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Preventing leakage of HFC from student mini-fridges


Refrigerant travels through a series of tubes and pipes, all connected by a fairly intricate system of nuts, bolts, and gaskets. At different locations in the refrigeration system, the refrigerant takes gaseous and liquid forms.


In principle, the refrigerator is a closed system, without refrigerant gas escaping into the atmosphere. In the real world, however, vibrating equipment, material age, and small, sharp particles produce microscopic holes in the tubes and pipes that contain the refrigerant. For students, leaks are likely to emerge from frequently moving equipment around dorm rooms and in and out of residential colleges in the fall and spring. Even though the EPA does not mandate that individuals repair refrigerant leaks in small appliances, it is recommended to repair leaks whenever possible.


High-pressure HFC gas then escapes into the relatively low-pressure atmosphere. Unfortunately, these leaks are very difficult to detect. Most holes in pipes and tubes are smaller than a pinhole and invisible to the eye. Detecting leaks does not require professional expertise, but does require fairly expensive and sophisticated leak detectors that use infrared cameras. Without regular check-ups on the system, most refrigerator owners will not realize there is a leak in the system until their refrigerator performance declines over several years. A well-designed system of best practices can reduce leaks to near-zero. Even though one mini-fridge has a very small refrigerant charge, the amount of refrigerant adds up across campus, where there are thousands of mini-fridges. 

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Prior to a HFC phase down in 2025 on campus, YRI aims to contain HFC in existing student mini-fridges in the short term. This program will become a priority after the COVID-19 pandemic, when student volunteers can enter dorm rooms without endangering public health.


YRI's student volunteers will systematically check student mini-fridges for leaks, and patch leaks immediately. YRI will also document leaks and quantify the rate of refrigerant leakage to compile data on environmental impact from leak detection and response.

Many students rent mini-fridges through university suppliers. Student volunteers will work with these suppliers to improve adherence to leak detection best practices. Preventing refrigerant leaks will:

  • Save refrigerant recharge costs for companies;

  • Improve energy efficiency and save the university money; and

  • Lower environmental impact from high-GWP refrigerants. 


Student volunteers can identify leaks by using YRI's Flir One Pro leak detector, which is an infrared camera designed specifically to detect refrigerant leaks. Since leaking refrigerants create cold spots along refrigerant pipes, students can easily identify leaks and patch them with electrical tape.

In order to coordinate leak detection and remedial efforts, YRI will collaborate with residential college sustainability liaisons to schedule times when mini-fridges can be checked. Checks will begin on a voluntary basis with opportunities for scale-up later on. 

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