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HVAC/R refrigeration coils are leaking at an alarming rate in industrial, commercial, and residential applications. While
HVAC/R refrigeration coils are leaking at an alarming rate in industrial, commercial, and residential applications. While
HVAC/R refrigeration coils are leaking at an alarming rate in industrial, commercial, and residential applications. While

HVAC/R refrigeration coils are leaking at an alarming rate in industrial, commercial, and residential applications. While the reasons are many, chemicals ranging from household clean- ers to industrial process compounds are the main culprits that produce leaks and pitting corrosion on all types of coils. Many HVAC manufacturers, distributors, and contrac- tors might not realize that corrosion caused hundreds of thousands of coil failures during the past decade. e source is environmental pollutants, household cleaning agents, pesticides, formaldehydes, building materials, and even o - gassing of food. Each contamination source can corrode coil tubing in a year or less, if the conditions are right (Figure 1). For example, refrigeration coils in a South American fruit processing plant’s banana room were continually failing. e chamber used ethylene gas to ripen the fruit. Byprod- ucts from the gas generator combined with moisture in the ripening area to form a weak acid that produced pinhole leaks in the coil tubing a er a year or less. Also, most coastal area HVAC equipment is bombarded with corrosion caused by ocean salt (Figure 2).

TYPES OF COIL CORROSION

e most common forms of coil corrosion are pitting and formicary corrosion. Both can occur in as little as a few weeks, but most corrosion begins appearing within a one-to- four-year period. e ability to distinguish pitting from for- micary corrosion might help detect and eliminate the cause. Pitting corrosion (Figure 3) is typically caused by chlo- rides or uorides. Chlorides are found in snow-melting crystals, toilet bowl/tile cleaners, dishwasher detergents, fabric so eners, vinyl fabrics, carpeting, and paint strippers.

IT’S THE WATER
IT’S THE WATER

Figure 1. Continuous contact with contaminated condensate caused this corrosion.

SEA TO SHINING SEA
SEA TO SHINING SEA

Figure 2. This corroded coil is from a coastal area.

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Reliability / HVAC Fluorides are used in municipal water treatment. Pitting usually is visible to the

Reliability / HVAC

Fluorides are used in municipal water treatment. Pitting usually is visible to the naked eye on the exterior of a copper tube. It’s caused by chloride/fluoride ions that condensate carries to the metal surface. The cations attack the oxide film the metal uses to protect itself, essentially forming a corrosion-driven battery that consumes the copper. Once pits form, they progress through the tube wall forming a pinhole that leaks refrigerant. Formicary corrosion (Figure 4), on the other hand, is caused by organic acids. Acetic acid is abundant in numer- ous household products such as adhesives, paneling, particle board, silicone caulking, cleaning solvents, vinegar, foam insulation, and dozens of other products. Formic acid can be found in cosmetics, disinfectants, tobacco, wood smoke, latex paints, plywood, and dozens of other materials. The corrosion these substances cause usually isn’t visible to the naked eye, although black or blue-gray deposits sometimes appear. Formicary corrosion produces a network of micro- scopic tunnels within the tubing wall. It resembles ant nest- type structures that are substantially larger than the surface pinholes. Eventually, one or more progresses to the surface and forms a pinhole, which quickly results in coil leakage.

Reliability / HVAC Fluorides are used in municipal water treatment. Pitting usually is visible to the
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Choosing the Right Coating

When confronting coil corrosion, first determine if it will recur after replacement. It’s difficult to know if corrosion is a one-time phenomenon or a continuing problem in that loca- tion. In the case of the banana processing plant or a coastal area unit, coils most likely will corrode continually, and their replacement units should have a protective coating. In less corrosive environments, you can attempt to pre- vent corrosive materials from entering the return air stream. You can store these materials in areas far from a return duct. This might eliminate the need to coat a replacement unit. Choosing the most appropriate coating could save thou- sands of dollars and eliminate repeat treatments. The wrong coil coating could degrade heat transfer and lead to higher energy bills. Heat transfer is a major concern when coating a coil, especially in a retrofit, because the coil might no longer perform at its design specification. The thinner the coating, the better the heat transfer. Another concern is the coating’s hydrophobicity, or how well it sheds condensate. Ideally, water would drain off of the coil quickly. Surface water accumulation is detrimental because it can lead to mold and mildew. Most coatings don’t resist biological growth, but high hydrophobicity can passively deter such growth.

the ChoiCes

The four most prominent HVAC coatings are polyurethanes, epoxies, fluoropolymers, and silanes. Each offers differing corrosion resistance, scratch resistance, flexibility, weight, thickness, hydrophobicity, and heat transfer. Polyurethane (PU), invented in the 1940s, can be manu- factured as hard as fiberglass, bouncy as rubber, sticky as glue, and soft as upholstery foam. Many off-the-shelf PU- based coil coatings can be field-applied. PU formulations are fairly inexpensive, less viscous, more flexible, and thinner – typically 25 microns to 50 microns – than most coatings. But, they aren’t as resilient or long-lasting as other coatings. Epoxy, or phenolic-based, coatings generally are the cheapest. Developed in the late 1920s, they’re known for excellent chemical and heat resistance and often are used for coating floors and other surfaces. The high viscosity of epoxy-based systems leads to thicker coatings – approxi-

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Reliability / HVAC Go deep Figure 3. This cross-section shows the results of pitting corrosion. invisible

Reliability / HVAC

Go deep
Go deep

Figure 3. This cross-section shows the results of pitting corrosion.

invisible to the naked eye
invisible to the naked eye

Figure 4. This cross-section shows how deep-seated formicary corrosion can penetrate a copper tube.

mately 50 microns to 100 microns – with poor flexibility and adherence. Epoxy is difficult to apply in the field. Typically, the coil is disconnected and shipped to a contractor or OEM for treatment. Because they’re thicker, epoxy coatings reduce heat transfer, system efficiency, and capacity. Epoxy coatings might best suit new installations where heat transfer losses

are accounted for in the system design specifications. Fluoropolymers, first developed in 1938 by DuPont, are available in many forms under a variety of trade names. They’re known for their high resistance to acids, solvents, and bases. They’re most effectively applied to metal through electrostatic powder coating or by a thermal sin -

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Reliability / HVAC tering, as is done for cookware and other non-stick products. Additionally, many field-applied

Reliability / HVAC

tering, as is done for cookware and other non-stick products. Additionally, many field-applied fluoropolymer sprays are available. These sprays generally have poor ad- hesion, and their effectiveness quickly diminishes significantly. The cost of

fluoropolymer-based field-use coatings typically is less than the more ad- vanced epoxy- and PU-based coatings, but the lifetime and effectiveness are limited. Fluoropolymer coatings ap- plied in the correct manner, through thermal sintering or electrocoating,

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haven’t gained traction in the industry because of the expense and the inabil- ity to apply those coatings in the field. Silanes are excellent coupling agents that can bond dissimilar materials such as paint (an organic material) and glass (an inorganic material). A variety of silanes are available, many of which are tailored for particular characteristics such as flexibility, hydrophobicity, and scratch- resistance. Thus, a properly formulated silane coating can provide a flexible, resilient glass-like coating with good cor- rosion resistance and water-draining ca- pability that bonds well to aluminum and copper (an inorganic material). Silanes form an extremely thin coating – less than 10 microns – when cured, that has little, if any, adverse effects on heat trans- fer. Silanes are resilient to cracking and corrosion, are hydrophobic, and reduce

airflow friction. Silanes can be difficult to apply properly in the field if you’re not

a trained applicator. The coil surfaces

must be cleaned thoroughly and prepared

properly for a successful application, and

therefore it’s best if the coating is applied

off-site. Although silane coatings typi- cally are somewhat more expensive than the other coatings, they also exhibit the best heat transfer properties and typically have a much greater lifetime. Our research indicates that a silane- based coating provides the best pro- tection from the environment and has minimal effect on heat transfer while remaining a long-lasting barrier that protects an HVAC coil against corro- sion for an extended time – typically five years or more. Each coating technology carries different levels of toxicity. A service technician who is planning to apply any of these coatings in the field should be outfitted with proper OSHA equipment and the appropriate breath- ing apparatus.

Reliability / HVAC tering, as is done for cookware and other non-stick products. Additionally, many field-applied

Joshua D. Sole, Ph.D., is senior mechani- cal engineer and alan H. brothers, Ph.D., is senior materials engineer at Mainstream engineering Corp., Rockledge, Fla. Con- tact them at (321) 631-3550.