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Transcript of Refrigeration Roundtable

Here is the blow-by-blow of the discussion on energy conservation and R-22 replacements at the Refrigeration Roundtable, hosted by Supermarket News and

Dealing with the energy consumed by their commercial refrigeration systems was the first topic addressed at the third annual Refrigeration Roundtable, held Sept. 20-21 at the Schaumburg Convention Center, Schaumburg, Ill.

Hosted by SN and, a sister publications at Penton Media, the roundtable brought together refrigeration executives from food retailers and the contracting firms that install and service commercial refrigeration. The event was sponsored by Hill Phoenix, Danfoss and Emerson Climate Technologies.

Refrigeration Roundtable retailers, from left: Jon Scanlan, Hy-Vee;  Paul Anderson, Target; Howard Hehrer, Meijer; Ted Alwine, Martin’s Super Markets; Joe Gallego,  BJ’s Wholesale;  Scott Martin, Hill Phoenix.
Refrigeration Roundtable retailers, from left: Jon Scanlan, Hy-Vee; Paul Anderson, Target; Howard Hehrer, Meijer; Ted Alwine, Martin’s Super Markets; Joe Gallego, BJ’s Wholesale; Scott Martin, Hill Phoenix.

Refrigeration Roundtable contractors, from left: Mike Saunders, Emerson Climate Technologies;  BoB Axelrod, Cooling Equipment Service;  Steve Tibbets,  T&O Refrigeration;  Mike Martin, Carlson & Stewart; Brent Beishuizen, Zone Mechanical.
Refrigeration Roundtable contractors, from left: Mike Saunders, Emerson Climate Technologies; Bob Axelrod, Cooling Equipment Service; Steve Tibbets, T&O Refrigeration; Mike Martin, Carlson & Stewart; Brent Beishuizen, Zone Mechanical.


Jai Hoover, Remco
Jai Hoover, Remco

The transition from R-22 to alternative refrigerants – a tricky process for retailers -- was another topic covered at the roundtable. Other topics will be addressed in future editions of SN and on the SN website.

Participating in the roundtable from the supermarket industry were Jon Scanlan, director-refrigeration & energy management, Hy-Vee, West Des Moines, Iowa; Paul Anderson, group manager, refrigeration/engineering, Target, Minneapolis; Joe Gallego, manager of refrigeration & HVAC services, BJ's Wholesale Club, Westborough, Mass.; Howard Hehrer, senior engineer, Meijer, Grand Rapids, Mich.; and Ted Alwine, director, engineering, Martin’s Super Markets, South Bend, Ind.

Read more: Refrigeration Roundtable: Energy Mavens

Representing the contracting industry were Mike Martin, president, Carlson & Stewart, Marshall, Minn.; Bob Axelrod, president, Cooling Equipment Service, Elk Grove Village, Ill.; Steve Tibbets, owner, T&O Refrigeration, Fayetteville, Ga.; Jai Hoover, vice president, Remco, Allentown, Pa.; and Ed Mattos, president, Remco. Also participating in the energy discussion was Scott Martin, director of sustainable technologies, Hill Phoenix, Conyers, Ga., and participating in the R-22 discussion was Kurt Knapke, director - compressor electronics at Emerson Climate Technologies, Sidney, Ohio.

A full transcript of the energy and R-22 discussion follows.

Energy-Saving Strategies

SN:  What is your approach to saving energy in refrigeration systems? 

SCANLAN:  The efficiency piece is key, but I believe optimizing the system that you have in place is equally as important.  Hy-Vee’s refrigeration maintenance is very de-centralized. However, we do utilize utility benchmarking from a corporate standpoint.  We identify outliers that use the most energy and try and go back and attack it from that angle. 

Like much of the industry, we're putting doors on medium-temp cases, using LED case lighting, EC fan motors, and trying to build as many efficiencies into the system as possible.  A number of those things are becoming standard, but I think optimizing is equally as important.  A lot of that has expanded from re-commissioning and going back and verifying set points and that sort of thing.

SN:  So you have an ongoing look at the energy efficiency of your systems to make sure that they're being optimized?

SCANLAN:  Yes, to some degree. We use a utility benchmarking company called Ecova. We're able to run energy usage reports based on square footage.  We are also able to somewhat normalize against refrigeration legend BTU details.  We can identify those outliers and then we establish the top-20 list as far as who the energy-use offenders are and go back and work through the contractors and our store directors to try and improve.

SN:  What usually is the reason they're outliers?

SCANLAN:  It's any number of things. We all know that the techs can be under a lot of pressure at time of repair, and set points can get changed. There are plenty of opportunities for suction pressure to get adjusted and it doesn't get put back, or defrost times are changed to combat a particular problem and never changed back. Overhead lighting programs may have dropped out of the controller, or a lighting conversion may be appropriate. There may be instances where LED lighting upgrades (from fluorescent) in frozen food cases haven't been taken advantage of yet. 

ANDERSON:  Saving energy is about understanding all of the interactions within refrigeration systems.  It could be the system.  It could be components.  It could be the training, the interaction with the contractors, your manufacturers, but it starts with understanding the application you're designing for, including the store format, the store size and the intended use of the equipment.  If you can truly understand those initial design considerations and consider how the design will impact your total cost of ownership, that will go a long way in helping you achieve your goals and drive some really good results.

For instance, we’ve looked at a number of different compressors and refrigerants over the last few years.  There's been a large focus in the industry about the best refrigerant, and how to get the best performance out of that refrigerant.   We looked at some refrigerants that haven't really been applied in supermarkets in the past, like R-134A. Selecting a refrigerant for your application with maybe an optimized system or component will help you deliver the results you're looking for.

Target has goals for energy outlined on our corporate website (  We outline our goals regarding carbon impact, as well as the government's Energy Star Program.  These are two areas where we set our goals and we measure ourselves according to these goals, and that's open for the public to view.

Contractor engagement is critical, because not only is the design and the manufacturing of the components critical, but it's also the installation and the start-up and the operation of those components. So you have to have strong ties with your contractors.  You have to help each other understand what the needs and wants are and where there may be gaps between Target's performance and the contractor’s performance, and work to close those gaps. If that's through training, best practices, benchmarking through the industry, then bring that all together to ensure that going forward we all achieve what we need to do and that is the lowest  total cost of ownership for all the companies.

SN: Paul, you say it starts with the application.  Do you work with the merchandisers at your company to make sure you'll design the application to best serve the needs of the merchandisers?  Is that part of the equation?

ANDERSON: That is a big part of the equation -- understanding their needs and applying this to the design. A good example of that is the selection of refrigerated cases that you use in any given format. It’s extremely important to meet the merchants' needs, the shopability, the guest impact, making sure that the guest receives the product that they want at the end of the day; so we work very closely with our merchants to develop and implement a solution that fits their needs.

SN: Howard, how does Meijer analyze the energy component of the refrigeration system?

HEHRER:  We also use Ecova to identify high users, to get a benchmarking with our refrigerant load at the stores, and we're also developing a refrigerant system recommissioning program that will be implemented.  In regard to the case selection, like Paul was saying, one recent example we had was the fresh meat cases.  With the newer, more efficient cases we’re able to deliver a higher discharge temperature and case temperature and still keep the meat at the temperature merchandising requires.  So by educating our corporate customers and doing some testing, we save energy on suction pressures while keeping the cases at the required temperature.  That type of interaction with merchandising is where we can score some big energy savings.

We're also weeding out older compressor systems, old parallel systems, open drive systems, and moving to more efficient, newer systems and keeping the old systems tuned up.  That's where we're seeing our biggest savings.

SN:  Do you have a sense of how much more efficient your systems are today, compared to a few years ago?

HEHRER:  It's really hard to tell with all of the other changes that have gone on and the systems going to glass doors on cases, more efficient cases.  Overall I don't know that we put a number on it, but I can tell you, as everyone knows, the rack system has gotten quite a bit smaller for the same case compared to what it used to be.

ALWINE:  Compared to the larger retailers here, I have a unique viewpoint as a smaller chain with only 21 stores, so we look at things differently.  Our systems range in age from a few years old to 20 years old, and being a small company, we're only able to do so much with limited resources.  So we have mostly stayed with central DX systems. That seems to be what makes sense for us, that's what we're familiar with.  Maybe it's because we still feel that it’s a very efficient system.

As far as working with contractors, they're not necessarily plentiful in and around South Bend, Indiana, so that presents a challenge for us. We're working through that. And then lastly again, for a small company, you have to consider this economy and what you're truly able to do, so when sales aren't      where you want them to be and merchandising and operations aren't necessarily happy, they're not      as anxious for you to spend big bucks on new things and take chances.

SN:  That also means that it's even more important to make sure that systems are running efficiently and at the lowest possible costs.

ALWINE:  It does and I think going back to the comment that you do more work in optimizing what you’ve got and making what you have -- and what you're putting in place as new equipment -- as efficient as you possibly can.

One thing we've done with newer stores is really work hard on optimizing ambient sub-cooling, which doesn't cost you too much to do.  And by watching that process and maintaining proper head pressures and allowing that to work for you with cold weather ambient, we found that we can realize substantial energy savings by reducing compressor run-times.

And as far as goal setting and tracking the results, again, as a small company with limited resources we tend not to spend enough time on the results.  So we don't know how effective we are for sure.

SN:  Joe, you have a little bit of a different format at BJ's as a club chain.  That must pose some unique efficiency challenges.

GALLEGO:  It does, and one thing that's a huge challenge that we're starting to address is our building envelope. Typically, our older clubs were designed as a “vanilla box” and nobody considered RH [relative humidity] or more importantly, dew point.  We have really been addressing that issue over the past two years with great success and I see many other chains now starting to look at dehumidification systems, controlling building envelopes, which makes a big difference in the efficiency of the systems.

There is low hanging fruit out there. Every day when my staff is dialing in to check systems, I always encourage them look at the suction pressures.  If we can get those suction pressures up and have less run time in the compressors, energy usage is down. We've gone through many clubs in the last two or three years replacing every case and taking advantage of the more efficient coils, and those savings can be tremendous. 

We as a chain are up to 200 clubs.  The fastest-growing part of our business is perishable-food retail.  Hands down, it grows every quarter.  When we remodel, we're adding racks, we're adding new systems whenever possible and we also have merchandising vendors installing self-contained cases, adding to overall energy use. However, with the efficiencies of the new clubs and lighting systems, our energy usage has gone up less than 2%, which I don't think is too bad considering the addition of five new buildings.

We don't really have a goal at this point other than saving expense and energy whenever possible, but we're addressing issues as we go along such as floating suction.  This is a simple step as an easy energy saver.  Every controls manufacturer has provisions for this in their control algorithms now.  It's what do you want to float?  How far do you want to float?  Energy savings right off the bat.  So, maintenance plays an important part; implementing a maintenance program, making sure that your transducers are reading correctly.  When I'm looking at a system that thinks it’s running at a 25-pound suction and that rack is actually running 13 pounds, that's not really helping controlling energy. We like to get our techs when they're out in the field to verify that transducers are reading correctly.

CONTRACTINGBUSINESS.COM:  How are contractors finding ways to optimize energy through refrigerant choices, system selection, maintenance or training? 

TIBBETTS:   As a contractor, we're pretty much dictated by the chain.  We work with major chains on what we install, what we service.  Some of the things we've been doing lately in some older stores include E2 [Facility Management System] upgrades and CDS [temperature-control] valves. 

In most of our higher-energy-usage stores, we'll go in and look around and find the biggest culprit is lighting issues, parking lot lights, hot water running all the time -- things that are out of our control.  We'll have customers that will add 10 to 15 pieces of self-contained equipment – that have condensate pans with electric heaters drying up water -- and don't take into consideration the energy usage or the heat they put back in the store.  One of the best recommendations we make is to add a digital discus to each rack to balance out the machine.  That's the kind of thing we see as contractors that we think will be a big help.

M. MARTIN: With independents, we’re working with the actual owner that wants to put something into his store and have it energy efficient. We look at heat reclaim, water heat reclaim, and under-floor heat. We’re making sure they have the latest in micro-processors. If they have older stores, to make racks more efficient we install electronic stepper regulator (ESR) valves. We may replace an existing compressor with an Emerson Copeland digital scroll compressor to limit the cycling of compressors. Tim Uderman, contractor support manager for Emerson, has been working with us on those applications. We look at LED lights, ECM motors, splitting condensers, and liquid subcooling (mechanical or ambient subcooling). We look at optimizing defrost schedules and compressor cycling, and floating suction and discharge pressures. Anything we can do to help that customer succeed.

AXELROD:  We do pretty much the same thing. One of the most important things we look for is how is the customer going to be using what we're installing.  We don't do a lot of supermarket business.  We do more work with food manufacturers, storage distribution centers, that sort of thing, so we try and look very closely at what process the food is going to follow and what temperatures they need along the way, and tailor our systems to that. We buy very, very little off-the-shelf equipment.  Virtually everything we do is either a custom-made rack or custom-made condensing unit with oversized condensers, electronic controls, and electronic expansion valves. 

What we look for is basically ways to save energy.  People say, “This is what was designed, this is what we want to use.  We can go ahead and buy this ahead of time.”  Well, we find that most of this stuff      that we install will save them huge amounts of energy over a period of time. We will find ways to incorporate heat reclaim and digital control systems.  We couldn't find a digital control system that we      really liked, so in essence, we wrote our own program with off-the-shelf materials that look at what's going on from a serviceman's aspect -- what he needs to know so that if we get an alarm call, which we do over the Internet or phones, they can solve a lot of problems right away.  They will print out reports but we want to be able to diagnose a problem and help the customer solve it without ever even going out there.  So everything that we try and do is customer-focused in that way with heat reclaim,       energy efficient motors, electronic expansion valves, fan cycling on condensers, oversize condensers.

SN:  Are the supermarket companies taking advantage of heat reclaim to save energy?

GALLEGO:  We shy away from heat reclaim only because as part of GreenChill, we're trying to keep leak rates down and when you add piping, coils and other components, we find we're adding refrigerant leak potential.  We stick with water reclaim to preheat the hot water at this point.  That's really only the heat reclaim we're using.

Read more: Retailers Grapple With Refrigerant Conversions

TIBBETTS:  I kind of agree.  Heat reclaim I'm sure saves a lot of energy, but in some systems you're looking at probably 300 to 400 pounds of additional refrigerant to run heat reclaim. R-22 refrigerant at $2 a pound makes sense, but I'm not so sure it makes sense now with R-22 at $15 a pound.

We see chains building stores that put electric heat in when they have natural gas in the area.  You know, we begin to scratch our heads and wonder what's going on. 

SN:  Does anybody have a different experience with heat reclaim? 

ANDERSON:  I think everybody needs to truly understand their application and make use of the heat when they can.  There are going to be some future refrigeration systems where the energy savings truly comes when you can apply heat reclaim. Those systems that we may be looking at in the future will not be as efficient as our current systems, so you have to look at the technologies, you have to look at your application, your format, and truly understand the whole to keep the total cost of ownership down.

SCANLAN:  We're in the same boat.  We use it for hot water preheating right now.  We used to use a lot more in HVAC, but from the expanded refrigerant charge and just maintaining the higher discharge just to use that, not sure that it makes the most sense right now for us, so primarily hot water.

HEHRER:  We've gotten away from using it for heating also.  We've moved to distributed systems, for one thing, so we're close to the load. We don't have the central system where it's easier to take advantage of the reclaim.  We use it for hot water off a couple of the low-temp systems.  And with the systems operating more efficiently these days and the lower heat of rejection during the winter, the heat is really not there when we need it in the winter to heat in the back rooms.

Alternative Energy Sources

SN: Do any of the chains or the contractors have some experience with renewable energy sources?

SCANLAN:  We have two applications that just opened up within the last month.  We have solar panels on one of our convenience stores; we have them on the gas canopy.  Really no results to share -- we're not real sure yet.  Then we have a new store in Urbandale, Iowa, where we have a relatively small solar installation as well.

The down side with us -- and we're certainly approached by a number of contractors -- is our blended rate for KWH [kilowatts per hour] company-wide in Iowa and surrounding states is roughly six cents per KWH.  To make math work out for an ROI is extremely difficult.

ANDERSON:  We have applied solar technology in California, Hawaii, and New Jersey stores, and we're also looking at applying fuel cell technology in a few stores.

GALLEGO:  In our 200 club chain, roughly 8% of our clubs have some type of solar energy panels.  Some of the older ones have 20 KW [kilowatt] systems to just handle light loads. Recently, we've added some 750 KW systems where we're actually putting energy back on the grid; we're running these clubs completely solar. More recently we’re getting ready to implement solar in our distribution centers, where we're going to install one megawatt solar-panel systems.

SN:   How do traditional DX systems and traditional refrigerants compare to some of the new alternatives in terms of energy? 

ANDERSON:  We've looked at a few alternate refrigerants.  Our experience with CO2 has been an increase in energy consumption across the board.  Some systems were more prominent than others. For the secondary (pumped) CO2 systems we've experienced about a 24% increase in energy use.  When we look at the cascade CO2 systems, it’s about a 10% increase in energy use. Another alternative refrigerant we've looked at is glycol secondary and we experience about an 18% increase in energy consumption with this system. 

When you look at synthetic refrigerants such as R-407A and applying that technology to existing R-22 systems, we really haven't seen much variability in energy at all. And with 134A, when applied with optimized compressor technologies, we do see energy efficiency gains.

SN: Can any of the manufacturers at the table say whether their newer systems are providing energy savings compared to earlier systems?

S. MARTIN: People do see energy parity [with CO2 pumped and cascade systems].  Paul [Anderson]'s experience has not been as favorable.  Some of that is our fault, as we had some misapplications in design and lack of component availability in the appropriate capacity range, which hopefully have been corrected in stores going forward, we'll soon see.

SN: Are the traditional DX [direct expansion] systems more efficient today than they were two, three, five years ago?

GALLEGO:  Applying new technologies to regular old DX systems absolutely increases efficiency.  ECM motors in cases and walk-ins, having the speed control for ECM motors on condensers, variable-speed drives on compressors and electronic expansion valves, are all huge contributors to efficiency.

SN:  Have the retailers put doors on their medium temp cases?

ANDERSON:  We have not applied doors across the board.  We have a nice test of five stores with doors on medium-temperature cases.  We've been evaluating the performance of those stores for over a year now. We have some really good data and at this time we're reviewing the data to ensure that we make good decisions going forward.

SCANLAN:  We began using doors in medium-temp cases in 2011 for new installations and to date we've had great results.

SN:  So it really has saved significant amounts of energy?

SCANLAN:  We feel it has.

GALLEGO:  Can we dispel the misnomer in the merchandising world that sales drop as a result of installing doors on cases?

ANDERSON:  I cannot dispel that myth.

CONTRACTINGBUSINESS.COM:  I have seen two different studies that say two different things -- a yes and a no.

ANDERSON:  I think it's important for everyone to take a very close look at the numbers and all the performance factors when you apply new technologies. And truly understand up front what level of detail you need to measure and make sure you follow that through, in a complete study, to ensure that you make good decisions for your company.

TIBBETTS:  On the contractor side we see when doors are added to the chains, they tend not to make the adjustments to the machines. Then all of a sudden we've got racks that are running compressors at 100% and now they're calling for half their use.  We've got machines sitting there not operating.  It creates a lot of problems on our end of the table, making this equipment work efficiently and right. When retailers put doors on things, that needs to be taken into consideration.  I'm sure a lot of you guys do, but a lot of customers we work for don't and then they come blame us because we have problems.

ANDERSON:  Steve, I think it's very important, whether you're designing new systems or applying new technologies or advancing innovation, that you work closely not only with your designer in-house and your manufacturing base, but also with the contractor before you apply those technologies to ensure that you've heard everybody's voice and have thoughtfully put together a plan to address this innovation.  There should really be no blame. We're all in it together and that's the point.

HEHRER:  We haven't applied any medium-temp doors yet aside from dairy coolers.  We're still working with merchandising to try to convince them to do a test and just prove to themselves whether the doors will affect their sales.  We've already shown them what the energy savings can be and it's a pretty compelling case. As far as implementing the technologies, you have to look at the system as a whole, and as we go forward, you have to look at things like the suction, lines, risers, the racks, and make     sure you don't just slap doors on cases and think you're done and you're going to save energy. Take a holistic approach to the whole system.

ALWINE:  We started experimenting with doors on medium-temp cases about five years ago.  We partnered with a company in Elkhart, Indiana -- Remis America. I believe, we were one of their first installations.  At that time, we installed doors on dairy cases only. And regarding Joe's question – do doors impact sales?  We don't have an answer either, but we find that the perception of the customer is positive and most of the problem is uncertainty coming from merchandisers. 

These days we're putting all of our dairy, about half of our produce, and all of our pre-packed meat in cases with doors.  In newer stores, those are manufactured cases [with doors]. In older stores, we've done door retrofits in three stores now, with another four planned for the coming year. The next big step is retrofitting doors on fresh meat cases and I don't know if I'll win that argument, but I think we heard at FMI Energy, that by 2020, doors on refrigerated case will be required. So I think it's something that we have to figure out how to do.

S. MARTIN:   Could you guys speculate a bit about what your merchandisers would do if everybody put on doors?  It seems that a lot of drawback or resistance is that the guy down the street doesn't have doors, so I don't want doors on my stores because I don't want to possibly lose sales. But, what if everyone had doors?  Has anyone seen -- especially contractors – retailers who have really promoted the energy savings of doors and how that translates into cost savings that can be passed on to the customers?

GALLEGO:  I think one of the tough things for a company like BJ's is that much of our fresh meat, fish and cheese is out on the sales floor in a low profile case and we don't have an option for a door in that case.  We do have some along the wall for produce and some deli that we could retrofit, but a lot of our opportunities are gone because of our case selection.

SN Refrigeration Survey: R-22 Still Widely Used

SN: How do you deal with peak energy rates, making sure that your systems are programmed to minimize the effects of peak energy?

SCANLAN:  From our standpoint, we know refrigeration is over 40% of our electric load, so from a peak KW standpoint, we do the same thing as far as looking at it from a bigger picture. The biggest driver is our refrigeration contractor who oversees maintenance, control strategies and the sequencing of those refrigeration compressors. So if we have a power failure and it comes back on, say, at 4:00 in the afternoon on a summer day when your demand is the highest, then we're not banging everything on at one time.  We count on those guys. 

GALLEGO:  BJ's has taken some small steps.  We're now testing some products. What we want to do on the HVAC side is to make sure that the compressors don't all start at the same time at peak hours, so we're testing some staging controls.

ANDERSON:  I think for Target, it's pretty much been ongoing.  We have an energy team within Target that works closely with our utility suppliers to truly understand all aspects of our energy consumption, and then we work with our design teams and also our store teams to ensure that we implement processes and procedures that fully take advantage of those suggestions from our utility companies.

Replacing R-22

SN: 2020, less than eight years away, is the year when R-22 will no longer be available for the most part. What steps are you taking with R-22 retrofits and dealing with the shortages of R-22? 

SCANLAN:  To date we have not been too active in the retrofit part of it. Attrition has really has taken R-22 out of many of our stores for the most part for us. We've been very active and diligent as far as reusing all the R-22 that we pull out in existing stores. We made a switch to R-404A probably around 2005 and are evaluating if 404A is the answer right now -- and we’re likely getting away from that. It seems like we're trying to aim at a moving target. The industry really hasn't collectively landed in one spot. So, like many, we're still just evaluating.

SN: That is the tricky part of the R-22 question -- what do you replace it with?  The HFCs are not necessarily the best long-term solution, considering their impact on global warming. What do you mean by attrition?

SCANLAN:  We touch our stores frequently enough. For the most part every six, seven years we're into our stores. If we have a major remodel, often we'll go back in with a distributed system, which actually helps with construction phasing out [R-22] for the remodel; then we would go to an HFC with R-404A, or potentially R-407A in the future.

At that end of the day, tight systems are still the best approach and it doesn't matter if you've got 12, 502, 22 or 404A. We can't stress enough to our contractors that we need tight systems. That's the single most important thing. We heard at FMI last week that the industry average leak rate is approaching 25%.  We just have to stress that's unacceptable. There are chains out there that have under a 10% leak rate. It may be not the norm, but it sure needs to be.

SN: Paul, some of your colleagues at the FMI conference talked about retrofits that they're doing. Can you elaborate on that?

ANDERSON:  Sure. We've taken a number of steps over the last few years to truly understand how we're going to manage this enormous asset, regardless of what type it is, R-22 or R-404A, in our systems. We are working closely with the chemical manufacturers to try and define what a good alternative is to R-22. What we can replace it with that doesn't have a significant impact on our contractor base rate so that we can support it moving forward. We started with R-407A -- that's the one we kind of landed on.  We replaced the refrigerant in seven of our stores that use R-22, and we're currently evaluating the performance.  We're not sure exactly where to go in the future either.  We'll continue to evaluate.  We have developed different plans regarding working with reclaimers’ reuse of that refrigerant [R-22] vs. just complete change out.

HEHRER:  We've been in a change-out program about eight years, changing out the various HCFC refrigerants that we had put in to replace the CFCs, and so as someone said, it seems we're hitting a moving target all the time. We're also kind of piggybacking onto our major case-replacement initiative that we’ve had going on the last few years. Whenever we touch a system, if it's a candidate for a change out, we'll change it out at that time.  And we also designate a certain number of stores for change out outside of any remodels.  And we've changed out a little over two-thirds of our systems so far and we're estimating we're going to be done with      all HCFCs in two years.

SN:  What are you using in their place?

HEHRER:  Primarily R-404A.  That's what we had started with when we started changing out systems and we really wanted to try to standardize throughout the chain. We have tried a few others, R-422D and R-422A, but R-404A meets all of our needs and as we change out systems we really tighten them up and our leak rate has decreased steadily.

SN: So you're also moving to distributed systems from standard systems?

HEHRER:  Yes, that's our prototype for new stores, and it's also our replacement plan for remodels and updating old stores.

SN: Jon, you said you were moving to distributed?

SCANLAN:  We're not moving there in all cases.  We do that for rolling remodels.  We do it for additions and where it makes sense in new construction.  We're still primarily utilizing rack DX racks.

SN: Going forward?

SCANLAN:  Going forward we're still DX rack systems. We're not distributed. We use distributed when we go back and remodel. There are certain applications, if it's a small enough store, where distributed makes perfect sense. Some applications it doesn't make sense for us, and a rack is still the best way to go.

HEHRER:  I'll clarify a little bit. We're based out of Grand Rapids, about 200 stores, and we're a big box, about 200,000 square feet on average, a third of that grocery. So we've got a pretty large footprint and that's why a distributed system made sense -- rather than centralized racks –to shorten up the piping

SN: Is there a tendency to favor R-407A because it's lower global warming potential?

TIBBETTS:   Yes, plus from what we have seen it works great.  We just completed an R-22 to R-407A [conversion] in two small 13-circuit racks.  It went beautifully. We were able to do it overnight with product in the cases. We were able to get under 500 microns and still maintain product integrity.  We had the systems off approximately eight hours each.  And we haven't had the first service call out of it. There was just very little adjustment on the expansion valves. It seems to be a good product, a good way to go.

SN: Do you tend to leave the food in cases?

TIBBETTS:  Yes, we have been able to do conversions without pulling product. They cover the product, put some dry ice out and have had no product problems whatsoever.  They did have some stand-by refrigerated trailers in case we had major issues.  We started at 10:00 pm and by about 4:00 a.m. we had systems running again and by 6:00 a.m. we were off the floor.  It went great.

GALLEGO:  In 2009 we decided R-407A was our choice going forward with new clubs and retrofits. We've experimented on retrofits with some other refrigerants, like R-422D, only because it was cheaper to not have to change the oil. But as we defined the scope and got better at it, we got to the point that if we bring in a liquid pump driven by an air compressor, we can have 800 pounds out of a rack within 45 minutes and never have to remove product. We do one rack per night and just keep moving along; and we're hitting 25 clubs a year. In another year two years, we'll be a company that has transitioned from 100% R-22 dependency to none. Banking the R-22 is another great way to go.  With the rates of 22 right now, we have 25,000 pounds in storage that we can take advantage of at $3 a pound. So it was really a no-brainer for us.

SN blog: U.S. Retailers Should Follow U.K. Regarding HFCs

S. MARTIN:  What's driving you away from R-22?  Is it the cost of the gas or the global warming potential?

GALLEGO:  The same thing that drove the [removal of] R-12, R-502. The gas eventually has to be gone, so why not be proactive?  Get it out of there.

TIBBETTS:  For us cost is the major reason to convert. We take care of about 150 stores and we're single digits on leak rates. But still, at the price of R-22 – last year I was able to buy it at $4 a pound; it costs $12 a pound now. From that standpoint, it makes no sense not to do conversions and use up the reclaimed gas in customer’s other stores. And now that we've completed one, we know we can do it and not affect retail whatsoever, so it seems like a no-brainer on our side of the table.

ANDERSON:  Steve, question for you. You've talked a lot about the price of R-22.  What's the price of R-407A or some of these alternative refrigerants?

TIBBETTS:  407A is under $5 a pound, and I understand it's coming down.

Regulation Worries

SN: It’s been mentioned that R-22-to-HFC retrofits are a moving target because HFCs, as a high-global warming gas, are probably not that far away from being regulated and phased out themselves. Is there any reason for maybe leapfrogging HFCs and going from R-22 directly to an alternative like CO2 that won’t be regulated?

SCANLAN:  That's a legitimate fear. If a viable alternative that didn't create an energy penalty, if it existed today, I think every one of us in this room would jump on it. We haven't seen it there yet.

ANDERSON: I would suggest everybody takes a close look at applying technology and how quickly you apply new technologies, because a lot of times there are unintended consequences, things we haven't thought through today that may pop up.  Just think very carefully about what that means and the implications to all of us in this room.

S. MARTIN:  I know there are several retailers who are ready to test HFO blends but the blends are not ready. Some retailers have been ready for more than a year, close to two years, to do a retrofit and test HFO blends, but the manufacturers are not ready to release the gas for testing.

KNAPKE:  I would say that right now there are a lot of different  refrigerants in the market.  What Scott said is correct.  The refrigerant companies are evaluating both A1 refrigerants that are non-flammable and HFO refrigerant blends in the A2L category. However, it's probably three to five years before they're ready to go into production with the HFO blends wide-scale.  It will probably be another year or two before they're willing to do field tests, so that puts the end users in a tough situation because they've got existing systems out there where they're looking for a drop-in replacement and they're probably only looking at HFCs such as  R-407A and others.

Their fear is right. HFCs are going to be regulated and more than likely phased out, so they're going to retrofit systems today using the R-407A, and then five, seven, 10 years down the road have to change the refrigerant to something else.  It's like a Catch-22. The other alternative system options the industry is exploring are not good retrofits and are basically a ground up design: CO2 as a refrigerant in cascade or transcritical systems, secondary systems, or distributed systems. So now you're talking a lot differently, from just changing refrigerants to changing the entire refrigeration system in the store.

When you look at all those options, you have to really think of your total cost of ownership. What is the impact on the system itself -- realizing energy is really the bill you need to pay every day and then your environmental impact being second.  It's a big thing to get your arms around. I would say in the industry there are a few people out there that have the expertise to evaluate it all – including some of the end users here today. But a lot of the independents and the smaller guys just don't have the engineering expertise or manpower to really tackle the evaluation needed to understand the decisions they're making.  All these result in no easy answer at this point.

CONTRACTINGBUSINESS.COM: Supervalu has opened a store in Carpinteria, California, that uses ammonia, propane, and CO2.

ANDERSON: We're all anxiously awaiting information on that store to come out, and I think it's also important to note that they have a back-up system that uses R-407A. Truly understanding the performance when they switch from one to the other is going to be very important for all of us in the industry.

AXELROD: We've been basically switching [from R-22] over to R-507. We've been doing that for years. It makes a fairly easy switch as long as the compressor can handle it.  We've had very good luck.  Obviously, the difference we have, since we don't work with a lot of chain stores, is we have to convince all of our customers to do it. If it's under contract, we subsidize the switch if they've lost a large amount of refrigerant. If it's not under contract, we still try and make it easier for them to switch either by subsidizing it or just showing them what R-22 is going to cost now and in the future -- because the price has already skyrocketed. But it's a very different approach for a contractor because we can't make a corporate decision to do it like you guys can.  It's each individual customer, one at a time, so it makes our life a little more difficult. I don't know if you guys see the same thing.  I know you do a lot of chain stores.

SN: Do the retailers generally dictate what they want to do in terms of retrofits or do contractors collaborate with them?

TIBBETTS:  They ask our opinion, but at the end of the day, I'm not sure they listen. The problem with R-404 and R-507 retrofits -- older pumps can't handle it.  They have to be changed and that's a big expense.

AXELROD:  It depends what brand it is.

TIBBETTS:  That's correct.  The majority of what we see in the Southeast is Copeland and if these are older models with laser reeds, they have to be replaced because they won't take 404 or 507.

SN:  What do you generally recommend as far as the retrofits?

TIBBETTS:  As I said, the R-407A works fine. We did an R-422 conversion and the energy numbers went up substantially.  I think that for some of the drop-in refrigerants with mineral oil, the energy numbers are not going to work.  If I owned a chain, I would go slowly. I would do a few, see how it went, see what happens a year down the road.

SN When you retrofit, I take it that it's an opportunity to really look at leak-tightening your systems.

TIBBETTS:  As an owner of a small contracting firm, with the chains we work for, if we have leaks down the road, we have to pay for them, so we make sure they're tight and we follow it pretty hard. Mistakes do happen and there is only so much you can do to tighten up the system.  We’ve found one of the best leak tools for us is liquid-level auto polling. If you’ve got the proper electronics on the rack to do that, auto polling has worked wonders for us.  The drawback for us is, try to find somebody that will stick to it. It's kind of mundane stuff, so your average refrigeration man can't handle it.

AXELROD:  I have one question. Since most of your people are contract people, have you been able to work the increased price of R-22 into your contracts or are you taking the hit for it yourself?

TIBBETTS:  No, we take the hit.  They figure it costs us more, so we'll work harder to reduce the leaks, and there’s a lot to be said for that, but that's why we're pushing hard to get rid of 22.

SN: Steve, you said you keep your leak rates under 10%?

TIBBETTS:  Single digits.

SN: That's pretty good.

TIBBETTS:  Well, we think so, but there is always room to improve.

SN: Anybody on the supermarket side -- when you do a retrofit, what kind of leak prevention do you do?

Read more: Refrigeration Roundtable: Energy Mavens

ANDERSON:  We actually ask our contractors to go in two weeks ahead of time before the actual conversion process and change gaskets that need to be changed, and leak-check the store. Take care of everything up front that you can foresee, and then follow up after the retrofit is complete. I suggest using the technology available to monitor refrigerant levels within the store, and make sure if there is anything that does come up, it’s addressed immediately.  That’s extremely important.

GALLEGO:  We have for the most part, adopted the [EPA’s] GreenChill retrofit guidelines. They seem to work very well.  We go in – as Paul said --a couple of weeks ahead of time to start leak checking and start changing the oil. For most retrofits we try to follow up with a stationary leak- detection system; the prices have come way down and they are very accurate. We're finding leaks at two, three parts per million that never would have been found before. We're getting calls from the installers as they're installing the stationary system saying “I just put a sensor in the bakery freezer and I've got 25 PPM”.  We send a tech over and sure enough, there is a leak.  That has really helped us reduce leaks proactively.

SN: So that's part of GreenChill's retrofit recommendations?

GALLEGO:  It's not in their retrofit process. It's something we add.

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