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Lab Refrigerators and Freezers in a Power Outage

At home, there are few risks involved with using refrigerators and freezers. If the power goes out, probably the worst consequence is food going bad. But in the lab, loss of power could lead to flammable or toxic vapors escaping

by Princeton University
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The potential hazards posed by laboratory refrigerators and freezers involve vapors from the contents, the possible presence of incompatible chemicals and spillage.

Only refrigerators and freezers specified for laboratory use should be utilized for the storage of chemicals. These refrigerators have been constructed with special design factors, such as heavy-duty cords and corrosion resistant interiors to help reduce the risk of fire or explosions in the lab.

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Standard refrigerators have electrical fans and motors that make them potential ignition sources for flammable vapors. Do not store flammable liquids in a refrigerator unless it is approved for such storage. Flammable liquid-approved refrigerators are designed with spark-producing parts on the outside to avoid accidental ignition. If refrigeration is needed inside a flammable-storage room, you should use an explosion-proof refrigerator.

Frost-free refrigerators should also be avoided. Many of them have a drain or tube or hole that carries water and possibly any spilled materials to an area near the compression, which may spark. Electric heaters used to defrost the freezing coils can also spark.

Only chemicals should be stored in chemical storage refrigerators; lab refrigerators should not be used for food storage or preparation. Refrigerators should be labeled for their intended purpose; labels reading “No Food or Drink to be Stored in this Refrigerator” or “Refrigerator For Food Only” are available from EHS by calling 8-5294.

All materials in refrigerators or freezers should be labeled with the contents, owner, date of acquisition or preparation and nature of any potential hazard. Since refrigerators are often used for storage of large quantities of small vials and test tubes, a reference to a list outside of the refrigerator could be used. Labels and ink used to identify materials in the refrigerators should be water-resistant.

All containers should be sealed, preferably with a cap. Containers should be placed in secondary containers, or catch pans should be used.

Loss of electrical power can produce extremely hazardous situations. Flammable or toxic vapors may be released from refrigerators and freezers as chemicals warm up and/or certain reactive materials may decompose energetically upon warming. Proactive planning can avoid product loss and hazardous situations in event of an extended power outage. Dry ice or alternate power sources can be used to prevent refrigerator and freezer contents from warming.

Source: Princeton University