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Can I Use Automotive R134a in a Refrigerator?

R134a is a refrigerant used in motor vehicles within the air conditioning units specifically the compressor and serves as one of the critical components that maintain the temperature and pressure levels within optimal parameters.

All r134a refrigerants are similar if manufactured within strict guidelines but there are differences depending on which kind of compressors they are manufactured for. This is the reason why many seem to think that automotive refrigerant is advisable for use in a refrigerator.

Can I Use Automotive R134a in a Refrigerator?

The simple answer to the above question is no. It is not recommended that you use automotive refrigerant in the compressor of a refrigerator. 

While many technicians swear by the efficacy of either, the different pressure and temperature requirements between a vehicle’s AC and a refrigerator’s compressor are not the same.

The precise constitution of refrigerant manufactured for use in a refrigerator is fabricated for much lower pressure and temperature levels than those that would be found in a car. 

That said, it would at best be wasteful and at worst create problems in the future should you substitute one for the other because misuse of refrigerant is rarely reversible and may completely wreck the compressor of your refrigerator.

What is refrigerant?

A refrigerant can be defined as a working fluid used in air conditioning and creates a cooling cycle that maintains a working temperature within the core mechanisms of most machines that would otherwise simply cease to function as a result of heat and temperature interrupting or destroying the compressors and therefore the entire core. 

A working fluid simply means that it is either a gas or a liquid that can transfer thermal energy, mechanical energy, kinetic energy, or force from one point to another so that the energy can be transferable or useable in a different state or point.

By undergoing repeated transformation from liquid to gaseous form by processes of convection or conduction, a working liquid repeatedly draws energy such as heat from one area or location and as it is changed back into gaseous form, dispenses this thermal energy onto a different area or component. 

Refrigerants function in this manner, allowing heat to be moved, dissipated, or transferred through it from one component to a different one or dissipated and discarded. 

Since pressure is dependent on heat levels, the discarded or transferred heat is eliminated creating a low-pressure state and a destructive pressure level cannot be reached. 

The cycle is continuous and if this cycle encounters any obstructive forces, the pressure in the compressor grows to create a force strong enough to damage the compressor.

R134a is an incredibly efficient refrigerant but this may not matter since deliberations are at an advanced stage to phase it out and altogether ban the use of the refrigerant owing to environmental concerns.

History of refrigerant use

The earliest refrigerant in industrial use and manufacture of refrigerators or any cooling systems was ammonia gas. Other effective and efficient fluids used in the earlier days include methyl chloride, sulfur dioxide, and propane. 

While highly effective, these gases were also highly volatile, toxic when exposed to humans, and dangerously flammable. In the interest of safety, these were phased out in1928 when Thomas Midgley Jr. invented the first safe refrigerant gas Freon R-12.

Freon R-12 is a chlorofluorocarbon or CFC and progressively, more refrigerants entered the market with their greatest merits being that they were stable, non-toxic, and non-flammable. 

The dangerous properties of gases like ammonia led industry stakeholders to believe that they were also environmentally unsafe paving the way for the use of CFC refrigerants and massive innovation around these synthetic refrigerants.

Further HCFCs or hydrochlorofluorocarbons and HFCs or hydrofluorocarbons also flooded the market.

Environmental concerns surrounding the use of synthetic refrigerants

Late 1980s scientific research provided findings that placed CFC refrigerants in the list of culprits contributing significantly to pollution and ozone layer depletion. 

CFCs and HCFCs, despite their efficacy, had to be phased out and eventually, most of them were banned in accordance with the regulations of the 1989 Montreal Protocol. This ban did not affect HFCs allowing them to rule the market.

R134a refrigerant

R134a is one such HFC refrigerant and while HFCs have a low ozone depletion capacity they still contribute to global warming and the pollution of air and natural resources.

R134a enjoys widespread use in the making of refrigerants for both automotive use and household appliances such as refrigerators. The balance between the environmental impact it has versus the dire need for a safe and effective refrigerant in the industrial space is a delicate one at best.

The real question is whether there is an alternative that is just as good while also being safer if not completely harmless to the environment. Research and innovation continue along these lines with newer and better refrigerants entering the market.

One such alternative is R-1234yf which has vastly lower global warming potential but has the same if not better refrigerant efficacy as R134a. 

The EPA has since approved the manufacture of R134a for the U.S. but environmental protection groups are not entirely on board with this decision and continue to agitate for the phasing out of R134a in favor of R-1234yf or even newer options currently available to fully replace R134a.

The European Union began a steady phasing out of any refrigerants with a GWP of more than 150 and R134a, therefore, faces the ax. 

To put this into perspective, Global Warming Potential (GWP) can be indicated in simple integers.

  • GWP of R134a is 1430
  • GWP of R1234yf is less than 1

Even without a ban in the US, many manufacturers prefer to utilize the less environmentally offensive option. 

Finally

Even ammonia gas which is now certifiably environmentally safe is undergoing rigorous research to stabilize its more hazardous properties which were wrongly equated to environmental hazards.

Ammonia gas is actually the safest option as far as environmental safety is concerned and if it can be synthesized for general industrial and physical safety, it poses zero danger to the environment as a refrigerant. 

It is naturally occurring and does not need any special management strategies to dispose of unlike synthetic refrigerants which still have to be disposed of in accordance with very specific guidelines.