020 as part of a policy to combat climate change – is vital for anyone working with refrigerant gas. Under UK and EU legislation, a ban has been in force that prevents refrigerants with a Global Warming Potential (GWP) greater than 2,500 being used to service or refill refrigeration systems, with a refrigerant charge size of 40 tonnes of CO2 equivalent or more. In addition, the topping up with new fluid of systems that use some HFC refrigerant gases, such as R404a and R507a, has been banned.

The regulations stipulate that equipment must be fitted with a leak detection system if it contains F-Gas equivalent to 500 tonnes of CO2. They have also raised the requirements for regular gas leak checks: leakage checks should be carried out at least once every 12 months if the system contains F-gases in quantities of 5 tonnes of CO2 equivalent or more, at least once every 6 months if it contains F-gases in quantities of 50 tonnes of CO2 equivalent or more, and at least once every 3 months if the system contains F-gases in quantities of 500 tonnes of CO2 equivalent or more.

Additionally, to prevent the risk of ignition posed by the flammability of some refrigerants, operators are required to maintain in-room concentration levels below the lower flammability level. This requirement is reinforced by safety legislation and standards such as ISO 5149 and EN 378.

In line with F-Gas regulations, the Environment Agency has the power to impose civil penalties of up to £200,000 for various breaches, including failure to comply with provisions in the regulations or permitting another person to breach those provisions.

While F-Gas regulations have been in force since January 2020, the European Commission published a proposal for a major revision thereof in April this year. Following review, it is expected that it will be agreed during 2023 and come into force in January 2024. The UK is conducting its own review of the proposal, with UK implementation expected to occur in 2024 or 2025.

Smart sensors and systems

Unfortunately, refrigerant gas is both odourless and colourless and it is estimated that 60% of gas escapes before anyone notices. This can make detecting a leak challenging. While there are a several things that can be done in the case of a suspected leak, nothing can replace the accuracy and efficiency of using specially designed technology for this task.

Shaun Evers, Managing Director, Stonegate Instruments Ltd
Shaun Evers, Managing Director, Stonegate Instruments Ltd

Thanks to rapidly evolving technology, the latest generation of sensors and systems are smart, self-contained single fixed gas sensors which are particularly suited to detecting gases associated with HVAC units. Many of these sensors have a proven return on investment of just two years, and that is without taking into consideration the cost of repairs to an existing faulty system.

Smart sensor equipment with signalling alarms, LED lights that indicate the presence and status of each sensor, as well as audio/visual alarms to alert staff, is also available. These systems help ensure that leaks are quickly identified and repaired at the first opportunity, minimising the risk to the health and safety of building occupants and preventing breaches in regulatory compliance.

Benefits of gas detection technology

Whether a leak results from mechanical damage, equipment failure or poor maintenance, a gas detection system can help prevent a minor incident from becoming a crisis. In fact, gas detection systems offer many benefits – it alerts workers or building occupants to the problem, enabling them to evacuate the area and thus minimising their risk of exposure; it ensures that proper procedures are activated so that timely corrective action can be taken; it minimises the risk of irreversible damage to equipment; and it prevents potentially harmful environmental impacts.

Turning to technology will ensure that, should a leak occur, it is quickly identified and repaired at the first opportunity, helping to keep energy consumption in check, minimising the risk to the health and safety of workers and building occupants, preventing breaches in regulatory compliance, and minimising operational costs.

About the author:

Shaun Evers has been Managing Director of Stonegate Instruments Ltd since 2003. With nearly 20 years at the helm, he has also been responsible for leading the research and development of innovative solutions for the refrigeration industry.

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