Ask Adley About Ammonia

Is it time to move away from ammonia? It is dangerous and challenging to work with, so why do we not move to other solutions? My house uses freon, and it’s safe.

With Adley’s help, we can make your Ammonia safe. There are some chemicals that are very unstable, very lethal, and very difficult. Ammonia has its issues, but with proper engineering and controls, its bark is louder than its bite. The benefits of this miracle gas far outweigh the risks and concerns. You need a little Adley TLC to make sure you using ammonia’s power for good and not harm.

So how do Adley’s engineers approach ammonia? In reality, it is no different than we approach any other dangerous gas. Ammonia is not combustible, and it smells, which makes it a little easier to handle safely. At Adley, we deal with very lethal, sometimes odorless gases, such as H2S. Ironically, some of the safest, sterile, and benign products in the world are made by combining very harmful ingredients. One would be amazed by the composition of PVC and how it is made. If you are in an industry where you primarily deal with benign elements, and your ammonia refrigeration system has you worried at night, take a deep breath, relax, and call Adley. It can be frustrating at times for nonchemical manufacturers to decipher the best practices and regulatory requirements of an ammonia refrigeration system. The good news is that you can become the beneficiary of generations of engineering and learned safety lessons when you take a step back and treat ammonia like other dangerous chemicals.

Since ammonia is one of the most “notorious” chemicals known to the general public, it is fitting to discuss the history and usage of ammonia. We all know ammonia and its pungent smell when we use it to clean our homes. Ammonia is a caustic and hazardous gas. It can cause respiratory issues if inhaled and chemical burns if spilled. Ammonia-based cleaners placed into drains in large volumes can result in the rapid growth of possibly unwanted vegetation, which eventually leads to depletion of oxygen in the freshwater supply (1). If that were the end of the story, ammonia would have the same fate as asbestos. So why ammonia and not strictly freon?

The History of Ammonia

The general public may not realize ammonia has been around for over 200 years and is considered by the chemical engineering community as one of the top ten greatest chemical engineering achievements (2). Commercial ammonia production began about 100 years ago. It is a byproduct of natural gas refining and coal. Ammonia is used in refrigeration, including cold storage, food processing, and large-scale air conditioning (3). Ammonia is more commonly used in fertilizers that help increase our global crop production to meet the demands of our growing global population (2). As the demand increases, modernization, and optimization of the ammonia process has led to an energy-efficient and safer industry.

Believe it or not, ammonia is not that bad for the environment. It also has a greater coefficient of performance and a higher heat transfer coefficient. Due to its pungent smell, small leaks are very quickly detectable or “self-alarming.” A freon system may contain ozone-depleting compounds, and leaks often go undetected. The lower performance coefficients require increased usage of energy. So, the questions become that if ammonia is better for mother earth in both its toxicity to the ozone and reduced use of energy, is it too dangerous to use? Since freon is relatively safe for the workers, why even take the chance of using ammonia? Is there a way to safely use ammonia and maximize the benefits to both energy costs and the environment without going bankrupt on safety costs?

Managing risks from ammonia are very doable and not as expensive as you may think. From an engineering perspective, ammonia is no different than any other hazardous chemical. The same strategic approach to safety and environmental protection defined in OSHA and EPA regulations and good engineering practices are used. In the design phase, Adley engineers take the following steps to ensure multiple layers of safety:

  • Define the design conditions (pressure, temperature, flow) and select materials and equipment that matches those conditions using codes and standards.
  • Specify at least two layers of protection against an upset condition, i.e., for overpressure, the input source is shut off, and there is a safe place to relieve pressure.
  • Program-control systems to keep normal operating conditions well inside the design threshold. Automatic functions are added to correct upsets before they happen and alert operations if actions are necessary.
  • Prepare detailed drawings of the process and plant layout.

During commissioning, Adley engineers continue to support safety by:

  • Writing operating procedures that follow OSHA Process Safety Management standards by identifying specific actions to take when upset conditions occur.
  • Preparing Mechanical Integrity Plans for use during the life of the facility ensures that equipment, including safety protective devices, is in proper working order.
  • Assisting with Pre-Startup Review and completion of punch-list items before startup.
  • Defining proper personal protective equipment necessary for the process.

Adley engineers promote safety throughout the life of the facility with continued assistance in process safety management by:

  • Keeping process safety information up to date as the process changes.
  • Conducting process hazards analyses.
  • Assisting with engineering review of management of change.

Using ammonia takes a little more thought and behind the scenes work, but the reduced energy costs and benefit to the environment often make the decision an easy one. With Adley engineers, you can get tremendous benefits over freon, safely. Schedule a complimentary consultation to see how we can assist you.