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Ammonia As a Refrigerant: Pros and Cons

(last updated: March 16, 2022) in Green Buildings & Green Technology

In March 2016, a 5000-pound ammonia leak occurred at a Boston-area seafood warehouse that killed one worker and forced a shelter-in-place order from Boston Police.  Problematic procedures may be to blame. So as you read the pros and cons of Ammonia as a refrigerant below, remember these key takeaways: ongoing, scheduled evaluations and preemptive maintenance are critical for any ammonia storage solution — lax procedures place workers and residents in danger.

Why is Ammonia growing in popularity given this risk? As fewer and fewer CFCs and HCFCs are available for use as refrigerants, companies are looking to ammonia as a more effective replacement. According to ASHRAE and the International Institute of Ammonia Refrigeration (IIAR), ammonia is a cost-effective, efficient alternative to CFCs and HCFCs that is also safe for the environment.

Ammonia (chemical formula Nh4) is a gas comprised of two other gases — nitrogen and hydrogen. Whether found in nature or made by man, ammonia is colorless but has a sharp, pungent odor. Ammonia, frequently used commercially in large freezing and refrigeration plants is also called “anhydrous ammonia” because it contains almost no water (it is 99.98% pure). Household ammonia, by comparison, is only about 10% ammonia by weight mixed with water.

As a refrigerant, ammonia has four major advantages over CFCs and HCFCs:

  • An ammonia-based refrigeration system costs 10-20% less to build than one that uses CFCs because narrower-diameter piping can be used.
  • Ammonia is a 3-10% more efficient refrigerant than CFCs, so an ammonia-based system requires less electricity, resulting in lower operating costs.
  • Ammonia is safe for the environment, with an Ozone Depletion Potential (ODP) rating of 0 and a Global Warming Potential (GWP) rating of 0.
  • Ammonia is substantially less expensive than CFCs or HCFCs

There are two key disadvantages to using ammonia as a refrigerant:

  • It is not compatible with copper, so it cannot be used in any system with copper pipes.
  • Ammonia is poisonous in high concentrations. Two factors, however, mitigate this risk: ammonia’s distinctive smell is detectable at concentrations well below those considered to be dangerous, and ammonia is lighter than air, so if any does leak, it will rise and dissipate in the atmosphere.

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Benefits of Ammonia Use in Refrigeration

Development of CFC’s (Chlorofluorocarbons) in USA, in 1920s swung the pendulum in favor of these refrigerants, as compared to all other refrigerants used in those days, CFC’s were considered harmless and extremely stable chemicals. The consequences to the outer environment of massive releases of refrigerant could not be foreseen in those days. “CFC” refrigerants were promoted as safety refrigerants, resulting in an accelerating demand and CFC’s success. These refrigerants became known as God sent and man-made chemicals.

Due to success of CFC’s, Ammonia came under heavy pressure, but held its position, especially in large industrial installations and food preservation.

In 1980’s the harmful effects of CFC refrigerants became apparent and it was generally accepted that the CFC refrigerants are contributing to depletion of ozone layer and to global warming, finally resulting in Montreal protocol (1989) where almost all countries agreed to phase out CFC’s in a time bound program.

In view of seriousness of damage to atmosphere and resulting dangers due to CFC/ HCFC emissions as also due to global warming effects, the revisions in Montreal protocol (1990), 1992(Copenhagen) and 1998 Kyoto Japan demanded accelerated phase out schedule. Even HCFC’s are also to be phased out and Europe has taken the lead.

Many countries in Europe have stopped use of HCFC refrigerants, and new refrigerants as well as well-tried and trusted refrigerants like Ammonia and Carbon Dioxide are being considered for various new applications as well.

Ammonia has a number of benefits, which has been proven by many decades of application of ammonia refrigeration systems.

1. Energy efficiency

Ammonia is one of the most efficient applications out there, with the application range from high to low temperatures. With the ever increasing focus on energy consumption, ammonia systems are a safe and sustainable choice for the future. Typically a flooded ammonia system would be 15-20 % more efficient than a DX R404A counterpart. Recent developments of Nh4 and CO2 combination contributed to increase the efficiency further. Nh4/CO2 cascaded is extremely efficient for low and very low temperature applications (below -40’C), while Nh4/CO2 brine systems are around 20% more efficient than traditional brines

2. Environment

Ammonia is the most environmentally friendly refrigerant. It belongs to the group of so called “natural” refrigerants, and it has both GWP (Global Warming Potential) and ODP (Ozone Depletion Potential) equal to zero.

3. Safety

Ammonia is a toxic refrigerant, and it is also flammable at certain concentrations. That is why it has to be handled with care, and all ammonia systems have to be designed with safety in mind. At the same time, unlike most other refrigerants, it has a characteristic odor that can be detected by humans even at very low concentrations. That gives a warning sign even in case of minor ammonia leakages. In case it is necessary to reduce ammonia charge, combination of ammonia and CO2 (as cascade or as brine) could be a good and efficient option.

4. Smaller pipe sizes

In both vapor and liquid phase ammonia requires smaller pipe diameters than most chemical refrigerants.

5. Better heat transfer

Ammonia has better heat transfer properties than most of chemical refrigerants and therefore allow for the use of equipment with a smaller heat transfer area. Thereby plant construction cost will be lower. But as these properties also benefit the thermodynamic efficiency in the system, it also reduces the operating costs of the system.

6. Refrigerant price

In many countries the cost of ammonia (per kg) is considerably lower than the cost of HFCs. This advantage is even multiplied by the fact that ammonia has a lower density in liquid phase. Furthermore as any leakage of ammonia will be detected very quickly due to the odor, hence any potential loss of refrigerant will also be lower.

Ammonia is not a universal refrigerant, and mainly suitable for industrial and heavy commercial applications. Ammonia’s toxicity, flammability and material compatibility have to be taken in to account. At the same time, there is a huge global population of ammonia systems where those challenges are successfully dealt with.

Installation of exhaust ventilation as an effective solution to the "ammonia" problem

Where do ammonia apartments come from and why are they dangerous

For several years now we have had to work in the so-called "ammonia" apartments, which, as a rule, belong to new buildings.

The main reason for the appearance of an unpleasant sour "flavor" in the air, experts call anti-icing impurities added to concrete in the winter season so that it does not set too quickly in the cold.

Toxicologists of the Health Committee of the Administration of the city of St. Petersburg note that in the last decade the problem with ammonia apartments has become especially aggravated. High demand and constantly rising housing prices motivate developers to build year-round. Unfortunately, sometimes this is done at the expense of quality. Meanwhile, ammonia, having an irritating effect, causes an exacerbation of a number of diseases accompanied by bronchospasms. Permanent stay in "ammonia" apartments threatens with toxic poisoning, the consequences of which can be much more serious.

Residents of the upper floors of new buildings suffer the most from ammonia (ammonia is lighter than air, so it rises rather quickly and concentrates on the upper floors).

At the same time, in the winter season, an unpleasant smell is practically not felt. Evaporation begins when the average daily temperature outside the window exceeds +5 ⁰С.


There are several ways to solve the "ammonia" problem.

1. To sue the developer, who is obliged to take practical measures to eliminate the smell. It is long, expensive and morally exhausting.

2. Sell an apartment and buy another. This will also entail certain financial costs and will take time. And not everyone wants to move.

3. Call us, the PIK company. We will install high-quality exhaust ventilation, which will purify the air from harmful impurities and make your stay in the apartment comfortable and, most importantly, safe for health. Compared to the other two methods, this one seems to be the most realistic.

PIK experience in ammonia apartments

Design and engineering company "PIK" is known in St. Petersburg as a reliable partner in the supply and installation of air conditioning and ventilation systems. Our experts have real practical experience in "ammonia" apartments, which allows us to quickly and effectively solve problems with toxic odors, providing high quality ventilation at the lowest possible financial cost to our clients.

When is the best time to install a ventilation system

It is worth thinking about installing exhaust ventilation even at the stage of repair planning, without postponing this matter indefinitely.

Firstly, the installation of ventilation, in particular, the laying of air ducts, requires drilling holes and chasing. And, secondly, even if you drove into an apartment where it does not smell of ammonia yet, but there are suspicions that the smell may still appear (such claims have already been made against the developer, or information about violations of building codes has been published in the media, etc. ) it is better to play it safe and install exhaust ventilation for the sake of your own health and well-being. Because it is highly likely that a calm winter will turn into a foul-smelling summer, because, as mentioned above, ammonia practically does not manifest itself in the cold season.

However, in our practice there were also cases of installing ventilation in apartments with repairs. Despite the fact that it is problematic to implement, it is still possible. The experience of our specialists allows us to install exhaust ventilation in already renovated apartments as carefully as possible.

Terms of work

The entire cycle of work - from design to installation, takes an average of 2 weeks. It all depends on the specification.

The ventilation system is designed taking into account the wishes of the customer and building codes and regulations. At the same time, ventilation is selected according to the terms of reference, which prescribes the type and performance of the system, corresponding to the parameters of a particular room. Upon approval of the terms of reference, selection of equipment and development of the project, PIK specialists carry out installation and commissioning, trying not to disturb your usual daily routine.

All systems purchased from us are covered by the manufacturer's warranty. In addition, we guarantee the quality of installation work, as well as provide warranty and post-warranty service.

Now you can breathe deeply! Estimate the quality of our work!

To assess the air quality in the apartment, you can invite specialists from a clinical laboratory or a company specializing in air analysis. And to assess the qualitative changes, air analysis should be carried out before and after the installation of exhaust ventilation. Being confident in the effectiveness of exhaust ventilation, we recommend our customers to think about it.

About fresh air conditioners

Despite the fact that air conditioners with fresh air supply are presented on the H&C systems market today, they are not an alternative to full-fledged exhaust ventilation. If only because air conditioners are far from always able to provide fresh air (only at temperatures outside the window above + 14-16⁰С), while the amount of admixture does not exceed 20%, which is completely insufficient to solve the "ammonia" problem.

It should be understood that air conditioning systems are designed primarily to operate in recirculation mode, providing cooling or heating of the air in the room. Whereas only an independent ventilation system can cope with toxic (and any other) odors. Therefore, we recommend making independent systems, and we do it perfectly!

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    M A lot of water has flown under the bridge since the advent of the first air conditioner. Since then, manufacturers of this climate equipment have tried a lot to improve the efficiency of this household appliance. One of the essential elements of any air conditioner is the refrigerant. Freon R22 is mainly used as a refrigerant today. This substance cannot be called an ideal refrigerant for use in the operation of an air conditioner, therefore, attempts to invent some other, more suitable refrigerant do not stop.

    Few people know that at one time as a refrigerant, air conditioners used ammonia. The first use of ammonia in refrigeration was in 1872, when David Boyle used it in his compression plant. Subsequently, other engineers began to use ammonia in the production of climate equipment.

    Why was ammonia used in the production of refrigeration systems at all? Isn't ammonia a harmful substance? The use of ammonia is associated with its excellent thermodynamic characteristics, which favorably distinguishes ammonia from many other substances, for example, from ether. And what about the explosiveness and toxicity of ammonia? As for the toxicity of ammonia, this is true, but only in part, we will talk about this a little later. The opinion about the explosiveness of this substance is fundamentally erroneous.

    For many, the smell of ammonia is not a revelation. Ammonia really does not have the most pleasant smell, but, to some extent, this property of ammonia can even be considered an advantage of this substance. The fact is that due to the repulsive smell of ammonia, any leakage can be easily detected and neutralized. Meanwhile, as already mentioned, the excellent thermodynamic performance of ammonia is an order of magnitude superior to those of other potential refrigerants that wall-mounted household air conditioners may begin to use in the future.

    Naturally, the main reason for the suspicion of ammonia is its toxicity. Consider the features of ammonia damage, the consequences of such accidental cases and draw certain conclusions.

    How and why does ammonia poisoning generally occur? According to statistics, equipment maintenance personnel usually become victims of ammonia, and, most often, this happens due to the "human factor" - non-compliance with labor protection rules.

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