Fermilab keeping refrigerants in check

Fermilab Refrigerant Manager Pat Marsh weighs a cyclinder of refrigerant at the Site 39 Storeroom. Cyclinders are accurately weighed at check out and back in to determine how much refrigerant has been used or lost. Photo: Rod Walton

Fermilab has more than 600 pieces of refrigeration equipment, including large chillers that provide cold water to cool experimental apparatuses and air conditioners for computing centers, offices and even cars. Each of these pieces of equipment uses one or more refrigerants, chemicals that carry heat away from an area and disperse it into the surrounding air.

But through conservation and management practices, Fermilab minimizes the negative effects from these chemicals.

The most frequently used refrigerants in the 1980s were ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) commonly known as Freon. In 1990, the Clean Air Act Amendments were adopted, and the sale of CFCs was prohibited. Fermilab began phasing out CFCs and returning them for recycling. Last year, we eliminated the last CFC use on site.

Replacement chemicals such as hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are now widely used. We currently manage about 11 different refrigerants.

The Clean Air Act requires Fermilab to designate a person as refrigerant manager to track refrigerant use and ensure compliance with strict limits on the amount of refrigerant that can be accidentally released without remedial action. Pat Marsh, of the FESS Operations Department, is the Fermilab refrigerant manager. The FESHM Chapter 8081 describes the Fermilab policies and procedures for managing these substances.

Equipment is allowed to lose only a small percentage of its refrigerant charge before it must be shut down and repaired. To avoid this, Fermilab closely tracks its use of refrigerants. All refrigerants must be obtained through Pat Marsh at the Site 39 maintenance storeroom. Only EPA-certified technicians can service refrigeration equipment, and they must keep strict accounting of all refrigerant chemicals used and recovered. Any amount that cannot be accounted for is recorded as an emission.

Since most of our refrigeration equipment is critical to our mission, it behooves us to adopt conservative management practices. You should make sure that equipment is in good working order and that no one except certified technicians works on cooling equipment, using chemicals obtained from the Fermilab refrigerant manager.

Equipment owners should consider a program of planned maintenance and/or surveillance to discover potential leaks before they develop into a problem. Because it’s important to recover chemicals from old equipment that has been replaced, the refrigerant manager should be informed about all scrapped, replaced or new cooling equipment to make sure that refrigerants are properly recovered.

— Rod Walton, Fermilab ecologist