• Perspectives on Change in Commercial Refrigeration

    June 22, 2010
    Specialize, serve, improve, comply

    Life is a challenge. And if you operate a commercial refrigeration business, some days you feel as if you’ve many lives in a 24-hour period. There’s little margin for error, and much to consider when maintaining refrigeration systems that are essential to human health and safety, and around which are swirling many significant issues.

    The low and medium temperature world is being influenced by customer quests for the utmost in efficiency. Service is becoming more based on true customer/contractor partnerships for the long run. Technology requires technicians to be learning something new every day. Refrigerants are held up to constant review, and energy is on everyone’s mind.

    ContractingBusiness.com editors recently spoke with leading-edge contractors and manufacturers, to learn their thoughts on the major influences that are shaping the commercial refrigeration industry’s service and technology mindsets in the coming years.

    The low and medium temperature world is being influenced by customer quests for the utmost in efficiency. Service is becoming more based on true customer/contractor partnerships for the long run.

    Technicians and Technology
    You make or break your business in the field, and you can’t be without quality technicians, insists Stan Shumbo, vice president and co-owner, Eastern Refrigeration Co., Colchester, CT.

    “Your technicians must be up to speed on new technologies, from computer systems to new refrigerants. Second, they must maintain a good communications network between their service technicians, dispatchers, and service managers. Their ability to communicate well is critical.” Shumbo says high-efficiency equipment is having the greatest impact on training and the industry as a whole. This includes super-efficient variable speed fan motors, and stretching the efficiency of coils, display cases, and walk in coolers.

    “Everything today is computer driven. Now we’re seeing electronic expansion valves (EEVs) becoming standard,” Shumbo says. Reducing refrigerant charges by adopting new configurations is also becoming an essential knowledge area. Next comes the secondary technology, which is helping to get refrigerant out of the system, using secondary coolant such as glycol or carbon dioxide (CO2,) to reduce the refrigerant charge, and streamline a facility’s carbon footprint.

    Bigger Customers, Centrally-Owned
    Shumbo has seen a lot of change related to technology, over his 30 years in the industry. Today, improved technology is paired with a need to be aware of customer relations. In the supermarket realm, the bosses have gotten bigger.

    “Looking across broad base of my customers, I see that most used to be independently owned. Now, 80% to 85% of those stores are corporate-owned. You don’t have the same one-on-one relationship. You interact with a manager, but they’re not the “owner.” That’s the biggest change I’ve seen. “My role is simplified when I can show my capability, and build up a rapport. Any expertise you can bring makes their job easier, he says.

    Refrigerant Issues Will Remain
    Until they find the “perfect” natural refrigerant, phaseouts of forulated gases will be regular events on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA's) to-do list. “It’s going to be similar to what we’ve gone through with R-12, R-502, and other early refrigerants. Now, they’re looking at 404A as having global warming potential (GWP), he says. “GWP is driving this industry to reduce refrigerant charges. Eventually, the cost of refrigerant will be so high due to regulations we’ll have no other choice.”

    Case Specialist Sees Sophistication at Work
    J.R. Hutchinson is vice president of technical operations for ISI Commercial Refrigeration, Dallas, TX. From three Texas offices, ISI installs and services commercial freezers and refrigerators for hospitals, hotels, restaurants, and cafeterias. Like Shumbo, Hutchinson has seen lots of change in his three decades of experience. It’s changing still, most notably in the dominance of specialization and ownership.

    “Thirty four years ago, the industry was populated by many small, independent companies working on relatively few pieces of complex equipment. Now, we see fewer small companies replaced by larger, specialized companies,” he says. “Equipment, too, is more specialized and computerized. Energy restrictions are certainly in play, driven by standards established in California. Refrigeration equipment has become substantially more sophisticated, very quickly.”

    Smaller, less nimble companies must adopt new methods and learn new technologies to remain viable. “Many smaller companies don’t know of all the new rules and regulations that are in place in states and cities,” Hutchinson explains. “For example, the minimum thickness (R-value) of insulation on a walk-in cooler has increased substantially. Unless a contractor keeps up with that, they could install a piece of equipment that technically isn’t legal.” Hutchinson says the National Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers (NAFEM) latest working Protocol will define the commercial kitchen of the future. It provides real-time informational tools to address five critical areas: product and inventory management; asset management; labor management; food safety; and of course, energy management.

    The Protocol could permit every piece of kitchen equipment to communicate with other equipment. This will give the operator the power and flexibility to select the equipment, software, and support that best suit his or her needs.

    Global Influence
    "Global" is an important concept to remember as we move forward. While it maynot be all that palatable, European methods are encroaching on the way U.S. companies perform.

    “Europe is on the forefront, as far as regulating hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) out of use, as is Australia,” says Robert DelVentura, vice president of global innovations, Heatcraft Refrigeration Products. DelVentura says Heatcraft engineers are helping contractors as they wrestle with terms such as, “Life Cycle Climate Performance” (LCCP), which refers to a balance between efficiency and global warming potential (GWP). “We want to optimize the energy efficiency of a system as well as its environmental impact,” DelVentura says. Much of the refrigerant research and development activity in Europe is related to CO2 cascade refrigeration systems.

    “In Australia and Europe, they’re experimenting with a cascade system that will use R-134A on the high side, and CO2 on the low side. That keeps the CO2 from going transcritical,” DelVentura says.

    “Cascade systems are used in U.S., and one of the differences in working with CO2 in summer conditions is that it will go transcritical unless you cascade it, which means you can’t condense it,” he explains. “You need a gas cooler instead of a condenser, but that creates inefficiencies. So, to get around that, you’ll see a cascade system that uses CO2 on the low side. You’ll have the benefits of CO2 and its low very GWP, without the inefficiencies of going transcritical.”

    Bill Almquist, president, Almcoe Refrigeration, Dallas, TX, and the 2009 Contracting Business Commercial Refrigeration Contractor of the Year, believes large direct expansion racks with heat exchangers and a secondary fluid of glycol/water are the “next big trend” in medium temp refrigeration.

    “These systems minimize refrigerant charge and installation costs (ABS piping is used for secondary fluid). The first cost might be higher, but cost of ownership is lower due to the smaller refrigerant charges. Secondary fluid leaks are relativly inexpensive to repair, and the single pump staion is a lower cost than multiple stations,” Almquist says.

    Sweet Dreams for Customers
    And what, perhaps above all else, do harried end-user customers want? A good night’s sleep, knowing that their stores’ systems are up-to-date, compliant with regulations, and as energy effcient as possible. It comes down to you, the contractor, and your initiative.
    “When a store manager goes to bed at night, he doesn’t want to be worrying about the refrigeration system failing,” Delventura says. “He wants a quality contractor who knows how to troubleshoot, maintains equipment well, and gives a heads-up when a new preventive maintenance method is available to reduce repairs. Contractors are a valuable link in the chain.”

    Commercial refrigeration today is anything but mundane. It’s filled with promise for contractors who want to succeed and grow. Those contractors will continue to be valued links in the chain, as they continue to keep in step with new developments, rather than resist them.

    Emerson’s Technology in Action Conference, held in Spring 2010 brought supermarket managers and contractors together to review key factors influencing store operations. Emerson experts and guest speakers addressed issues such as the future of refrigerants, the smart grid, supermarket and refrigeration system design innovations, and electric motors.

    Variable Frequency Drive Product Manager Alex Harvey said VFDs, especially when used in air handlers, reduce energy demand by more than 50% have rapid paybacks when applied to supermarket HVAC systems, reduce maintenance costs, and are high quality, reliable, mature technology products.

    According to Harvey:
    • A VFD will save the most energy when the existing system has only bypass control; the existing motor is operating at near nameplate amps; the motor runs 24/7/365; and reduced flow is required for a large percentage of time.
    • A VFD will save the most cost when: Local utility rates are high; local utilities offer rebates; and existing maintenance costs are high.

    Appal Chintapalli, Emerson's director of business development and marketing, reviewed proactive and reactive methods for analyzing facility operations, in light of the increased pressure felt by store managers to maintain low operational costs, improve profitability, and keep customers comfortable. To reduce facility costs, they have efficient equipment, store design, and remodels as tools. Best practice tools include reducing waste, optimizing performance, and driving business efficiency.

    Contractors can help supermarket customers manage costs by performing complete store assessments. Questions to ask include: what are the worst performing fixtures in the store? Are fixtures holding temperature? Is food being kept at the right temperature? What equipment should be replaced? Is the store operating at optimal cost? Answers can be gleaned from alarm data, temperature sensors, maintenance displays, controller set points, compressors, and refrigerant selection.

    John Wallace, P.E., director of product management for Emerson Retail Solutions, explored the benefits of maintenance based on actual condition of the equipment rather than on emergencies or planned maintenance. In this new approach,data is collected in real time, fault patterns are identified, and action is defined and followed through upon.