Two characteristics are used to differentiate category 1 and category 2 refrigerants: the lower flammability limit and the heat of combustion. The lower flammability limit is the lowest percentage concentration of gas in a gas-air mixture that will ignite. Concentrations lower than the lower flammability limit will not burn. Even highly combustible gasses such as gasoline have a lower flammability limit. Refrigerants with a lower flammability limit of 3.5% or less are considered class 3, highly flammable. For comparison the lower flammability limit of gasoline is 1.4% and propane‘s is 2.1%. Another way for a refrigerant to be considered class 3 is for its heat of combustion to equal or exceed 19 million joules per kilogram. In general terms, it does not take very much class 3 refrigerant to burn and when it does it is very hot.
Class 2 refrigerants have a lower flammability limit greater than 3.5%. It requires more than 3.5% concentration in order to ignite. Class 2 refrigerants do not burn as hot as class 3 refrigerants: their heat of combustion is lower. The lower heat of combustion is important because that is what sets other things on fire. It is possible for a class 2 refrigerant to burn without burning up everything around it.
So where does the 2L come in? Flammability class 2L is really a subclass of 2. Refrigerants with a 2L designation have a burning velocity of 10 centimeters per second or slower. The burning velocity is how fast the flame travels. A burning velocity of 10 cm/s means that the flame will travel about 4 inches in a second. In contrast, the class 2 refrigerant HFC-152a has a burning velocity of 23 cm/sec. – a little more than twice as fast. Propane, a class 3 refrigerant, has a flame velocity of 39 centimeters per second – 4 times as fast.
Why is this important? The flame velocity and heat of combustion are what determine whether or not an explosion can occur. Rapid burning and high heat of combustion expand the air and combustion gasses so rapidly that great pressure is created, blowing things apart. Class 2L refrigerant cannot burn fast enough or hot enough to blow anything up. In many cases, a burning class 2L refrigerant will not even catch other combustible things around it on fire.
Class 3 Refrigerants have a lower flammability ratio of 3.5% or lower and/or a heat of combustion equal to or greater than 19Mj/kg. They burn fast and hot.
Class 2 Refrigerants have a lower flammability ratio exceeding 3.5%. It takes more of them to burn and they do not burn as hot as class 3 refrigerants.
Sub-Class 2L Refrigerants in addition to a lower flammability ratio exceeding 3.5% also have a flame velocity of 10 cm/sec or less. They burn slowly and without releasing as much heat.
Class 1 Refrigerants do not burn.