Hundreds of refrigerated containers have been quarantined in various locations around the world following reports of compressor explosions and incidents of spontaneous combustion that have resulted in at least three fatalities.
The alarm was raised by Maersk Line on 18 October when it informed the World Shipping Council’s Safe Transport of Containers Working Group that it had recently experienced three cases in which refrigeration units had exploded for no apparent reason.
While the precise causes of the explosions are still under investigation, Maersk said it had ascertained that all three refrigeration units involved had received gas repairs in Vietnam between late March and late April and advised other lines that had had similar gas repairs or maintenance to refrigeration units in Vietnam to identify and investigate those units.
Observers say all the major reefer machinery brands – Carrier, Daikin, Thermo King and Star Cool – are potentially affected by what is suspected to be the introduction of contaminated or otherwise unsuitable refrigerant gas into the system that causes a chemical reaction when it comes into contact with R134a, oil or air, creating a flammable/explosive mixture.
At least two Carrier ThinLINE and one Star Cool unit are reported to have suffered compressor ruptures in separate incidents in Brazil, China and Vietnam, while refrigerant gas from a Daikin LXE10E unit is said to have spontaneously combusted when exposed to air.
On 21 October, Carrier Transicold, the world’s biggest reefer container machinery manufacturer, sent an urgent safety bulletin to all its authorised service centres reporting that four reefer units are now known to have experienced compressor ruptures.
Carrier said Maersk, CMA/CGM, Hapag-Lloyd and others have identified at least 900 refrigeration units that they suspect may contain contaminated refrigerant and have quarantined those units.
As part of the quarantine, Maersk has given instructions to cross stuff cargo where possible, unplug the suspect reefers and store them in an isolated location with the machinery units facing away from people or traffic or stacked with the units facing each other.
Carrier advised its service centres to contact reefer customers and request that they immediately implement a reefer quarantine policy that follows the Maersk guidelines for units that have had refrigeration system work performed in Vietnam during 2011 and recommended that no work be carried out on reefers until the reefer owner or lessee can provide service records verifying that the reefer did not have any refrigeration system service work completed in Vietnam during 2011.