The push to convert to new-generation coolants is picking up steam.
As retailers gain experience from initial tests in converting from chlorofluorocarbon gases to hydrochlorofluorocarbon or hydrofluorocarbon coolants, the pace of change has picked up.
With CFC production banned and HCFC production scheduled to be phased out by the year 2010, retailers and wholesalers still face a host of choices and potential solutions to the coolant puzzle.
Many retailers don't feel compelled to rush into HFCs because the newest-generation coolants can be expensive to implement and involve more complex lubricant changes. HCFCs, on the other hand, are widely available and less expensive, but face a looming ban on production.
Meanwhile, retailers and wholesalers have to make a choice now.
"We've committed ourselves to HCFCs and we're not going to do much beyond that until we see what the refrigerant manufacturers are going to do," said John Townsend, research and development and engineering manager, Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C.
Food Lion has converted about half of the chain, or over 500 stores, to HCFC gases, he said. "We're really not convinced that any of the alternatives are the answers," Townsend added. "Because of the issues they've had with oils and some other issues that are unsettled, we're just reluctant to do anything beyond HCFCs."
Other retailers, though, are aggressively converting to HFCs with the expectation that the newer generation gases offer a long-term solution.
"I know a lot of our competitors are going the HCFC route. But we've skipped the HCFC phase. We went right to HFCs. We've probably done at least 500 stores out of a total of 1,000. We will be completely out of CFCs in all our divisions by the end of this year," said Randy McAdam, corporate maintenance and utility manager, Safeway, Pleasanton, Calif. "We just decided it would probably be better for us to go to a true long-term solution. A lot of people think we're doing the wrong thing, but that's the course we've chosen," he said.
Brookshire Grocery Co., Tyler, Texas, is also jumping directly into HFCs to avoid two conversions, but is doing so at a less aggressive pace than Safeway.
While 50% of the chain's 130 stores have been converted to HFCs, the remaining units will be switched over a multiyear timeframe, said Billy Shuttlesworth, equipment buyer and refrigeration supervisor.
When freon is removed from the CFC systems, it is recycled and put back in stock for reuse in stores that still use CFCs. When that supply runs low, however, more stores are converted. In this way, the CFC systems will be systematically eliminated over time, Shuttlesworth said.
Milt Blunt, store engineer at Associated Wholesale Grocers, Kansas City, Kan., also said that a significant number of its retail members with small stores plan to continue using CFCs until supplies become scarce and too costly.
Some larger retailers, though, are switching over the newer-generation coolants sooner and are more concerned about the phase out of HCFCs.
Of the 800 stores serviced by Associated Wholesale Grocers, an estimated 5% to 10% have switched to new coolants. What prompts retail member to switch to HCFCs is the construction of a new store or a substantial remodeling. "I've got one member right now that I'm working with on two of their stores regarding conversions," Blunt said.
Remodels, expansions and new stores are also driving the conversion process at H.E. Butt Grocery Co., San Antonio. H-E-B has 400 grocery stores, with about 35 to 45 refrigeration units per store.
There are 458 refrigeration units using CFCs that need to be retrofitted or changed to a new coolant system, said Daniel Kaufmann, manager of refrigeration. H-E-B recently completed three retrofits in the San Antonio area, he added.
"If we have a leak or a compressor change, we then convert the system to an alternative refrigerant," said Kaufmann. "If during the term of its life there is no leak or no compressor change, we will leave the system as it is.
"If a remodel come up, then the system will be reclaimed and we will then put in HCFC in its place," he said.
Kaufmann said the cost to convert to HCFC has gone as high as $1,500 per unit, but the retailer has managed to cut the cost to $800 per unit by reducing the number of technicians involved in the changeover.
Victor Berlage, senior facility engineer at Cincinnati-based Kroger Co.'s Indianapolis division, said one-third to one-half of the 120 stores in the division now use HCFCs or HFCs, and another 15 stores will be converted by year's end.
"Specifically what we're doing here in Indianapolis is eliminating CFCs as we discover major leaks or perform large remodels that require replacing refrigeration equipment. By recovering the CFCs in those stores, we also have enough supply for our maintenance needs for stores that have not yet been converted," Berlage said.
"If we're buying new equipment, we'll switch to HFCs. But If we're just replacing gas because of a leak, we've been using HCFCs. We're rethinking that last position, however, because we've had problems with the head pressure in some of the compressors," he said.
"Head pressures are just higher than we would like them to be and we believe that there are other alternatives out there that might give us the same refrigerating capacity and reliability without the increase in head pressures," he added.
Leonard Micek, manager of engineering for King Soopers, Denver, said about half of systems in the chain's 70 stores have been converted to HCFCs or HFCs.
King Soopers is also testing various refrigerating systems, including a Protocol system in one store, and screw compressors in six to eight other stores.
Micek explained that the Protocol system is unconventional in that the compressor is located next to the refrigerator rather than a remote location. As a result, less refrigerant piping is needed for installation, thereby reducing cost. However, additional piping with regard to the rejection of heat is required with this type of system.
Food Lion is trying something new by using glycol as a secondary refrigerant. HCFC is the primary refrigerant and is being used to cool and circulate glycol through the cases. This lowers the overall refrigerant charge in the system. Therefore, if there is a leak, glycol is lost rather than HCFC.
Food Lion has been using this type of system in the walk-in cooler and meat and produce prep rooms in a store in Maryland for three years, and for refrigerated cases in a store in Charlotte, N.C., for two years.