Air Conditioners with spurious gases: What can govt do to restrict import of R-152a?

By Manoj Dinne

While India’s demand for actual R-152a end-uses stands at an estimated 1000 tonnes, import data show that an alarming quantity in the region of 5000 tonnes of R-152a is being imported into India. This is despite the item being in the restricted import category. India mainly imports refrigerant gases from China.

With summer around the corner, our dependency on air conditioners (AC) to beat the heat becomes indispensable. However, amidst the comfort they provide, lately, there has been an underlying safety concern which is causing AC-related accidents – the use of potentially hazardous refrigerant gases such as R-152a or mixtures containing R-152a in the secondary refiller market instead of using Refrigerant R-22 which is safe and non-flammable.

In February 2024, tragedy struck in Delhi when an 83-year-old woman died while she was attempting to escape with her granddaughter as fire erupted in her apartment. According to the Fire Department, the accident was caused by a gas leak from the AC compressor, highlighting the potential dangers associated with spurious refrigerant gases.

Similarly in 2023, a cold storage owner and his driver lost their lives when the refrigerant gas cylinder exploded while they were trying to replace it at their cold storage in Telangana. The police investigation revealed that the explosion occurred while technicians were replacing the refrigerant cylinder for an outdoor unit, underscoring the hazardous nature of handling a concoction of refrigerant gases without the right awareness. There are reports of many such accidents taking place during refilling/servicing of Air Conditioning appliances.

So what are these gases that are filled in your ACs? And why is it crucial to know which gas is being used?

Understanding the Refrigerant Gases
Refrigerant gases are essentially chemical substances that are primarily used in ACs and refrigerators to enable the cooling process. These gases absorb heat from the surrounding environment (indoors) and release it outside thereby creating a cooling effect. It is crucial to understand the difference between the various types of gases that are used in the refrigerant industry namely, R-22, R-152a (flammable) and new age R-32 and R-410A. These gases are specific to the appliance and are not interchangeable.

R-22: R-22 is a chemically stable and non-flammable gas traditionally used in old-generation ACs because of its reliability and safety. It is an age-old refrigerant gas which is colourless and has a slightly sweet smell. However, R-22 is to be phased out by January 2025 in OEMS (under the international treaty, namely the Montreal Protocol) as there are better and environmentally safer options available in the market to replace R-22 in several sectors of Refrigeration and Air Conditioning sectors (RAC).

R-152a: A flammable gas commonly used as an aerosol propellant in hair sprays and deodorants in many parts of the world. R-152a poses a safety risk when used as refrigerant singly or in mixtures in ACs due to its combustible properties. R-152a upon combustion produces toxic fumes like Carbon Monoxide and Hydrogen Fluoride, aggregating the situation and therefore not used as refrigerant in Air Conditioners.

R-32 and R-410A
With the phase-out of R-22 planned for 2025, the industry has transitioned towards newer and more efficient alternatives like R-32 and R-410A that offer superior cooling properties and are environmentally friendly relative to R-22.

The Issue at Hand
The pressing issue at hand is about the infiltration of spurious gases, mainly R-152a, which has been replacing R-22 in Refrigeration and Air Conditioning (RAC) equipment in the secondary refiller market. ACs being ubiquitously used in residential and commercial air conditioning, if filled with R-152a or mixtures of R-152a could lead to significant public safety concerns.

Shockingly, while India’s demand for actual R-152a end-uses stands at an estimated 1000 tonnes, import data show that an alarming quantity in the region of 5000 tonnes of R-152a is being imported into India. This is despite the item being in the restricted import category. India mainly imports refrigerant gases from China.

The grave concern stems from the inherent risks associated with R-152a use as a refrigerant in ACs when it is not a substitute for R-22, as it demands different handling and safety parameters including physical and chemical properties when compared to R-22 and more importantly it’s flammable. The lack of awareness surrounding the precarious substitution of gases by unscrupulous operators poses a significant safety threat, as it endangers anyone who is using an AC without being sure about the refrigerant gas inside it.

With R-152a seeping into the AC units unchecked, unsuspecting users and consumers or technicians responsible for the upkeep of the machine could face severe risks like the cold storage accident in Telangana underscoring the urgent need to address this looming danger in the public interest.

Way Forward
So what can the government do to tackle this threat? First, the government must act to arrest the excessive imports of R-152a entering India, as once the gas is imported, it is hard to track where it is being used. So strict import regulation and enforcement must be implemented in line with the actual end-user demand, thereby preventing surplus gases from flooding the market and being misused as spurious refrigerants in Air Conditioners.

Second, enforcement agencies should crack down on sellers and refillers of these spurious gases in the secondary market, ensuring compliance with safety standards, and thereby stopping the illicit practice of making a cocktail of spurious gases for a quick buck. The Refrigerant Gas Industry in collaboration with government bodies like the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organization (PESO) and other enforcement agencies should ensure accountability in the supply chain for these refrigerants.

Third, widespread consumer awareness programs like the “Jago Grahak Jago” campaign highlighting the dangers of replacing R-22/R-32/R-410 with R-152 and other spurious gases is the need of the hour as it helps in educating the end-consumers about the gravity of the situation.

This battle against adulterated gases is not just an industry concern but a call for collective action to ensure public safety, uphold market fairness, and ensure the responsible use of refrigerant gases in India.