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Fatal pub fire blamed on use of ‘automotive’ HC refrigerant

THE coronial inquest into a June 2014 refrigerator explosion that killed 34 year-old Barry Purtell and 52 year-old Dave Lobb at the Rochester Hotel in Victoria has heard that a well-known brand of hydrocarbon refrigerant was used to top up the system.

According to a report in The Riverine Herald, the highly flammable gas was referred to in court as “designed for vehicle airconditioners”.

It is false to cite a major contributory factor to this tragedy as an inappropriately used automotive refrigerant. No car company in the world has ever used, or endorsed the use of, hydrocarbon refrigerant. Therefore it is not an automotive refrigerant.

The Riverine Herald reports that John Clark of Melbourne company LPG Measurement Technology cited the correct maintenance procedure, then said the incident would not have occurred if this had been followed “regardless of the refrigerant used”.

It is common for promoters of hydrocarbon refrigerant to blame accidents such as this on incorrect maintenance procedures, conveniently missing the point that using a non-standard, highly flammable gas in a system not designed with the necessary safeguards, is in itself an incorrect maintenance procedure.

In essence, they are happy to blame their own dead customers for being idiots when it goes kaboom.

One of the deceased was said to have topped up the refrigerant with hydrocarbons eight months before the fatal incident. It had previously been filled with R12 replacement SP34E (98.5 per cent R134a) in 2012, which is officially rated non-flammable although The Riverine Herald said “several experts” told the court this gas also “contained flammable components”.

It also reported that Arson chemist Justyn Brennan told the court hydrocarbon refrigerant was more flammable than SP34E as it contained propane.

The most likely ignition source for the explosion was that either one of the deceased was smoking or lighting a cigarette, while freshly cut copper pipes by the compressor were thought to be the source of escaped refrigerant.

In addition to the location of the compressor and lack of gas detectors, refrigerant labelling or warning signs in the hotel cellar, part of the coronial inquest focussed on the deceased lacking qualifications to work on refrigeration systems.

VASA members are well aware that hydrocarbons are subject to a regulatory loophole enabling them to be sold to and used by unlicensed people who are less likely than license-holders to be aware of the correct maintenance procedures.

According to the ABC, at the time of the incident the hotel was owned by Wayne and Denise Conway, who were closing the establishment due to financial difficulties and the deceased had offered to help by removing the refrigeration unit.

Because one of the victims had previously worked on the system by topping it up with hydrocarbons, Mr Conway believed he was qualified to remove it.

Shepparton News reports Mr Conway told coroner Paresa Spanos that “In my eyes they were qualified”.

“They were both tradesmen and handy boys. They could turn their hands to anything,” he said.

The ABC also reports the inquest took in a broader look at “safety and regulations across the refrigeration industry”. AIRAH representative Phil Wilkinson gave evidence of “significant gaps in the sector’s regulation framework”.

VASA is all for the adoption of new, environmentally safer refrigerants in equipment that has been appropriately designed and tested. But putting highly flammable hydrocarbons in a system that has zero safeguards because the designers never envisaged someone would do such a thing is clearly dangerous.

But it happens every day around Australasia and in Rochester two men paid the ultimate price, leaving their families and friends to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.

The findings of the coronial inquest are expected to be published in late March.

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