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Applied Energy 53 (1996) 341 347 Copyright 1996 Elsevier Science Limited Printed in Great Britain. All rights reserved 0306-2619/96/$15.00 00027-5

Monitoring Hydrofluorocarbon Refrigerant Leakage from Air-Conditioning Systems in Buildings

K. W. Cheong
School of Building and Estate Management, National University of Singapore, 10 Kent Ridge Crescent, Singapore, 0511

S. B. Riffat
Building Technology Group, School of Architecture, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, UK, NG7 2RD


Hydrofluorocarbons ( HFCs) are now widely used in refrigeration and airconditioning systems. These systems lose refrigerants through leaks and during servicing. This paper discusses the possibility of determining the emission rate of HFCs in buildings by applying tracer-gas techniques. The measurement of the emission rate of an HFC refrigerant (R134a) using the concentration-decay technique was carried out in a single-zone chamber. The results were compared with measurements made using an SF 6 tracer and the Pitot-tube traverse method.

Ct Co E I M t V Concentration o f tracer gas at time t (ppm) Concentration at time t = 0 (ppm) Emission rate (mg/h) Air exchange rate (per h) Conversion factor from ppm to mg/m 3 for R134a (-- 4-17) Period of measurement (h) Volume of air in room (m 3)


K. W. Cheong, S. B. Riffat

INTRODUCTION Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) are used in refrigeration and air-conditioning systems. However, the losses of CFCs and HCFCs through leaks and during servicing can cause damage to the ozone layer and contribute to global warming. The Montreal Protocol calls for an international freezing of production and consumption of CFCs and HCFCs and has the ultimate objective of phasing out these compounds by AD 2000. Hydrofluorocarbons (see Table 1) have recently been employed in refrigeration and air-conditioning systems. These refrigerants have no potential to deplete the ozone layer but are still recognised as greenhouse gases because they contribute to global warming. The causes of refrigerant leakage have recently been reviewed by Butler. ~ Refrigerant losses tend to be gradual when leakage occurs owing to a defective seal or joint. Other types of leakage are caused by mechanical failure (e.g. a ruptured pipe), service venting, or loss from air purgers. Leakage can also be caused by the retrofitting of chillers with new refrigerants. For example, leakage can occur when a chiller using R12 is converted to R134a, because the R134a molecule is smaller and can permeate through seals more easily. Some new refrigerants have powerful solvent properties and can react with materials in seals and gaskets to cause leakage. To minimise refrigerant emissions, it is necessary to monitor the rate of refrigerant release into the atmosphere. The Building Research Establishment has carried out initial work on the possibility of detecting the loss of refrigerant by measuring changes in the machine operating performance. This paper describes an alternative technique of estimating the emission rate of an HFC refrigerant. Hydrofluorocarbons are treated as tracers and their concentrations in buildings are monitored using an active technique (e.g. pump sampling using gas analysers) or a passive technique (e.g. sampling tubes packed with adsorbent). Refrigerant-leakage detection devices such as permanently fixed refrigerant sensors connected to an alarm could be used in conjunction with HFC monitoring equipment.

THEORY The concentration-decay technique was used to determine the air exchange rate in a room. The method is based on an initial injection of tracer gas (to simulate leakage of HFCs caused by service venting in a


ReJhigerant Flammabilitv

Chemical Jbrmula

Molecular weight

52 152.91 152.91 136.48 12.00 51.61 27.61 28.00 Slightly Not Not Not


Boiling point (C)



R32 R123 R123a

Methylene fuoride Dichlorotrifluoroethane 1,2- Dichlorotrifluoroethane



Low Low Low Low

0 0-02 0.02 0-02


R 125 R 134a R 143a R152a

2-Chloro-l,l,l,2tetrafluoroethane Pentafluoroethane l,l,l,2-Tetrafuoroethane Triftuoroethane 1,1-Difluoroethane CHFzCF 3 CH2FCF ~ CH3CF 3 CHF2CH 3 120.03 102-03 84"04 66"05 48.50 -26-22 47"61 25-00

Not Not Slightly Slightly

Low Low Low Low

0 0 0 0

~. ~-

"Ozone depletion potential relative to R11 (trichlorofluoromethane (CCI3F) = 1.0; scientific assessment of ozone, 1989).

ta~ GO


K. W. Cheong, S. B. Riffat

plant room) into a room, followed by monitoring the decay of its concentration over a given time interval. Assuming that the concentration of tracer gas in the outdoor air is negligible and that there is no source of tracer gas within the room, the following equation can be used to determine the air exchange rate:
Ct = Co e -1'


If the natural logarithm of the tracer-gas concentration is plotted against time, a straight line is obtained and the gradient of the line is the air exchange rate in the room. Equation (1) can be written as I = In C o - In Ct t The emission rate for R 134a can be calculated using



EXPERIMENTAL WORK Experimental work was carried out in a tightly sealed chamber, as shown in Fig. 1. A variable-speed axial fan supplies fresh air into the chamber via the 0.3 m diameter ductwork and 2 m x 0.5 m diffusers in the ceiling. Air is removed from the chamber via the diffusers and extract duct using a fan with variable speed control. In order to simulate refrigerant leakage, R134a was injected into the chamber with all the dampers closed and fans off. S F 6 w a s also released in the chamber in order to compare the accuracy of R 134a measurement of air exchange rates. A desk fan was used to assist the mixing of tracer gases and air in the chamber over a period of 10 min. Once a uniform concentration of tracer gases was achieved, dampers at the supply and extract ducts were opened and the fans were switched on. Monitoring of the concentrations of R 134a and SF 6 tracer gas then commenced simultaneously at the centre of the chamber, using a multigas analyser, type 1302 (Bruel & Kjaer, Denmark). In addition, the ;irflow supplied to the room is measured at the duct using the Pitot-static traverse method.

R E S U L T S A N D DISCUSSION A series of measurements were carried out in the chamber to determine

Hydrofluorocarbon refrigerant leakage


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_...... ..... _//\/


..... "'-__

, V


.... -"

p" ....


'"",. I~
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lojeclloo of R134a

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.......................... I.=Fig. 1'. Schematic diagram of the chamber and instrumentation.

air exchange rates. These measurements were conducted simultaneously using R 134a and SF 6 tracer gases. Figure 2 shows the variation with time of the concentration of R134a and S F 6 for an air exchange rate of 4-7 per h. The results indicate that the decay curve for R134a is similar to that for S F 6. Table 2 shows the experimental results for three different air exchange rates. The differences in the estimated air exchange rates using the Pitot-static traverse technique and concentration-decay tracer-gas technique with S F 6 and R134 (i.e. (It, - ISF6)/Ip and (/p IR134a)/ip) were found to be in the range 0-3.6% and 14.3-16.5%, respectively. This shows that values obtained from S F 6 measurements are generally closer to the Pitottube measurements than those obtained using R134a. However, the results are within acceptable experimental error as concentration measurements were carried out at a single point in the chamber. The emission rate for R134a was found to be in the range 270.2-870.7 mg/h, depending on the air exchange rate.


K. W. Cheong, S. B. Riffat

350 300 & 250 o

g 2oo

~ 15o

o Rl~a

~O. o o
0 I I I I I




600 Time, (sec)




Fig. 2. Variation of the concentration of R134a and S F 6 with time for an air exchange rate of 4.7 per h.

CONCLUSIONS The air exchange rate in the chamber has been monitored using the concentration-decay technique with R134a and S F 6. Values of air exchange rates derived from R 134a were found to be generally in good agreement with measurements made using S F 6 and the Pitot-tube method. The emission rate of R134a was found to be in the range 270-2-870.7 mg/h. Additional work would be required to determine emission rates from refrigeration plants in buildings. In the field test, a pressurisation rig can be used to validate the results of the leakage rate measured using the concentration-decay technique. Research on the development of a new
TABLE 2 Experimental results Technique Air exchange rate in the chamber (per h) 4.2 4.2 3.6 270.2 0 14.3 5"5 5.3 4.7 352.8 3.6 14.5 13.9 13.6 11.6 870.7 2.2 16.5

Pitot-static traverse (Ip) Air exchange rate (per h), S F 6 (Ia) Air exchange rate (per h), R134a fib) Emission rate of R 134a (mg/h) % Difference (Ip - la)/Ip) 100 (lp - Ib)/lp) 100

Hydrofluorocarbon refrigerant leakage


passive technique for monitoring refrigerant leakage in buildings would also be necessary.

REFERENCES 1. 2. 3. 4. Butler, D. J. G., Minimising refrigerant emissions from air conditioning systems in. buildings. BRE Information Paper, IP 1/94, 1994. Vineyard, E. A., Sand, J. R. & Statt, T. G., Selection of ozone-safe, nonazeotropic refrigerant mixtures for capacity modulation in residential heat pumps. A S H R A E Trans., 95, Part 1 (1989) 34 46. Statt, T. G., An overview of ozone-safe refrigerants for centrifugal chillers. A S H R A E Trans., 96, Part 1 (1990) 1424-8. Sand, J. R., Vineyard, E. A. & Nowak, R. J., Experimental performance of ozone-safe alternative refrigerants. A S H R A E Trans., 96, Part 2 (1990) 173-82.