How to

1 August 2017

Responding to a Leak or Spill in Cold Storage Facilities


Ammonia has become the go-to refrigerant for large cold store facilities, but the use of this compound comes with its downfalls. A spill or leak can kill, and while ammonia has a distinct smell that should alert any employee to its presence, it can still claim lives. There are ways to try and prevent this from happening, as well as monitoring for potential problems so that people can respond quickly if it does happen. Time is critical in these facilities because even if everyone makes it out without harm, a leak can still do irreversible damage to several million pounds worth of stock.

Every cold store needs an emergency response plan, but more than that the employees need to have frequent practice with said plan to ensure they all know what to do in such a situation. Employees who have been assigned certain roles, such as heading up the evacuation, need to be fully prepared to take control when the time comes, especially if they’re expected to deal with the problem head-on. If facility owners want their employees to respond to the leak rather than an outside source, these respondents will require thorough training and to be provided with the correct equipment. It puts a lot more pressure on employers and employees to not make a mistake, but it can prevent the leak from becoming a major problem and damaging a significant amount of stock.

Ammonia can seep out for a number of reasons, with impact damage being a significant cause. There are hundreds if not thousands of feet of piping in a cold storage facility and if they’re not secure and protected then they’re liable to damage from product movement. Where pallets are stored near system components, there should be mechanical stops to prevent forklifts from causing such an impact.

Corrosion, erosion and even vibrations can also cause damage eventually as they wear away at the pipes over a long period of time. Although these processes are slow acting, all equipment should be inspected regularly to ensure they’re still in a safe working condition to stop a leak before it happens. If repair or maintenance work needs to be carried out, it should be performed by those highly qualified for the job.

The way in which employees are expected to respond to leaks or spills will differ depending on the layout of the facility, as well as the types of product being stored and how it’s packaged. Plastic packaging provides a far greater chance for stock to be salvaged, although it’s all dependent on the extent of the problem. If the cold store is used for the storage of food, it can still become contaminated and unsafe for public consumption. Emergency response plans should provide a procedure for moving products away from the leak and outline what tests to perform to see whether the stock can still be used or not. It should also indicate if there are alternate facilities available to transport the products to and how this would need to be carried out.

Major fallout can be prevented through the installation of ammonia detection systems which can control the ammonia lost during a leak or spill. The most effective system will depend on the structure of the cold storage facility, as well as other factors like environmental conditions and the susceptibility of products to contamination.

Ammonia sensing cards change their colour when they detect ammonia levels between 1 and 5 parts per million (ppm) which are good for providing an early warning sign. It isn’t until 20ppm that people can detect ammonia vapours in the air through their odour, so these cards activate before employees can smell the leak themselves. They should always be used in combination with proper ammonia systems, though, and not as the only form of detection for a facility.

Other functions that can be considered for these systems include the automatic activation of ventilation fans which reduce the chance of a fire during a leak or spill. This risk is caused by the oil that’s used in refrigeration systems mixing with ammonia and lowering its normal flammability limit, thereby making a fire a lot more likely. By having the fans automatically activated, these flammable limits should not be reached.

Even with the best care and strategies, leaks and spills can still happen happen, but the impact they have can be dramatically reduced if the facility is prepared to deal with it. Ammonia is hugely effective for use in refrigeration systems and should still continue to be used in cold stores all over the world, those in charge just need to ensure they’re aware of the impact that neglect can have on their employees and stock if a leak does occur.


James Darvill

James is a passionate scriptwriter and reluctant poet with a talent for the dystopian. His love for cold weather sports and hiking in the winter gives him the enthusiasm for writing about keeping warm.