Main shaft seal compressor failure releases ammonia

Incident Investigation

Main shaft seal compressor failure releases ammonia

November 30, 2019

Boiler, PV and Refrigeration

Reference Number:

II-950404-2019 (#16065)

Incident Date: November 30, 2019

Location: Coquitlam

Regulated industry sector: Boilers, PV & refrigeration - Refrigeration system



Qty injuries: 0

Injury description: None

Injury rating: None


Damage description: Failure of main shaft seal ( mechanical seal ) of compressor #2 released ammonia vapor from the refrigeration system into the machinery room.

Damage rating: Insignificant

Incident rating: Insignificant

Incident overview

There was an ammonia leak from the main shaft seal, isolated to compressor #2 in the machinery room.

Investigation Conclusions

Site, system and components

The machinery room is attached to the facility on the southwest of the building. Two compressors in the machinery are installed to operate the refrigeration system.

Ammonia is contained within the machinery room and chilled brine (calcium chloride) is transferred to 4 ice rinks. The compressors require refrigeration oil to lubricate their components.

To prevent refrigerant (ammonia) gas leakage, the compressor’s drive shaft is installed with a main shaft seal which is one of the components of the compressor.

The main shaft seal is composed of ‘rotating ring’ on the drive shaft and ‘stationary ring’ in the seal cover. Rotating ring turns with the shaft and slides against a stationary ring while maintaining a very small clearance or gap, the ‘sliding surface’.

In order to form a proper sealing and reduce any possibility for the seal to have premature failure or wear-out under normal operation, oil film lubrication is used to reduce friction and heat generation in the main shaft seal and the sliding surface.

Failure of main shaft seals are classified into two types: premature failure and normal wear out. Insufficient oil flow can result in premature failure of main shaft seal. Oil lubrication system requires daily inspections indicated in the manufacturer operating manual

Normal wear out indicates that the main shaft seal has served the life span according to the operating hours recommended by the manufacturer

Manufacturer’s operating manual indicates the preventive maintenance for main shaft seal to be checked and replaced if abnormal for every 10,000 hours.

Facility operators bi-hourly record the start and stop time of compressor #2 during daily normal operation. Facility operation manager assumed that the compressor is running in average of 6 hours per day. No annual operating hours of the compressor was recorded.

Failure scenario(s)

Sequence of events:

1. Compressor #2 had several ‘Oil Sump’ alarms throughout the week of November 24th. Operators reset the alarms and restarted compressor #2.

2. At 10:00 am on November 30, 2019 an operator received a phone call from the alarm monitoring company reporting an ammonia alarm. He entered the machinery room and approached compressor #2 which had the oil sump alarms issues. He smelled strong ammonia odour from the compressor and quickly left the room. Ammonia level was recorded 50ppm.

3. At 12:40 pm the ammonia gas sensor above compressor #2 detected the ammonia level high enough to trigger the ammonia alarm, 99ppm.

4. At 13:17 responding refrigeration mechanic arrived and checked the ammonia level at 101ppm.

Facts and evidence

Witness statements:

· Logbook stated that on Saturday November 30, 2019 ammonia alarms as high as 99 ppm.

· Service report on November 30, 2019 stated that an ammonia leak on compressor #2 main shaft seal had to be replaced as soon as possible.

· Incident report submitted by facility stated that compressor #2 was repaired on Monday December 02, 2019.

· Service report dated on December 02, 2019 stated compressor #2 had the main shaft seal replaced.

· Service report dated on December 09, 2019 stated that compressor #2 oil filter changed.

· Facility operations manager on January 03, 2020 verbally stated that daily operating hours of compressor #2 was estimated 6 hours per day and the compressor did not have a preventive maintenance program.

Causes and contributing factors

No service report indicated when the main shaft seal of compressor #2 was ever replaced prior to the ammonia leak incident.

It was likely that the failure of main shaft seal of compressor #2 was due to normal wear out.

It is possible that with proper maintenance as per the manufacture operating manual, the leak from main shaft seal could have been prevented.


Photo 1: Compressor #2


Photo 2: Main shaft seal casing

Photo 3: Ammonia Emergency Procedures