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Assistance in Case of Accidents

1. Frequent Causes for Malfunctions of Ammonia Refrigerating Systems A regular check-up of the safety-relevant parts of an ammonia refrigerating system by competent contractors and personnel trained according to the requirements of the Accident Prevention Regulation VBG 20 for refrigerating systems, heat pumps and cooling systems are prerequisites for complying with the requirements which mainly result from the Federal Clean Air Act (Bundes-Immissionsschutzgesetz/BImSchG). As is the case with any technical equipment, this does not preclude accidents, although it has to be said that generally most accidents are not caused by material defects but by operating errors. Below a number of characteristic examples are listed, which basically apply to all refrigerants but which are especially mentioned here because of the special properties of ammonia.


Oil Draining

There are refrigerating machinery oils which are both soluble with ammonia and also hygroscopic and which have for some time been used especially in chiller units and the "classic" refrigeration oils in accordance with DIN 51503 group KAA, which are not soluble with ammonia and for which in particular the following remarks apply.

eurammon-Information No. 5, July 1996

Regulations require a "redundant" design of the oil-drain part consisting of a shut-off valve and a down-stream quick closing valve, which for the oil removal is kept open by a fast-closing lever against spring pressure. The following precautions have to be observed for the operation: The oil draining must not be performed by other than competent personnel who is acquainted with the system. The oil draining always has to be performed with great caution. Always wear protective mask and gloves and strictly avoid any skin contact with the liquid refrigerant. The pressure of the oil vessel, from which the oil is to be removed, has to be above the atmospheric pressure. If the normal operating pressure is below the atmospheric pressure, the oil has to be drained during a defrosting period or during a standstill of the system--or there must be an oil gate. If, in case the shut-off valve is completely open and the quick closing valve is slightly open, the oil is not running, the shut-off valve has to be closed immediately. In any case no attempt must be made to clear the pipe from the outside! Rather, the ammonia has to be extracted from the vessel from which the oil is to be removed until there is no ammonia left in the vessel and the shut-off valve and the quick closing valve have to be dismounted. Regular oil draining prevents the formation of dirt clots and thereby the abovementioned cleaning of the valve. During the oil draining, the operating personnel must not leave the oil drain spot. The fast-closing lever must not be blocked during the oil draining (e.g. by supporting rods or by tying it up with wire).



Air in the system leads to higher condensation pressure and thereby to higher energy consumption. Air in the system can be caused by: inattentiveness (absorbing air) when charging with oil and/or refrigerant, leakages on the low pressure side of low temperature refrigerating systems.

If the venting is done manually, protective gloves and mask have to be worn. By the installation of an automatic vent valve, manual venting becomes unnecessary.


Lack of Relief Devices Against Liquid Expansion

It still happens that the combination of solenoid valve and check valve in the fluid pipelines of refrigerating systems is installed in the wrong order. In the flow direction, the solenoid valve has to be installed first and then the check valve. If this order is reversed, some liquid becomes locked inbetween check valve and solenoid valve when the solenoid valve is shut off. During a standstill this liquid can warm up and lead to cracks in pipes or connecting flanges when it expands--especially in pipelines which carry cold liquids.


Deactivation of Refrigerant Pumps

There have been various cases of accidents caused by liquid refrigerant being locked in refrigerant pumps, e.g. when switching from the service pump to a stand-by pump. If the service pump is shut off on both sides from the previous operating condition, cold liquid refrigerant remains locked in the pump. During a standstill the refrigerant in the pump warms up and causes leakages due to cracks in the shell or torn off flanges.

eurammon-Information No. 5, July 1996


Opening of Discharging Devices

Heat exchangers mostly have discharging devices which are equipped with screwed connectings for the various chambers. Before removing a drain screw, make sure that it is not a pressurized refrigerant chamber.


Bolting of Measuring Device Sensors

Before loosening sensor boltings, find out whether it has an immersion shell. If not, the refrigerant chamber is opened directly when loosening the bolting.


Loosening of Flanges

When loosening flanges, do not loosen all screws at the same time. Leave at least two screws "diagonally" in their places and before removing all screws make sure that the connection is not under pressure any longer. Wear gas mask and protective gloves!!!


Subcooled Liquids in System Parts

If sections of the system are opened for repairs and thereby the pressure balance with the atmosphere has been reached, it is, however, not sure that no liquid, subcooled ammonia has remained in the opened area. Ammonia has a very high heat of evaporation so that the heat influx, e.g. in pipes, which may have been installed with a "liquid bag", is not sufficient to evaporate the liquid ammonia immediately--especially if it is an insulated pipe. (In contrast to R22 for example, which has a heat of evaporation of less than 20% in comparison to ammonia and, therefore, needs considerably less time for the evaporation of residual liquid.) For this reason 21 of the UVV Refrigerating Systems expressly emphasizes this hazard.

2. Characteristics and Hazards of Ammonia In refrigerating systems ammonia can be found both in the liquid and the vapour phase. In case of a leakage, the main hazard is the discharge of liquid NH3 and--due to the evaporation--the associated release of large amounts of vapour. By wearing protective mask and gloves during maintenance work, the possibility of health hazards can, however, be reduced to a large extent.

Ammonia vapour is lighter than air, therefore, it ascends. Part of the vapour, however, combines with the air humidity and descends as liquid ammonia aerosol, which can be recognized as a white mist. Ammonia is combustible. However, it only burns when a supporting flame is present because an ammonia flame by itself always ceases to burn. The explosion limits are closely together and high (between 15 vol.% and 28 vol.%). The combustion speed is low. The accident prevention regulation does not mention special requirements for the protection against explosions with regard to the electrical equipment. The hazard of an explosion may only exists if in an unventilated room of a building the concentration of 105 g/m exceeds the lower explosion limit and high-energy ignition devices are present. Ammonia is eagerly absorbed by water. Therefore, in cases of ammonia outbreak, water curtains are used to precipitate vaporous ammonia. The amount of 1 m water is able to absorb about 120 kg ammonia--depending on the temperature. However, under no circumstances water must be sprayed on liquid ammonia as this results in the formation of enormous amounts of gas and the dispersion of liquid ammonia.

eurammon-Information No. 5, July 1996

WARNING !!! Liquid ammonia (ammonium hydroxide) must never be drained into waters or the sewer system!!! Maintenance instructions have to be simple and easily understandable. Their execution should be trained constantly.

3. Damage Control Try to determine the size of the leakage. If it can be assumed that the room can be entered with a gas mask, then - switch on the emergency ventilation system before entering the room - shut off the ammonia liquid supply When in doubt, trigger an alarm. If there is the slightest chance that an injured person is in the ammonia area--trigger an alarm! first rescue persons, then repair the leakage. Close all doors to the room where the gas is discharged. Press the emergency shut down button. This deactivates valves, motors and other devices, which could possibly cause an explosion in the affected room. In case a gas-warning system exists, the ventilation system of the machinery room is activated according to the alarm levels. Apart from that it must be possible to activate the ventilation system manually. If a gas-warning system does not exist, the ventilation system is operated manually but it has to be decided on a case to case basis whether it is permissible to activate the ventilator in case of a large NH3 leakage (danger of explosion).

If possible, and especially on the liquid side, close off section after section by the shutoff valves so that the amount of ammonia in the system part with the leak is limited to a minimum. If possible, extract ammonia from the affected system part. Shift refrigerant to other system parts. If leaking liquid ammonia has formed a puddle in a drip pan or on the floor, the heat transfer to this liquid and thereby the vaporization can be prevented almost completely by covering it with foil or synthetic foam (fire brigade), so that there is enough time to take care of the disposal. If due to a leak, ammonia has been emitted to the ambient air, which had been aspirated by the machinery room ventilation system of the affected room, the air can be decontaminated in so-called absorption systems, which work with suitable (liquid or solid) absorbents, before it is released into the open.

4. First Aid in Case of Accidents Liquid ammonia can cause damages from frostbite and caustic effects on skin and eyes. Shower a person with ammonia injuries for 5 to 15 minutes with water. During the showering cautiously remove the clothes. If ammonia-soaked clothes are removed without watering, the injury can be aggravated by damaging the skin when removing the clothes. The injured person still has to wear the protective mask in order to prevent the inhalation of vapour from ammonia-soaked clothes. In order to avoid a temperature shock, the water for the showering should be warmed up.

eurammon-Information No. 5, July 1996

The best solution is, of course, an emergency shower; if such an emergency shower is missing, a regular water hose can be used.

5. Impacts on the Surroundings Released ammonia can be taken to the neighbourhood by the wind. Ammonia is lighter than air and ascends quickly. In mixing with air, it is diluted to harmless concentrations. Even if the concentration is not dangerous, the ammonia smell can be unpleasant. Overrating the term "toxic" can give people in the surrounding area cause for concern. It is recommended to stay at home, close doors and windows. The area does not have to be evacuated! Large ammonia spills into the sewer system (e.g. if vaporous ammonia is precipitated by water) immediately have to be reported to the authorities in charge of the local sewage treatment plant.

In case of doubt, the German-language original should be consulted as the authoritative text.


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