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30 November 2017

Refrigerants: Be a Cylinder Champion

It is easy to take for granted the humble refrigerant cylinder. These unloved, refillable steel containers rarely make the industry headlines but they are a key component in most refrigeration or air conditioning jobs. They have to be easy to use, robust enough to handle any journey and made to last.

Thousands of refrigerant cylinders pass through our A-Gas depot at Portbury, UK every year – full, empty or returned with recovered refrigerant to be separated and reclaimed and made available to the market. We ensure that they are fit for purpose and tick all the regulatory boxes safety and quality wise.

Disposable cylinders are banned for environmental reasons in the UK and across Europe, Australia, India and Canada. The increasing effectiveness of the F-Gas Regulations has meant that the use of refillable cylinders will grow in importance as the stepdowns in the production of virgin refrigerants make deeper inroads.

Engineers must return all empty cylinders to the supplier. This can be inconvenient at times as cylinders are often left on site or abandoned in the hidden recesses of plant rooms, but the advent of cylinder rentals and financial penalties is encouraging installers to return to the sender.

Most engineers do return their refrigerant cylinders to their suppliers – in most cases the wholesaler – but we still have a number of waifs and strays that go missing never to be seen again. From a transport perspective, installers should always ensure that cylinders are fixed securely in the back of vans and ideally, for safety reasons, the vehicles should have a bulkhead separating the storage area from the driver. It is not mandatory but it is preferable to have the rear area ventilated too.

Cylinders are classified as dangerous goods but these days most refrigerants are low risk as they are largely non-flammable. This allows engineers to transport large numbers without tripping over the regulations relating to pressurised goods. To be on the safe side, no other equipment should be connected to the cylinder while in transport. The cylinder valve should also always be closed and capped to reduce the risk of leaks.

There is a direct cost associated with the return of the cylinder. By this I mean the time from when it is sold by the reseller, to the time it is returned to the wholesaler as empty. Leaving an empty cylinder sitting in the back of a plant room for months on end is of no benefit to anyone in the industry. The cylinder represents an asset to the industry – at all levels – and any loss adds to production costs.

A-Gas has to continually invest in cylinders to have enough to meet the needs of customers. This is why rental-based schemes have penalties in place to encourage people to return them, but most arrangements these days will include a rent-free period during which these costs can be avoided if the cylinders are returned within the period agreed with the supplier.

The challenge most contractors have is that they do not keep a close eye on which engineers has picked up what cylinder and where. When this happens it is quite easy for that cylinder to disappear from the system. If an engineer leaves the cylinder on site and the contractor does not have a tracking system then it is understandable that they will rack up rental bills.

A-Gas can help here. One of the functions of our Gas-Trak Online™ (GTO) F-Gas app is the cylinder manager tool allowing the contractor to track individual cylinders. Dates and locations are included in the reporting feature, which makes it easy to monitor via the traffic light system signalling which cylinder is where. Launched more than two years ago, Gas-Trak Online is being used to great success by A-Gas customers who have grasped the opportunity to have a cylinder management tool at their fingertips.

The return of cylinders containing recovered refrigerants is a key issue for the industry. It is crucial that these cylinders are repatriated along the supply chain with the appropriate documentation, including the waste consignment note, and most wholesalers will help contractors with the paperwork. Bear in mind that recovery cylinders contain hazardous waste and are considered to be dangerous goods. ADR rules and the Hazardous Waste Regulations come into play here and contractors need to be up to speed on both.

This aspect is becoming increasingly important in terms of F-Gas as we move towards 2020 when in the case of some gases only reclaimed product can be used. Installers will need a paper trail for each cylinder right down to the batch number. Moving further on to 2022 when in some instances reclaimed product can only be used for servicing, the law will demand increased levels of documentation and so coming up with an efficient system to manage this in advance makes much sense.

But I am pleased to report that, generally speaking, contractors are realising the benefits of efficient cylinder management and the industry is becoming aware of the cost and environmental benefits of ensuring that cylinders find their way home to be used time and time again.

As seen on ACR Journal.