Refrigerant Leak Detection: An Essential Service for Refrigeration Contractors

Aug. 16, 2016
By providing effective refrigerant leak detection strategies, retailers can achieve savings not only at the individual store level, but also across their enterprise.
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By providing effective refrigerant leak detection strategies, retailers can achieve savings not only at the individual store level, but also across their enterprise.The Extensive Impact of Refrigerant Leaks But, the impact of refrigerant leaks goes beyond what most may expect. The true costs of refrigerant leaks are often underestimated, and contractors will benefit from better understanding this impact in order to position themselves as a valuable retail partner. According the EPA’s GreenChill research, the average supermarket has two to four refrigeration racks with approximately 3,500 pounds of refrigerant, and about 25 percent — or about 875 pounds —of its refrigerant supply is lost each year because of leaks. Multiply that loss by the number of stores across a grocery chain, and the costs can be much more significant. The retailer is not only losing refrigerant, but also needs to factor in the associated labor costs, the potential loss of business because of service disruptions and food quality issues that could result. As most commonly used refrigerants today are greenhouse gases, and some are ozone-depleting substances, there is increasing consumer and regulatory focus on minimizing the environmental impacts of refrigerant leaks. For example, assuming a leak rate of 20% across a chain of 100 typical supermarket stores, the nearly 70,000 pounds of refrigerant leaked annually is equivalent to 124,5000 metric tons of CO2, the emissions of 24,000 cars or 10,600 homes. Refrigerant leaks can also affect equipment performance, causing systems to run harder in order to compensate for the refrigerant lost.  Depending on system conditions this can have an impact on energy efficiency.  If the leak is severe enough the refrigeration system may not be able to keep the food at the proper temperatures which can also impact food quality. The EPA has had regulations in place for a number of years as part of the clean air act (generally referred to as section 608).  The California Air Resources Board (CARB) has also put regulations in place that govern the servicing of refrigeration equipment.  The EPA has proposed an update to the regulations governing most refrigerants that could impact both contractors and retailer operators. One key element of the proposed changes is to reduce the leak rate “trigger” at which a repair to a refrigeration system must be made. Contractors should keep up with how this dynamic regulatory landscape is affecting their retailer partners so they can best align their service with existing and changing regulations. The EPA web site ( provides information on the proposed regulations as well as other helpful information.   We know that the EPA is serious about enforcement around refrigerant regulations related to leak identification and proper repair of equipment. Effective leak detection programs can help retailers to manage and properly repair refrigerant leaks in order to avoid costly EPA settlements.
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Elements of Effective Leak Detection Programs The goal should be to establish proper leak detection response protocols, but also to institute proactive measures that minimize or eliminate leaks altogether. A zero-tolerance policy for leaks is ideal. To maximize the effectiveness of leak detection programs, retailers should clearly communicate the importance of detecting and minimizing leaks across their organization — which includes communication with their HVACR contractors. If this is not currently happening, we encourage contractors to engage retail operators to discuss the benefits of investing in leak detection programs. Accurate detection methods, reliable notifications and continuous monitoring are the key elements needed for effective leak detection programs:Detection — Leak detection strategy should begin with detection. There are different technologies to choose from, depending on the retailer’s requirements Automatic Leak Detection (ALD) equipment can help to ensure early detection of leaks and help to identify the location. Using an automated system can reduce inefficiencies and potential for error with manual inspections. You should consider installing leak detector devices in the locations that are most likely to produce refrigerant leaks - namely, racks, condensers and cases.Notification — To ensure that the appropriate individuals are alerted when a leak has occurred, alarms - which can be remote, local or a combination of both - are critical. Most remote notifications are integrated into a retailer’s facility management system, which can alert a technician or a remote monitoring center in order to identify, diagnose and address the leak properly.Continuous monitoring — This element is often overlooked but is important to an effective leak detection program. By recording and analyzing the system data from when a leak occurred, retailers can correlate that information with different types of equipment or maintenance events to take appropriate action. This can help with identifying problem areas and understanding the overall impact of the leaks. Monitoring provides valuable data for retailers — and their contractors — to continually improve the effectiveness of their leak detection program to ultimately eliminate leaks, as well as assist in improving overall facility operations.  Types of Leak Detection Technologies Direct technologies, which can be fixed hardware or portable devices used by technicians for inspections, directly monitor the concentration of refrigerants in the air. Both active and passive sensors are available for direct leak detection technologies. Active detectors use a central system with tubing that samples multiple areas. Passive sensors utilize zone-specific infrared technology, but can be expensive if a lot of them are used. Both types generally offer the ability to connect to a building management system which can provide remote notification capabilities. For stores with refrigeration racks, indirect technologies analyze data to detect leaks. Indirect leak detection monitors the operation of a refrigeration system to infer whether a leak is present. This application is conducted with existing sensors and hardware on site, and it relies on algorithms to look at existing conditions, such as temperatures, liquid levels and ambient conditions to interpret if a leak is occurring. It also monitors the equipment history and trend analytics. For best results, retailers can combine both technologies.How Leak Detection Applies to Contractors HVACR contractors working on food retail systems would benefit from better understanding the broad impact of refrigerant leaks. They can provide value to their retail partners by assisting with the implementation of an effective leak detection program. Partner with the operators to discuss the challenges and opportunities for their business, focusing on the advantages to investing in a program that helps to get to the bottom of a refrigerant leak issue - and not just focus on the quick fix.  Locating leaks can be very challenging but not finding and properly repair a leak can be very costly as noted above. Contractors can help the operators to understand the impact on energy, food quality and other issues that can arise from leaks benefiting both the operator and the contractor. It’s important to have proper maintenance procedures in place to minimize leak rates. Perform regular inspections and implement preventive maintenance on refrigeration systems to help retailers save more over time. Avoiding refrigerant leaks is less expensive than repairing them after they’ve occurred.
John Wallace, director of innovation at Emerson Climate Technologies Retail Solutions, has been active in the design and development of electronic control systems for more than 20 years.