Water Vs. Air: Liability Concerns for the Engineer

Water Vs. Air: Liability Concerns for the Engineer

By Greg Cunniff, Applications Engineering Manager, Taco, Inc.

Water vs. Air: Liability Concerns for the EngineerRefrigerant is a toxic fluid and as such it poses a hazardous danger to building  occupants should it begin to leak out of a commercial air conditioning system, however rare such an occurrence may be. Should an accident happen an investigation will be undertaken, and if building occupants were affected by the leak, everyone from the building owner, property management company, service company, and the design engineer who recommended the system could find themselves facing legal action.  In other words, being sued.

So there is potential legal liability with a VRV-VRF type system. During my years as an engineer I had to buy liability insurance to protect myself from possible legal action arising from mishaps that could be traced back to decisions and recommendations I made in the course of my work.

The question that would be posed by the plaintiff’s lawyer to the engineer under the circumstances of a leak would be:

Was the system you specified the best standard that you should have used at that point in time, knowing that there was other technology available that did not use a toxic element?

So the engineer needs to ask himself when specifying such a system in the first place, is it worth it to take that risk to save a few dollars in first-cost?

What do you think?

2 Responses

  1. It seems to me that it is more likely that a water leak will occur from a hydronic coil and do significant damage to a structure including causing mold growth that can harm occupants than it is for a dx coil in an air handler to leak refrigerant and cause damage to a structure and its occupants. Both chilled beam and dx/air technologies have significant postive attributes and need to appropriately applied in different buildings. There is no need to create a false sense of fear about the toxicity of modern refrigerants. We are talking R410A here not Ammonia!

    • Paul, thank you for your comments.

      Although not as toxic as Ammonia, the refrigerants used in the HVAC industry today are toxic in high enough concentrations. In addition, in sufficient quantities, refrigerants displace the oxygen in a room and you suffocate. There have been enough accidents to prove this point that mechanical codes now require refrigerant alarm systems, including R410A, if the concentration of refrigerant in a room is above safe levels.

      In a typical DX rooftop system or split system a refrigerant leak is generally not lethal. This is the case because the volume of refrigerant is small. It is contained within the unit or in the lines between the outside condenser and the inside (single) evaporator. In addition these systems generally supply multiple rooms and any refrigerant leak is diluted amongst the rooms.

      In a VRV or VRF system the amount or charge of refrigerant that can leak is increased since there is additional refrigerant piping and refrigerant charge to supply multiple inside evaporators. The dilution volume decreases since all the refrigerant can leak into just one room. All this can prove lethal.

      – Greg

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