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Hydrocarbon heat pump safety guidelines

Acer 75kW heat pump

The use of hydrocarbons as refrigerants is growing and safety is an important aspect of this growth. 

The environmental impact of hydrocarbon refrigerants, including hydrocarbon heat pumps, is a significant driver behind the expansion of this refrigerant class. The low global warming potential (GWP) and ozone depletion potential (ODP) associated with hydrocarbon refrigerants underscore their contribution to mitigating climate change and protecting the ozone layer. Unlike HFO refrigerants, hydrocarbons do not contain PFAS, which contributes to toxic pollution. Additionally, their ability to generate heat of more than 60C makes them an ideal choice for retrofit applications of heat pumps.

The only drawback to the wider deployment of hydrocarbons is safety as they are flammable. The regulations have recently changed to allow a greater charge for smaller units however the duty of care remains with manufacturers, installers, and service teams. In this document we summarise industry guidance as general advice, this is not project specific and for clarity shall not replace a specific risk assessment carried out by a competent person.

There are three broad areas to consider; 

Refrigerant safety is a crucial aspect of working with hydrocarbon refrigerants. The guidance provides detailed guidance on handling, storage, and transportation procedures, including the use of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and the implementation of ventilation systems. It also discusses leak detection methods and emergency response protocols. These points are expanded on below.

  • Installation and Maintenance: Proper installation and maintenance practices are essential to ensure the safe and efficient operation of hydrocarbon refrigerant systems. The guidelines cover best practices for system design, component selection, and installation procedures. They also outline routine maintenance tasks and recommended service intervals.
  • Training and Certification: To ensure the safe handling of hydrocarbon refrigerants, the guidance emphasizes the importance of training and certification for technicians and personnel involved in their installation, maintenance, and repair.
  • By following industry good practices and guidelines, everyone can maximise the benefits of hydrocarbon refrigerants while minimising risks, promoting safety, and contributing to a more sustainable future.

Safety Considerations: More detail 

Safety is of paramount importance when working with hydrocarbon refrigerants due to their flammable nature. The guidelines provide detailed information on various safety considerations to ensure the well-being of individuals and the surrounding environment. Here are some key aspects covered in the document:

a) Handling and Storage:

The guidelines emphasize the need for proper handling and storage of hydrocarbon refrigerants. It highlights the importance of using appropriate containers specifically designed for storing flammable substances. These containers should be kept in well-ventilated areas away from ignition sources, heat, and open flames. Additionally, the guidelines recommend implementing proper labelling and signage to clearly identify containers and communicate the hazards associated with refrigerants.

b) Siting of hydrocarbon heat pumps:

Positioning a hydrocarbon heat pump in a safe area is a key consideration. The guidelines provide recommendations for ensuring safe operation, including maintaining proper clearance distances from combustible materials, ventilation requirements to prevent the accumulation of flammable gases, and the use of appropriate fire suppression systems. Additionally, proper electrical grounding, correct wire sizing, and the use of suitable materials for plumbing connections should be considered.

Ensuring easy access for maintenance and service is crucial for the safe operation of hydrocarbon heat pumps. Sufficient space around the equipment for routine maintenance tasks, filter replacement, and servicing of components shall be provided. Also, recommend considering factors such as the installation of service access panels and appropriate clearance for equipment removal, if necessary.

c) Personal Protective Equipment (PPE):

To mitigate risks essential personal protective equipment (PPE) that should be worn by technicians and personnel working with hydrocarbon refrigerants. This includes flame-retardant clothing, safety goggles, gloves, and footwear that provide adequate protection against potential leaks or spills. The guidelines stress the importance of using PPE that is specifically designed for use in environments with flammable materials. 

d) Ventilation Systems:

Proper ventilation is critical to minimize the concentration of hydrocarbon refrigerants in confined spaces. The guidelines recommend the installation and regular maintenance of ventilation systems to ensure the effective removal of any leaked refrigerants. This helps maintain safe working conditions by preventing the accumulation of flammable vapours, reducing the risk of fire or explosion. 

e) Leak Detection and Monitoring:

The guidelines provide insights into different methods and technologies available for detecting leaks in hydrocarbon refrigerant systems. It discusses the use of electronic leak detectors, ultrasonic detectors, and visual inspection techniques to identify potential leaks promptly. Regular monitoring and maintenance of the refrigerant systems are stressed to prevent leaks and ensure their safe operation. 

f) Emergency Response:

In the event of a leak or emergency, the guidelines outline appropriate emergency response procedures. This includes immediate evacuation of the affected area, shutting off the power supply to the equipment, and contacting the appropriate authorities. It also emphasizes the importance of having well-defined emergency response plans in place, conducting regular drills, and training personnel on how to respond effectively to emergencies. 

g) Training and Knowledge:

The document underscores the significance of proper training and knowledge for technicians and personnel working with hydrocarbon refrigerants. It highlights the need for comprehensive training programs that cover safety procedures, handling techniques, leak detection, and emergency response. The guidelines recommend that all individuals involved in the installation, maintenance, and repair of hydrocarbon refrigerant systems receive appropriate training and certification to ensure competence and adherence to safety protocols. 

 By following these safety considerations outlined in the guidelines, stakeholders can minimize the risks associated with working with hydrocarbon refrigerants, ensuring the safety of both personnel and the surrounding environment. These measures promote a culture of safety and responsible practices when handling and operating hydrocarbon refrigerant systems. 

  • ACRIB Guidance on hydrocarbon refrigerants 
  • International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) standards, such as IEC 60335 and IEC 60364, which provide guidelines for the safety of electrical appliances and electrical installations. 
  • International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standards, including ISO 817, which defines requirements for the use of flammable refrigerants in refrigeration systems.