TALLAHASSEE, Fla.-Following an investigation by the state Fire Marshal's office over the volatility of OZ-12 and other refrigerant blends, two companies have been ordered to stop marketing and selling the product in Florida. The action is another in a volley of moves nationwide by air conditioning industry-related groups and government agencies to have the flammable substances banned from use in auto A/C systems as a replacement for R-12 (commonly known as Freon).
Currently, more than a dozen states have laws either prohibiting or regulating the refrigerants.
Last Oct. 13, Florida Fire Marshal and Treasurer Tom Gallagher advised consumers to determine the type of refrigerant used in their automobile A/C systems, and cautioned technicians servicing those systems to do so with extreme care.
The alert was issued about OZ-12 and other extremely flammable so-called ``rogue'' refrigerants which contain liquified petroleum (LP) gases such as butane, isobutane and propane.
According to information provided by Florida's Division of Liquefied Petroleum Gas, technicians who attempt to service OZ-12-equipped A/C systems by using electronic or open flame leak detectors are in danger of causing an explosion. Unlike R-12-the chemical up until now most prevalently used in vehicle A/C systems-LP gases are highly flammable.
Because of their potential hazard to the Earth's ozone layer, manufacturing limits have been placed on R-12 and other chlorofluorocarbons by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); a production ban will take effect in 1995. The auto industry has begun replacing R-12 with a new, environmentally safe refrigerant, R-134a.
In light of the hazards inherent in OZ-12 use, Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (UL) notified the EPA that ``use of refrigeration recovery or recycle equipment to remove flammable refrigerants which are not compatible with compressor motor-insulation systems may pose electrical shock or fire hazards'' to the equipment's operator. UL stressed that no refrigerant recovery equipment is approved for handling flammable materials.
Mr. Gallagher ordered Envirotech Enterprises Inc. of Miami, and REU-DOM Investments & Holdings Inc., Broward County, to immediately cease and desist from marketing and selling the refrigerant.
He also urged Floridians who have had their vehicle's A/C refrigerant replaced in the past six months to contact the repair shop where the work was performed to determine which type of product was used.
If some type of LP gas was used, ``it is imperative that consumers and service technicians use extreme caution,'' Mr. Gallagher warned.
If an A/C system is leaking, OZ-12 could cause a fire in the engine compartment, or could leak into a vehicle's passenger compartment, increasing the possibility of fire, he added.
The Florida Chapter of the International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI) recently demonstrated that situation could happen.
Bob Gentile, the chapter's secretary/treasurer, said the destruction caused by an experiment conducted by the IAAI even caught investigators by surprise.
The IAAI vented OZ-12 gas ``leaked'' from an A/C unit into a vehicle's passenger compartment, then ignited the gas by using the car's spark plug as an ignition device.
``Frankly, we were surprised by the resultant explosion,'' Mr. Gentile said. ``We had to review still photos and a videotape to see what happened, because the explosion occurred so suddenly.''
The blast destroyed the vehicle, caused a fireball that sent glass flying some 90 feet, and even set off a motion detector in a car alarm about 380 feet away.
He stressed that the IAAI is a non-partisan group that neither condemns nor condones products such as OZ-12. ``We just want to see more definitive testing done by some other laboratories or agencies,'' he said, ``in order to see a safe product marketed.''
Currently, there is insufficient testing and documentation of these products' safety, and Fire Marshall Gallagher said technicians unknowingly handling LP-based refrigerants are being exposed to some serious potential hazards.
On another front, the Kansas Fire Marshal's Office has also warned motorists not to use OZ-12.
In an article published last October in the Wichita Eagle, a Kansas newspaper, a state fire prevention inspector noted that the product ``has too many inherent hazards that could be fatal.''
The paper said Northcutt Trailer and Equipment Sales, a Wichita company that services truck fleets, halted its exclusive sales and promotion of OZ-12 after learning of a rarely enforced 1974 state statute that forbids the use of flammable liquids in vehicle A/C systems.
However, the paper reported Northcutt said it still intended to sell OZ-12 in Missouri, which has no such law. It quoted the company's treasurer, Bill Johnston, as saying, ``We believe (OZ-12) is perfectly safe,'' and then adding that he uses the product in his own car.
The following states regulate or ban the use of OZ-12 and similar products: Arkansas; Connecticut; Idaho; Indiana; Kansas; Louisiana; Maryland; North Dakota; Oklahoma; Texas; Utah; Virginia; Washington; and the District of Columbia.
In a proposed rule scheduled to take effect in February, the federal EPA has recommended refrigerant blends be banned from use in auto A/C systems.