The Dangers of the “Diesel Effect” (Compressor Explosion)

My friend Ami Slavin requested that I write about this important topic in response to the horrifying videos that are showing up online of death and gore associated with compressors exploding. He pointed out that the “diesel effect” can be the cause, so let's explore what may be, and likely is leading to these horrible incidents.

In a diesel engine, there are no “spark plugs” like a traditional gas engine. Instead, the engine allows air and atomized fuel to enter and then it compresses it to a much higher level than a gas engine, so much so that the air temperature increases to the point that the fuel spontaneously combusts (autoignition) causing an explosion that drives the piston. Like all combustion this process requires –

Fuel + Oxygen + Heat

The fuel is diesel, oxygen is in the air and the heat or temperature increase is created by the high levels of compression.

If any of this sounds familiar it is much like an A/C or refrigeration just without the fuel and air parts of the equation… at least that's what we think.

This study shows that the “diesel effect” can occur inside an HVAC/R system even if it is exceptionally rare and can be easily prevented.

Inside of many modern systems you have oil, which is combustible at very high temperatures. Mineral oil, for example, has a flash point of about 355 degrees F  which is unlikely in an air conditioning system and for it to burn at flashpoint it requires an ignition source like a spark. Autoignition is the spontaneous combustion of an oil or other flammable substance at a given temperature and is a much higher temperature than the flash point.

As we see more and more flammable refrigerants (Propane, Isobutane) and slightly flammable refrigerants (R-32) being used widely overseas and in smaller instances in the US. We even see 30lb jugs of “drop-in” refrigerant for R22 on eBay and elsewhere that turns out to be largely R290 (propane). The study above and one performed by Purdue shows that even non-flammable refrigerants will burn in addition to the oil if the temperatures rise high enough and enough oxygen is present.

With all of these factors let's look quickly at what we can do to prevent this exceptionally rare issue.

Evacuate Properly 

A system that is properly evacuated will have little to no oxygen mixed with the refrigerant and oil. No oxygen means no combustion. This is likely one reason that many of the explosions are happening in countries with poor installation and evacuation practices.

Pressure Switches are Important 

A low pressure or loss of charge switch will shut the system off before the low side runs in a vacuum, this will help prevent drawing air into a leaking system and will also prevent a compressor from running with no cooling provided by returning refrigerant. A high pressure switch is an obvious preventative becasue it will help reduce the possibility that a compressor could get to high enough pressure for autoignition to occur.

Proper Overload Protection

So long as a motor has an overload that is properly designed, sized and installed it will shut the compressor off from overtemperature far before the motor gets hot enough for combustion of non-flammable refrigerants.

Combustible Refrigerants

In the case of combustible refrigerants, there is always a danger of combustion in cases of brazing and soldering or during terminal venting. It is critical that proper precautions be taken to purge the system complete with an inert gas and ventilate the area before it is exposed to a torch or sparks. Because you cannot always be aware if someone may have “dropped in” a flammable refrigerant these are good practices even if you think the refrigerant is non-flammable. This is another reason to cut out old components rather than unsweating them when making a repair.

Pump Down With Care

Before you pump down a system consider that the unit may be severely overcharged or have a microchannel condenser. If you attempt to pump down a unit in either of these cases you can build up huge pressure and temperatures very quickly increase the chances of a dangerous explosion due to high pressure even if not from combustion.

Combustible Recovery 

If you are working with a known combustible refrigerant make sure your recovery machine is rated for it before performing a recovery.

Be Careful With What You Work On

Sometimes products can make it into the marketplace that isn't properly rated and tested up to US and European safety standards. If you see a system that looks suspect, especially in the ductless and self-contained refrigeration market it may be a good idea to stop and do some research.

In Closing –

  • Keep your eyes open
  • Evacuate Well (pull a proper vacuum)
  • Purge and flow nitrogen to keep oxygen and residual refrigerant away from your torch work
  • Keep proper safeties in place and add them where appropriate
  • Think before recovering or pumping down

These tragic events are very few and far between so I'm not wanting to be alarmist, just stay informed and use good practices and all will be well.

— Bryan

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