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Don't Let Ammonia Catch You in the Cold

Gas Detection Equipment  |   September 18, 2020  |   Dave Wagner

One thing common to almost every segment of the food and beverage industry is cold storage. Whether it is flash freezing in spiral or walk in freezers or simply sustained cold storage for finished products, cold storage units are used throughout the industry. This means one particular gas hazard comes along with them – ammonia (NH3).

Ammonia is the primary refrigerant in the commercial refrigeration equipment found in the food and beverage industry. Ammonia can leak and accumulate in areas around a freezer or cold storage unit and may be found at hazardous levels inside the unit itself.

Ammonia can present three major safety issues:

  1. Contamination of the products in cold storage
  2. Health risks to workers at certain concentrations
  3. Fire or explosion at certain concentrations

If you’re exposed to high concentrations of ammonia, you may notice immediate irritation and burning in your eyes, nose, throat, and respiratory tract. If you inhale high concentrations of ammonia, it could lead to burns to your mouth or nose, lung damage, blindness, or even death. Exposure to a concentration of just 300 PPM is considered to be immediately dangerous to life and health and may cause death within 30 minutes.

The impacts of leaking ammonia go beyond the toxic hazards it presents to workers. In high concentrations, ammonia is extremely combustible, with a lower explosive limit of 15% by volume or 150,000 PPM. While exposure to these concentrations is immediately deadly to humans, ammonia accumulating to these concentrations in unknown areas can present a greater hazard overall. At concentrations above 15%, ammonia combined with a source of ignition will create an explosion or fire that has catastrophic consequences. 

Whether it is contaminating the product in storage or threatening a worker that may enter a particular unit, it’s critical to your safety that you understand the hazard presented by ammonia and monitor it accordingly. This means using a monitor with an appropriate measuring range for ammonia and combustible gases so you know exactly what precautions to take. Donning an SCBA to keep working when your personal ammonia monitor is over range may not keep you safe at all if ammonia reaches its LEL in the environment. Likewise, if your gas detector is only equipped with a combustible gas sensor, a dangerous level of ammonia may be present without ever registering a blip on the monitor.

Instead, if ammonia concentrations go beyond the range of your personal gas monitor, stop all hot work immediately, get a multi-gas monitor with a combustible gas sensor, and verify that the ammonia concentration is well below the explosive limit and at a level that allows you to continue working safely. 

Don’t be caught out in the cold. Whether your choice for ammonia detection is a single gas monitor like the GasBadge® Pro, or a multi-gas monitor like the Ventis® Pro5, be certain that the unit you have chosen will give you proper protection in your working environment.