CONTRACTOR INSIGHTS: In Pursuit of Sustainability

June 1, 2009
Commercial refrigeration contractors modify their approaches to high efficiency according to customer interest or ability to pay. Some customers want to go full speed ahead with the newest systems. For others, contractors use regular maintenance initiativ

The word “proactive” became popular during the environmental binge of the 1980s. Even the most successful and responsible companies were being told they had to do things that had positive affects on the environment. Fact was, they were already serving as leaders in proactive practices.

Today, in the HVACR world, we have the word “sustainability,” as it applies to energy-efficiency or environmental awareness. Sustainable practices are those HVACR contractors “proactively” follow to help customers save energy, and reduce the types and amounts of refrigerants they use.

For many of the industry's best contractors, sustainability is not such a new concept. They view sustainability as a standard they've always done their best to follow, and want to pursue more of. So, when commercial refrigeration customers ask what's sustainability all about, these contractors are ready, willing, and able to oblige.

George Carr, secretary, Commercial Refrigeration Specialists (CRS), Hayward, CA, is encouraged that it's getting easier for him to pursue sustainability initiatives with CRS's major supermarket customers.

“All the major chains we deal with, such as Safeway and Costco, are extremely concerned about energy and the environment, as well as the types of systems we install, the refrigerants used, and how we track refrigerant usage,” Carr says.

Many of CRS's independent store customers, however, are tougher sells, especially in the current business environment.

“Those independents who aren't going forward with energy-efficient initiatives are under very strict budgets, and they don't all share the same feelings on environmental issues. Many of them are very first-cost focused,” Carr reveals.

“In one instance, we performed an energy analysis that showed a customer a $56,000 savings in electricity over three years. They just didn't believe we could offer that savings.”

On the brighter side, other of CRS's independent supermarket customers are very concerned about energy factors, and will gladly pay more for a system that provides overall operating cost reductions over the long term, with a reasonable payback.

Some are choosing LED lights, while others are taking advantage of the energy incentives available with oversized condensers to reduce energy consumption, or energy efficient fans.

CRS was founded four years ago by Carr and three associates. All of them had worked many years for a leading manufacturer of supermarket cooling equipment.

The entirety of CRS's 47 technicians are union trained and up-to-speed on environmental issues.

“Our technicians have received quite a bit of training on handling refrigerants and environmental issues,” Carr says. “We're also held to high standards of refrigerant tracking with our major chain store customers. Our technicians are aware of the rising cost of refrigerant and the need to track it. All of our trucks carry reclamation equipment and cylinders.”

Carr believes the new breed of technician that's entered the industry over the last decade has had environmental issues and proper refrigerant handling ingrained into them. That positive attitude toward stewardship is a blessing, and can save a company headaches caused by sloppy record keeping and refrigerant handling.

50 Years in Business, and Getting Younger

SCR, (formerly St. Cloud Refrigeration), St. Cloud, MN, recently celebrated 50 years in business. But don't assume that the company is set in its ways.

Pat Welty — co-owner with Mike Fitch of this 140-employee company — says SCR is moving forward with sustainability on many fronts. Progressive initiatives include LEED® AP accreditation, as well as expertise in sophisticated building controls, and energy-efficient refrigeration systems.

SCR's four branches service businesses across Minnesota. Its refrigeration projects cover a wide range of businesses and industries, including convenience stores, supermarkets, and large production and cold storage facilities. Many of St. Cloud's cold storage and industrial customers take advantage of the latest building automation systems, to realize added cost savings and precision control over storage and production areas.

“Sustainability is becoming more important to many of our customers. They consider cost, and the overall impact sustainable practices bring to a project,” Welty says. “They have a mission going forward to consider sustainability and energy savings.”

SCR's larger supermarket customers have looked at the possibility of converting to LEED-accredited buildings, or incorporating “green” products and construction alternatives.

“In commercial refrigeration, energy savings is Number 1. The largest ongoing expense for a supermarket is energy, and all of our supermarket customers, small and large, are looking for ways to save more of it.”

Welty acknowledges that, as SCR moves forward with bigger and better sustainability initiatives, additional training costs apply. But thankfully, the basics of refrigeration haven't changed, and the technology wheel only needs to be tweaked, not reinvented.

“What's changed is the focus on electronics used to make systems operate at closer tolerances,” Welty says. “Manufacturers are fine tuning the basics. In doing that, it brings about challenges in keeping your technicians aware of all the technology.”

Welty believes great service right from the start is the key to putting forth future energy initiatives among those customers who might be holding back.

“We've got a great group of employees, and minimal turnover,” Welty says.

“We've also been fortunate to have good, loyal customers. Like most companies our new construction business is down, but not to the extent of a lot of our competitors. Our service business is holding, and is ahead of last year, but profits are down due to competitiveness. We spend a lot of effort in making sure our customers are taken care of, through dedicated service, and looking at energy-related issues proactively, rather than reactively. We're fairly diverse, too. We do quite a bit of specialty HVAC work.”

SCR's technicians are encouraged to pursue North American Technician Excellence (NATE) certification. The company is also a member of the National Comfort Institute (NCI).

Squeezing Efficiency from Older Systems

For Bill Melendy, president, John's Refrigeration, Green Bay, WI, dedicated, preventive maintenance is key to squeezing every drop of efficiency from existing systems.

“We make sure the set points on the racks are where they need to be, and that cases are performing as needed,” Melendy says. “If a case is running warm, and a store employee sets it to a colder setting, we must determine why it was running warm in the first place. Does it need to be cleaned, or does the superheat need to be adjusted? It's all a step towards saving energy, and enhancing equipment performance. Things such as keeping condensers clean to maintain proper head pressures are keys to efficiency.”

Melendy has worked as a refrigeration professional since 1981. His father John started the company in 1980. John's Refrigeration employs 25 people, and covers a radius of approximately 100 miles around the Green Bay metropolitan area.

Many of Melendy's customer sites are equipped with remote monitoring systems from Computer Process Controls (CPC). “We can troubleshoot issues over the computer, so we have an idea of what the technician will need to service the system,” Melendy says.

John's Refrigeration's key customers are independent supermarkets, chain stores, and industrial refrigerated warehouse facilities. Melendy agrees with Carr and Welty on the importance of ongoing training as a keystone of improved sustainability for all systems, old or new.

“This industry is always changing. If you're going to work in the supermarket industry, you must be willing to invest in training, and stay abreast of what's going on,” Melendy advises.