MAITLAND, Fla.--"The very livelihood of HVAC contractors is at stake in the growing issue of installing tamper-resistant locking caps on air-conditioning refrigerant access ports to minimize teenage huffing deaths and the associated liabilities," said James Bowman, national technical manager--HVACR, RectorSeal Corp., Houston.
Bowman presented the training seminar, "Locking Refrigerant Caps and the 2012/2015 Code," to 25 inspector and contractor members of the Florida Association of Plumbing-Gas-Mechanical Inspectors' Central Florida Chapter last March at the Home Builders Association of Metro Orlando headquarters, Maitland, Fla.
Like many cities, counties and states across the nation, the Florida Building Code has adopted the 2009 International Residential Code (IRC-M1411.6) and the International Mechanical Code (IMC-1101.10), which both mandate tamper-resistant locking caps for the refrigerant ports of newly installed air-conditioning systems. According to Bowman, the 2015 IMC and IRC revisions now also mandate locking caps for existing air-conditioning units if the refrigeration circuits are opened for charging or recovery during service work. "I'm predicting that future teenage huffing lawsuits will indict whichever contractor last touched the unit, especially if they didn't comply with the code and install a locking cap," said Bowman to the audience of mostly International Code Council (ICC) members. "It's important that code officials and contractors work together to prevent deaths, which in turn reduces the potential liabilities and publicity associated with huffing."
"We (Central Florida) have been one of the more progressive jurisdictions for locking caps because we've been enforcing it on new units since the 2010 Florida Building Code adopted it," said Donald Pittman, mechanical inspector/plans examiner for Permitting Services--division of Economic Development for the City of Orlando.
Huffing is a growing trend where teenagers gain access to an air conditioning condenser's refrigerant port, depress the Schrader valve with a pointed tool, fill a plastic bag they place over their heads and then inhale the captured refrigerant. The intent is to get a "high," but huffing doesn't intoxicate. Instead it dangerously displaces oxygen in the brain and only creates a euphoric effect, according to Bowman, who regularly presents product training seminars on locking caps, condensate overflow switches, hard start compressor devices and other product safeguards to code official groups and HVAC trade associations across the nation. Hundreds of teenagers across the country have fallen victim to the fad, according to the United Parents to Restrict Open Access to Refrigerants (UPROAR) www.uproarorg.org.
Increased huffing incidents is one reason for the more stringent code language that now includes existing air conditioning units, instead of just new installations. Consequently, several manufacturers have designed different locking cap methods to thwart huffing, but not all comply with the code's intent, according to Bowman. The five most popular methodologies have varying degrees of code compliance, accessibility and security:
- a cap with an access hole for removal by a Schrader valve core tool that's commonly used in bicycle tire repair. It can also be breached with a pocket screwdriver.
- a cap that uses a small spanner bit found easily in retail stores.
A paperclip can also simulate the spanner bit.
- a cap affixed with an Allen screw that damages the Schrader valve threads. It can also be removed with a pair of pliers.
- a round aluminum-clad brass cap that can only be removed with a special key available to tradesmen through HVACR distributors.
- a hex shaped, stainless steel-shielded brass cap that can only be removed with a special tool that incorporates a hidden rare earth magnet to release the locking mechanism. The tool is only available to tradesmen at HVACR wholesalers.
What separates these different formats is the code's "Code Commentary" section with language and definition that a compliant locking cap must have a "special tool or key," which might be the phrase that wins or loses a lawsuit for an HVAC contractor. "Can a valve core tool, spanner bit or Allen wrench be interpreted as a special tool if it's easily accessible to everyone at any retail store?" Bowman asked. "If a locking cap is removed with an easily accessible or fabricated tool, a court may not determine it as a special tool or key. A contractor compliantly installs a 'locking type tamper resistant cap,' however someone removes it and a huffing death results. Can a contractor defend his locking cap choice in a court of law? Remember that some of the previously mentioned products don't comply with the code's intent," said Bowman, who trains contractors and code officials on RectorSeal's GasGuard and Novent locking cap product lines.
The meeting concluded with promises from Pittman to soon present Bowman's educational materials and the 2012/2015 code revisions to the Building Officials Association of Florida's Central Florida Chapter "for definition of what they think the code (tamper-resistant locking caps) says, so that when it's adopted in the future, we (code inspectors) can enforce it properly," said Pittman.