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Learning Objective: Understand and identify classification of common refrigerants and their application. Understand the requirements for ozone protection and the Clean Air Act

Refrigerants are fluids that change their state upon the application or removal of heat within a system and, in this act of change, absorb or release heat to or from an area or substance. Many different fluids are used as refrigerants. In recent years, the most common has been air, water, ammonia, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, and methylchloride

Today, there are three specific types of refrigerants used in refrigeration and air-conditioning systems:

  • Chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs, such as R-11, R-12, and R-114
  • Hydrochlorofluorocarbons or HCFCs, such as R-22 or R-123
  • Hydrofluorocarbons or HFCs, such as R-134a. All these refrigerants are "halogenated," which means they contain chlorine, fluorine, bromine, astatine, or iodine.

Refrigerants, such as Dichlorodifluoromethane (R-12), Monochlorodifluoromethane (R-22), and Refrigerant 502 (R-502), are called PRIMARY REFRIGERANTS because each one changes its state upon the application or absorption of heat, and, in this act of change, absorbs and extracts heat from the area or substance.

The primary refrigerant is so termed because it acts directly upon the area or substance, although it may be enclosed within a system. For a primary refrigerant to cool, it must be placed in a closed system in which it can be controlled by the pressure imposed upon it. The refrigerant can then absorb at the temperature ranges desired. If a primary refrigerant were used without being controlled, it would absorb heat from most perishables and freeze them solid.

SECONDARY REFRIGERANTS are substances, such as air, water, or brine. Though hot refrigerants in themselves, they have been cooled by the primary refrigeration system; they pass over and around the areas and substances to be cooled; and they are returned with their heat load to the primary refrigeration system. Secondary refrigerants pay off where the cooling effect must be moved over a long distance and gastight lines cost too much.

Refrigerants are classified into groups. The National Refrigeration Safety Code catalogs all refrigerants into three groups:

  • Group I safest of the refrigerants, such as R-12, R-22, and R-502
  • Group II toxic and somewhat flammable, such as R-40 (Methyl chloride) and R-764 (Sulfur dioxide)
  • Group III flammable refrigerants, such as R-170 (Ethane) and R-290 (Propane).


Dichlorodifluoromethane, commonly referred to as R-12, is colorless and odorless in concentrations of less than 20 percent by volume in air. In higher concentrations, its odor resembles that of carbon tetrachloride. It is nontoxic, noncorrosive, nonflammable, and has a boiling point of -21.7F (-29C) at atmospheric pressure.


Because of its low-boiling point at atmospheric pressure, it prevents liquid R12 from contacting the eyes because of the possibility of freezing.

One hazard of R-12 as a refrigerant is the health risk should leakage of the vapor come into contact with an open flame of high temperature (about 1022F) and be decomposed into phosgene gas, which is highly toxic. R-12 has a relatively low latent heat value, and, in smaller refrigerating machines, this is an advantage. R-12 is a stable compound capable of undergoing the physical changes without decomposition to which it is 6-20.commonly subjected in service. The cylinder code color for R-12 is white.


Monochlorodifluoromethane, normally called R-22, is a synthetic refrigerant developed for refrigeration systems that need a low-evaporating temperature, which explains its extensive use in household refrigerators and window air conditioners. R-22 is nontoxic, noncorrosive, nonflammable, and has a boiling point of -41F at atmospheric pressure. R-22 can be used with reciprocating or centrifugal compressors. Water mixes readily with R-22, so larger amounts of desiccant are needed in the filter-driers to dry the refrigerant. The cylinder code color for R-22 is green.


R-502 is an azeotropic mixture of 48.8 percent R-22 and 51.2 percent R-115. Azeotropic refrigerants are liquid mixtures of refrigerants that exhibit a constant maximum and minimum boiling point. These mixtures act as a single refrigerant. R-502 is noncorrosive, nonflammable, practically nontoxic, and has a boiling point of -50F at atmospheric pressure. This refrigerant can only be used with reciprocating compressors. It is most often used in refrigeration applications for commercial frozen food equipment, such as frozen food walk-in refrigerators, frozen food display cases, and frozen food processing plants. The cylinder color code for R-502 is orchid.


R-134a, tetrafluoroethane, is very similar to R-12, the major difference is that R-134a has no harmful influence on the ozone layer of the earth's atmosphere and is a replacement for R-12 applications. Noncorrosive, nonflammable, and nontoxic, it has a boiling point of -15F at atmospheric pressure. Used for medium-temperature applications, such as air conditioning and commercial refrigeration, this refrigerant is now used in automobile air-conditioners. The cylinder color code for R-134a is light (sky) blue.

Additional Refrigerants

In addition to the previously mentioned refrigerants, other less common refrigerants are used in a variety of applications.

R-717 Ammonia (NH3 )

Ammonia, R-717, is commonly used in industrial systems. It has a boiling point of -28F at atmospheric pressure. This property makes it possible to have refrigeration at temperatures considerably below zero without using pressure below atmospheric in the evaporator. Normally it is a colorless gas, is slightly flammable, and, with proper portions of air, it can form an explosive mixture, but accidents are rare. The cylinder color code for R-717 is silver.

R-125 Pentafluoroethane (CHCF5 )

Pentafluoroethane, R-125, is a blend component used in low- and medium-temperature applications. With a boiling point of -55.3F at atmospheric pressure, R-125 is nontoxic, nonflammable, and noncorrosive. R-125 is one replacement refrigerant for R-502.

All refrigerants have their own characteristics. It is extremely important to charge a system with the refrigerant specified. Use of an incorrect refrigerant can lead to reduced efficiency, mechanical problems, and dangerous conditions.

Ozone Protection and the Clean Air Act

Several scientific studies conducted in the 1970s showed that chlorine was a leading cause of holes in the ozone. In 1987, 30 countries signed the Montreal Protocol, which mandated the phase out of the production, and eventual use, of all harmful CFCs. In 1990, the most significant piece of legislation affecting the air conditioning and refrigeration industry, the Clean Air Act, was passed. Regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Title VI of the Clean Air Act states fully halogenated refrigerants (CFCs) will be phased out. It also calls for the phase out of HCFCs by the year 2030. Both of these types of refrigerants adversely affect the atmosphere, and as of July 1992, it is illegal to discharge refrigerant to the atmosphere. The production of R-12 was discontinued in December 1995, and the production of R-11, R-113, R-114, and R-115 was discontinued in January 2000.

As a result of the Clean Air Act of 1990, there has been a determined effort by manufacturers to develop alternative refrigerants to replace those to be discontinued. CFCs, R-11, and R-12, primarily used in chillers, residential, and automotive refrigeration, can be substituted with HCFC R-123 and HFC R-134a. Future replacements include HCFC R-124 in place of CFC, R-114, in marine chillers, and HFC R-125, in place of CFC R-502, used in stores and supermarkets

These replacement refrigerants have slightly different chemical and physical properties; thus they cannot just be "dropped" into a system designed to use CFCs. Loss of efficiency and improper operation could be the result. When changing the refrigerant in an existing system, parts of the system specifically designed to operate with a CFC refrigerant may need to be replaced or retrofitted to accommodate the new refrigerant.

David L. Heiserman, Editor

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Revised: June 06, 2015