The importance of color coding ammonia refrigeration piping is a generally accepted best practice these days, but the debate over which colors to use has been anything but black and white.

Many companies and contractors long ago adopted their own color schemes, answering the color question for themselves. While that question – what color should my pipes be? – was simple enough to answer individually, the larger question – what color should the industry’s pipes be? – provoked disagreement on almost every conceivable detail.

Now, after nearly a decade of debate on the subject, the International Institute of Ammonia Refrigeration is poised to release a guideline for pipe color codes, finally putting the contentious issue to rest.

IIAR’s Bulletin 114, which will be re-released early next year, will lay out eight color specifications in an update meant to provide an informal guideline for the industry. The colors will apply to both painted pipe and PVC jacketing for insulated pipe.

“We’re thrilled that we can finally answer the question of color specification in a uniform way,” said IIAR president Dave Rule. “It’s an important development because it has taken so much work to get to this point.”

The new guidelines reflect years of work by IIAR’s Piping Committee, and will finally answer one of the most common questions asked by IIAR members, said Eric Smith, IIAR’s Vice President and Technical Director.

“This is important because there are so many people who come to us searching for consensus and until now, we haven’t been able to give them a specific answer,” he said.

Nevertheless, Smith cautioned that IIAR’s color guidance should only be considered a guideline, and pointed out that provisions within the document leave the door open for individual color schemes as long as a common safety practice is followed.

The flexibility of being able to preserve existing color schemes will be welcome in an industry that currently defines piping colors at an individual facility level, said Jim Wright, Principal of Wright Engineering Associates, but a move towards consensus is a step in the right direction.

“The truth is, we’ve been specifying paint color for decades, and PVC pipe jacket colors in recent years,” he said. “But as contractors, the issue was difficult because we’ve always been asked: what is IIAR’s convention? And there never was one until now.”

“The issue of color coding has been like the eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the room,” said Jim Marrella, Coordinator of OSHA and EPA Compliance for U.S. Cold Storage. “Some companies did it and some didn’t. The idea of coming to a consensus about what colors we should all use has been intimidating. But the bottom line is that we’re moving toward consensus for the same reason, it’s safer and easier for the industry as a whole.”

As with other moves toward consensus in the ammonia refrigeration industry, color guidelines are seen by facility owners and contracting engineers as a vital step towards greater safety.

Generally, they say, such a standard will remove uncertainty, creating the kind of continuity that can serve as a foundation of common knowledge.

That foundation, in turn, will boost the confidence and effectiveness of any engineer who moves from facility to facility, whether as a contractor, or even as an employee.

“There is a great deal of fluidity to our industry,” said IIAR past president Bruce Badger. “Most of the people who work in this industry, stay in this industry, even if they don’t stay at the same company. There’s an institutional safety benefit of having all the pipes in all our facilities marked according to the same color code.”

And that institutional safety translates to efficiency, said IIAR’s Dave Rule. From a training perspective, eliminating the need to bring new employees and contractors up to speed on facility-specific color schemes will mean a faster learning curve. At the same time, an industry-wide consensus will give emergency responders and anyone unfamiliar with an ammonia facility a common point of reference, he said.

“Whether people are coming into a facility as part of this industry, or as an outsider, common color coding should make our facilities more user friendly. No matter who you are, it’s much easier to trace piping,” said Smith.

Wright Engineering Associates’ Jim Wright, agreed that the importance of being able to decipher an ammonia system quickly should not be underestimated.

“If a plant can provide identification of their piping at a glance, without the need to read labels or refer to facility-specific keys, we have the ability to take in the complexity of a system from a ten-thousand-foot level,” he said.

“We can see what’s happening immediately. It’s a huge advantage from a training and continuity perspective, and the net result is an increasingly safe operating environment.”

And industry consensus on pipe color is something many facilities have been waiting on for a long time, precisely because the safety and training benefit could be so big, said Jeremy Corselli, Engineering Manager for Rancho Cold Storage.

“When a new operator walks into a new job position, he’ll be able to immediately identify lines. And all we have to do is follow the IIAR guidance. We no longer need to worry about what color scheme works best, we already know,” he said.

Meanwhile, Don Hamilton, Product Development Manager for Evapco, and the head of IIAR’s Piping Committee, said a major goal of color standardization is to streamline emergency response.

“One of the biggest goals here is to make sure piping can be easily and quickly identified in an emergency situation,” he said. “You need common color scheming across the industry to accomplish that goal, and right now it’s missing.”

Emergency response is one of the biggest reasons the industry should adopt common color scheming, said Gary Smith, president of the Ammonia Safety and Training Institute.

“We’re really pushing hard to unify this idea of public safety, and when people go in their own directions, it really degrades the effectiveness of that plan,” he said. “A shared color code means that first responders and safety training planners know immediately what they’re dealing with in a facility.”

ASTI’s Smith emphasized that “muscle memory” is vital in emergency response. In many cases during an emergency situation, so many details need to be addressed simultaneously that any procedural details, such as differences in color coding from facility to facility, can create unnecessary delays for a first responder.

“If every facility has a different color scheme, that’s not a good situation because the responder has to stop and re-calibrate,” he said.

“If that common color scheme is already there, we can see quickly if we’re dealing with a high or low pressure system problem. It helps us orient ourselves and gives us confidence to deal with the issues at hand.”

The logic behind an agreed-upon guideline eliminates uncertainty, making a facility that much more prepared to deal with a potential emergency. “This is a major safety step that goes beyond individual interests,” he said.

Hamilton agreed, pointing out that eliminating variance is a major benefit of common color scheming. “In everyday operations, but especially during emergency response, the more variance there is in a system, the more potential you have for something to go wrong. This is just one thing we can do to eliminate the level of variance we have to deal with in an emergency.”

Despite the obvious safety benefits, the industry has been slow to adopt a common color guideline for reasons ranging from difficulty defining color itself to reluctance about moving away from the status quo.

Part of that reluctance stemmed from the fact that the industry already has a way to designate piping. Ammonia facilities have for many years followed guidance from the American National Standards Institute, which specifies the color of pipe labels, but not pipe colors.

“Our pipes already have pipe labels, so many companies didn’t see the necessity of adopting an industry-wide color scheme, which involves an expensive and time consuming effort to paint pipes and install color jacketing on insulated pipes,” said IIAR’s Smith.

Nevertheless, as color coding proves itself to be an invaluable tool in technician training and emergency response, it has become much more common for facilities to adopt color schemes.

“More and more, facilities see color coding as an aid in training and emergency response,” said Hamilton. “But there has been no consistency on color, so everyone has developed their own scheme.”

And as facilities moved toward color coding, a patchwork of systems developed, said IIAR’s Badger. “Everyone was looking for a standard system, but no one knew what it should be. “

The task of deciding what that system should be fell to the IIAR Piping Committee, which set out to write a guidance document that would specify pipe colors, but leave the door open for companies that were unable, or unwilling to leave their own color schemes, said Hamilton.

“During our committee meetings, we had many discussions about who was doing what, and how,” he said. “A lot of what we had to do was work around different codes and find the colors that would integrate for the most part with what we already had as an industry.”

However, identifying the most commonly used piping colors turned out to be a small task compared with finding a way to describe them.

“The problem we quickly realized we had was that we couldn’t just refer to a general color,” said Hamilton. “We needed a way to specify the exact color that should be used on a pipe or insulated pipe jacket.”

He added that IIAR’s Smith was the group member that finally provided a breakthrough by suggesting that the piping committee use Pantone color standards to specify exact colors.

“We noticed that ANSI standards for safety color coding referenced specific Pantone colors, and that provided an example for us to follow,” said Smith. “Then the committee got together and discussed what was most commonly seen in the industry as well as what colors were available from PVC pipe jacket and marker manufacturers, and assigned Pantone values to represent those colors.”

The result was a document that will be meant to provide “a color scheming guideline for machinery rooms,” said Hamilton.

The guidance will be published as an update to IIAR Bulletin 114, because the bulletin already addresses piping by giving labeling guidance, said Smith, adding that the updated bulletin will also reflect an ANSI labeling change.

ANSI 13.1, which was used as a reference when IIAR Bulletin 114 was originally developed, recently changed its recommendation for label background colors for toxic and corrosive materials from safety yellow to safety orange.

“This labeling language will also be incorporated into Bulletin 114 when it is republished,” said Smith. “The point is to bring labeling and informal pipe color guidance into line with what’s going on in the industry.”

As with any change, concerns surrounding the reaction of regulatory agencies to an industry-wide consensus have been a part of the color coding debate ever since it began, more than ten years ago.

Many in the ammonia refrigeration world were skeptical that agencies like OSHA would view a color-coding consensus as the informal guidance it is ultimately meant to be, said Smith.

“With most recommendations, there’s the concern that the information could become codified or standardized,” said Hamilton. “It would be an expensive requirement if a facility suddenly had to repaint all of its pipes.”

But the goal of the guidance – to find cohesiveness in the industry – is much more likely to be viewed by OSHA as an ongoing effort, not the basis for a sudden regulatory change, said IIAR Director of Government Affairs, Lowell Randel.

However, he cautioned, any facility making a gradual change to a new color scheme should take extra care to make sure that its transition is thoroughly understood by facility personnel and that there are good training measures in place.

“Obviously, OSHA looks at standards, but it also recognizes best practices within an industry,” he said. “This guidance is something that regulatory agencies will ultimately look at, but as long as a facility is consistent in how it trains its personnel and how it is implementing its color policy, it should be okay from a regulatory perspective.”

“Anytime you can improve consistency, remove variability and increase the application of a best practice, whatever that may be, the better off you will be as an industry in the eyes of OSHA and EPA,” said Randel.

The guideline may draw some OSHA attention to color coding practices, but any company with a good system shouldn’t be worried, said Marrella.

“It’s way too early for OSHA and EPA to say that this represents a generally accepted practice. It’s going to take years before that is a concern,” he said. “This is a new recommendation and it will happen over time.”

Indeed, many involved in the color coding debate say they see a slow transition that will last for many years, but will ultimately result in the uniform color code being used across the industry.

“As new facilities come online, they will adopt this convention, and everyone else will integrate it eventually,” said IIAR’s Rule. “We don’t expect that companies will make these changes all at once. Now that this is a consensus and its part of the mainstream, it will be something our industry gravitates to over time.”

While it may take some time for the industry as a whole to orient itself when it comes to color, some companies may move fast to make the change.

Jeremy Corselli of Rancho Cold Storage said he plans to make the transition at his facilities as soon as the guidance is released.

“I’ve always wanted a standard for color codes, ever since I started my career,” he said. “It’s a great relief that engineers coming into this industry ten or twenty years from now won’t even be aware that this was ever an issue.”

“It’s really a monumental step for all of us to release this guidance,” said Hamilton. “We’ve been debating this issue for a long time, and now we can finally move forward.”

A Guide to Bulletin 114: Piping Colors

In its updated form, IIAR Bulletin 114 will provide a method for expanding color identification guidelines, and will serve as a recommendation for an expanded piping color scheme.

The guideline will address: un-insulated line finishes; insulated lines with insulation jacketing; and intermittent markers. The colors specified by the guideline have been designated by Pantone color numbers, from the Pantone Color Matching System, and are identified by the document as “targets” for shade, tone, and color. The bulletin makes an allowance for slight variations that are expected as a result of variance in manufacturing, UV deterioration, dust and other unforeseen factors that may alter the appearance of color either at installation or after the jacketing or markers have been in service.

According to the draft bulletin, facilities may select an alternate color scheme as long as that color scheme is consistent throughout a facility. Regardless of the color scheme selected, Bulletin 114 specifies that a legend or key to the meaning of the colors should be posted in a conspicuous area. Listed below are the eight Pantone colors recommended under IIAR’s piping color scheme, which is slated for release as an update to IIAR Bulletin 114 early next year.