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Shiny Happy People...
Getting dirty, leaks and oil suspension
Some time back now, I competed and worked in motorsport. If you’re wondering how that sits alongside my environmental efforts, you can read my thoughts on that here.
My field, Rallysport, was often dirty. Competing in all sorts of regions. In snow and ice, deep dust and often copious amounts of mud. The red, clumpy, sticky stuff and the greasy black stuff – the mud you really don’t want on the bottom of your race boots when braking hard.
Looking around the service areas, before and during the events however, you would also find abundant quantities of cleaning equipment and personnel tirelessly washing, and often polishing the competition cars.
It wasn’t unusual for some spectators to ask. Why do you bother? The cars are just going to get filthy again. To which the oft response is given. A clean car is a happy car.
Happy because, clean means all the mechanical components undergoing constant punishment can be inspected. Pending failures are found and fixed, keeping you in the event. It just also feels tons better as a driver, to hop into something clean. Like putting on freshly laundered clothes as opposed to something that’s been sitting in the wash basket for a week.
This theme that applies to motorsport, also applies to RACHP (refrigeration, AC and heat-pump) equipment rooms. The cleanliness and maintained state of the compressors, pumps, condensers and even the floor you’re walking on, often tells you a lot about the potential for refrigerant leaks.
During my time doing energy analytics I came across all sorts of rooms. The good, the bad and the very ugly. As soon as I walked in, I generally had a sense of what sort of energy savings were to be found. Over time, the same applied to leaks also.
Leaks crop up in many locations. Too many to cover in-depth here, however many share similarities with motorsport. Shaft-seals wearing, pipes rubbing and damage to heat exchangers, examples that come quickly to mind. A leak in a refrigeration system can often be signaled by a clue such as the refrigerant oil residue. However, if the whole facility is motley, uncared-for, and with flaking paint this is often much harder to spot. Corrosion, condensation or just clutter can make the job of catching and mitigating leaks that much harder.
In motorsport, we could maybe live with a leaking oil seal for a short time, but we’d monitor constantly. Keeping the car clean was fundamental to doing that. Unfortunately, when it comes to refrigerants, a leaking shaft seal has already had an impact. We’re dealing with gas rather than engine or transmission oil as in the case of a car. If the refrigerant gas has got past the seal, the horse has already bolted. It is in the atmosphere doing its dirty work there.
Old equipment doesn’t necessarily have to look old either. I’m sure many have met or know a grizzled plant room operator who keeps their plant room meticulous. Older equipment can still run efficiently and stay leak tight, if maintained and serviced well.
Not to say you won’t get leaks. There are of course accidents, or gradual component failures with a slow vent, such as servicing valves. Some leaks can also be hard to locate, showing up under different operating conditions (e.g. defrost cycles).
This is where the importance of monitoring comes in. Not just scheduled manual checks which often are too late. Real time data analysis, gas detection sensors and software tracking for service work are all part of the best-practice toolkit.
This is another of the interesting parallels between motorsport and refrigeration systems. Watch any modern race team and you will see multiple engineers assessing streams of data, looking for insights into the inner workings of the engines and drivetrains. Not just for optimisation, but to respond to clues of pending faults and to react accordingly.
Many refrigerant-based systems operate with little insight to the internal workings. A clean and well-maintained system is a good start, but they also need close monitoring to both optimise energy use and identify leaks early.
Retiring from an event is often disheartening. Leaking refrigerant to atmosphere is different altogether. That’s before you consider the cost, safety, and risk to the end-product. All reasons to keep that plant room clean and happy.
There are lots of areas prone to leaks and plenty of things you can do to help mitigate. Get in touch or reply to this email if you need some help there.
Where the f-gas hides
Each week I provide an example of where f-gases are utilised, or used to produce something. They are present in more things than most people realise…
While we are on the automotive theme here. PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene) is abundant, and this forever chemical, being stable and super slippery, unsurprisingly also makes an appearance in car engine oil treatments.
So I don’t have to sound like a broken record there is a short explainer below on the concerns with PTFE and also the f-gas relationship.
Photo use under Creative Commons - link here
There are plenty of marketing claims that adding PTFE to your engine reduces wear, increases power, improves efficiency etc. Great stuff.
It is presented as a friction modifier to improve lubrication (along with all the other good things above). However, with PTFE being so slippery, it is difficult to get it suspended in the oil (i.e. mixed in) and to get it to the far corners of the engine where it is needed most. Additional additives are needed to assist with that. Plus, if the engine sits for too long it is possible that it settles out of the oil. In short there are likely trade-offs. Perhaps there are some marginal friction reduction gains but with compromises in other areas of oil performance.
As it so happens, I’ve done plenty of oil changes in my time. I’ve also rebuilt a few engines myself, occasionally dealing with broken internals after being a bit generous with the throttle. In my motorsport experience however, we never needed to use oil additives or PTFE variants, over and above good maintenance and quality lubricants.
With the move away from combustion engines now under way, there will be less need to worry about f-gas derived products sloshing around inside. But there are plenty of other hiding places in most cars including EVs. Stay tuned.
The concerns over PTFE (broken record bit)
One common manufacturing pathway for PTFE and other fluorinated chemicals is to utilise the f-gas HCFC-22 (R22 in the refrigerant world) in the process. This is allowed under the Montreal Protocol even though R22 is ozone depleting and a strong greenhouse gas. In theory there should be no emissions when used as a feedstock. However, producing R22 itself creates HFC-23 as a by-product, plus other super-pollutants such as PFC-318, which are some of the worst greenhouse gases (GWPs >10,000). Modern manufacturing plants should capture these emissions however HFC-23 concentrations are rising suggesting this may not be the case. PTFE is also classified as a PFAS (forever chemical) so there are plenty of questions around what happens when all these products incorporating PTFE go to landfill, or the municipal incinerator, or ‘away’. Then there is the bit about degradation into TFA (trifluoroacetic acid) which comes back to us via our drinking water. All good stuff…
Right, that’s all for this week and ‘till next time
p.s. last week’s title - No good with faces - was courtesy of Jack Johnson from the album ‘To the Sea’. Easier one this week…
Fixed stuff here for newcomers
There is lots of news every week from the cooling industry and plenty of newsletters that cover it well. The intention is to keep this newsletter focused on the most prominent f-gases, refrigerants and importantly their environmental impact. That’s the lane I’ve chosen - I’ll do my best to stick to it.
Why any of this matters:
Emissions from f-gases and refrigerants have been the fastest growing greenhouse gas over the decade (yes more than CO2 and methane - check out IPCC WG3 summary for policy makers). They are also classed as super pollutants given their outsized global warming impact over the coming decades.
Reminder to those in management and doing reporting: If you’re not including refrigerant emissions in your inventories or sustainability reports – you should be. Feel free to reach out if you need a hand.
Some useful permalinks
The scale of the climate challenge can often feel daunting. This piece helps me take a step back and understand where we need to focus first - recommend a read.
There are plenty of technology solutions available to address the cooling and refrigerant challenge. You can find many of them here
Beware when the same people who have contributed to the current f-gas problem propose you new refrigerant solutions… This is a good place to get up to speed.