Blog: Graeme RobertsAutomotive oxymoron: 'flammable' refrigerant

Graeme Roberts | 25 September 2012

Our news story today about a potentially flammable new auto air conditioning refrigerant reminded me of my shock at discovering, some years ago now, that 'butane' could also be used, and in domestic refrigerators as well.

At first I thought they were kidding until I moved to the UK and bought a new Bosch fridge/freezer and, reading the manual, as only I would, learned it was filled with R-600a - and it worked just fine until some completely inaccessible component failed and I had to scrap it after about nine years' use and replace it with a simpler model from the same maker. Can't recall offhand what the refrigerant used in the replacement is. But the appliance is still going strong.

I used to hear some hair-raising stories from a few vehicle techicians I knew about R-600a-filled auto a/c systems in the wrong aftermarket hands. After import restrictions and tariffs were axed in my native New Zealand from the late 1980s, the country became a mecca for independently imported used cars, mainly from Japan, and some of the huge influx we got in the 80s and 90s had been, er, modifed to take R-600a and various ibutane substitutes for the HFC refrigerant R134a, introduced as an environment-protection measure worldwide from the early 1990s, or the earlier, allegedly ozone layer-endangering CFC (freon) R12.

In the bad old days, if an a/c system needed fixing, the nasty old R12 refrigerant was simply released to atmosphere and a new batch squirted in after the repairs.

I'll give you one guess what happened when some hapless technician, especially those in shops where smoking on the job was still allowed, discovered that the 'used import' he thought was filled with R12 or R134a had, in fact, been refilled in Japan with ibutane...

Later, the automakers and aftermarket shops, by government decree, introduced machines to recover, scrub and reinstall R134a (R12, a chlorofluorocarbon is now largely banned globally).

So things are a bit safer nowadays.


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