In-store refrigeration leaks have long bedeviled the supermarket industry, leaving environmental and financial damage in their wake, but advances in technology as well as collaborative efforts made in an Environmental Protection Agency program are bringing leak rates down to historic lows.
Executives from five of the supermarket retailers participating in the EPA's GreenChill Advanced Refrigeration Partnership discussed some of the technologies and strategies they are employing to limit refrigerant leaks at a Refrigeration Roundtable meeting held last month in Baltimore. Hosted by SN and Contracting Business.Com — both published by Penton Media — the meeting also included representatives of five contractors who install and maintain refrigeration systems in retail stores.
“This roundtable is helping with leaks because we're talking and learning and the more of that that can happen, the better off everybody will be,” said Harrison Horning, director of energy and facility services, Hannaford Bros., Scarborough, Maine. Horning was joined at the roundtable by Jim Galehan, refrigeration and HVAC manager, Giant Eagle, Pittsburgh; Charles Dinsmore, director of engineering, Weis Markets, Sunbury, Pa.; Jon Perry, director of energy and maintenance, Farm Fresh, Virginia Beach; and Benny Smith, vice president of facilities, Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y.
The contractors taking part included Dan Steffen, vice president, AAA Refrigeration Services, Bronx, N.Y.; Stan Shumbo, president, Eastern Refrigeration, Colchester, Conn.; Jim Salamone, president, Precision Mechanical, Southampton, Pa.; Ron Smith, president, DHR Mechanical Services, Woodstock, Ga.; and Mike Sabin, co-founder and secretary/treasurer, Area Mechanical, Rockford, Ill.
The roundtable was sponsored by Hill Phoenix, Heatcraft Worldwide Refrigeration and Service Net HVAC/R Division, and took place on Sept. 23 during HVACRWeek, sponsored by Contracting Business.Com and HPAC Engineering. Also participating in the discussion were John Gallaher, director of marketing and business development in the Refrigeration Systems Division, Hill Phoenix; Grady McAdams, vice president of sales and marketing for North America, Heatcraft; and Craig Funke, president and chief executive officer, Service Net HVAC/R Division. In addition to refrigeration leaks, the panelists discussed advanced refrigeration systems, alternative refrigerants, technician education, the shortage of technicians and the working relationship between contractors and retailers.
The supermarket panelists agreed that the GreenChill program, which focuses on reducing refrigerant charge and leaks, as well as on testing advanced refrigeration systems, has helped their companies address the leak issue. “[GreenChill has] done a good job of promoting dialogue among members and they've been a good source of data, specifications and other trade information,” said Dinsmore. “I'm real glad that we signed on to it,” added Horning.
On the other hand, the contractors noted that they have not been eligible to join GreenChill, to the detriment of some of the smaller retailers they service. “Maybe there's an opportunity for us to participate with GreenChill, so we can collectively pass the knowledge on to [retailers],” said Steffen.
The roundtable panelists delved into the myriad reasons behind refrigeration leaks, including technical weaknesses, the demands of overnight installations, poorly maintained motor rooms and budgetary restraints. “It's not uncommon for our technicians to walk into motor rooms that resemble dark caves with water and obstacles looming behind every corner,” said Steffen.
Improvements in technology were seen as bolstering retailers and contractors. Farm Fresh's Perry, for example, has been using a cutting-edge hydrogen leak detector that has enabled the chain to “find some pretty tiny leaks.” Other chains such as Giant Eagle have had success with infrared leak detectors. Remote monitoring also helps keep leaks at bay.
Sometimes, though, it comes down to basic maintenance, checking and neatness. “You still have to get your eyeballs into that store and look at things,” said Perry, who is also a strong advocate of “keeping the motor room clean.”
The first portion of the roundtable follows. Future articles in SN will cover later sections of the roundtable.
GreenChill, FMI and ASHRAE
SN: All of the supermarket executives here today are involved in the EPA's GreenChill Advanced Refrigeration Partnership. I'd like to ask them to talk about their experience with GreenChill.
DINSMORE: I'm going to say first and foremost that GreenChill has provided a friendly portal into the EPA for the industry. It's a voluntary organization, so we've chosen to participate. I think they've done a good job of raising awareness of environmental issues and they've encouraged all of the [supermarket] partners to set goals, work toward those goals and make a commitment that we might not have made otherwise. They've done a good job of promoting dialogue among members and they've been a good source of data, specifications and other trade information.
I would join in congratulating [GreenChill manager] Keilly Witman for the job that she's done. I think we probably all are on a first-name basis with her. She's done a remarkable job of getting everyone in the industry to cooperate in working toward what we all see as important environmental goals.
HORNING: I would agree in terms of the friendly portal. I think the relationship we had with the EPA five, six, seven years ago was strained. The dialogue was difficult because we were talking about the rules and how they were interpreted and maybe enforced. In the back of the minds of engineers like some of us, it was this dirty little secret that you can get rid of R-22, but you're going to have a global warming issue. I think this friendly portal gives us some really good context and a framework to talk about that issue and learn from each other and share information and experiences. I'm real glad that we signed on to it.
SN: Do GreenChill partners get together in this kind of setting, where you are in the same room talking with each other?
B. SMITH: It's through the webinars that Keilly conducts on a quarterly basis. GreenChill's been very active in promoting communications among one another through the webinars. It's hard to get us all together in the same room like this.
CONTRACTING BUSINESS.COM: How many of the contractors in the room are involved in GreenChill or even know what it is?
R. SMITH: I guess it was two years ago in Orlando that Keilly made a speech at the [Food Marketing Institute] Energy Show and that was really my first awareness that GreenChill existed. All of a sudden there would be an easy way, without baring all your dirty laundry, that you could actually communicate with them. I think that's probably, from the supermarket standpoint, a really good thing — to have friendly communication with the EPA. It is also in contractors' best interest to reduce refrigerant leaks and improve the system.
STEFFEN: I became familiar with GreenChill through the FMI Energy Conference, and since then I am frequently provided with current information through GreenChill's Web blasts. Through the years of interacting with Jon Perry and Benny Smith, I marvel at the advanced technology they are using for their stores. We service several retail customers consisting of chains' stores and independents, who still do have in-house refrigerant tracking. Several are not familiar with EPA regulations and requirements, so we provide them with tracking reports to make sure they are compliant. Smaller chains often take the philosophy that they are smaller than a high-profile chain, like a Price Chopper, which allows them to “fly under the radar.”
CONTRACTING BUSINESS.COM: Are you using your knowledge to educate them?
STEFFEN: We try to, but remember there's the constant budget constraint and ROI. We are often asked as to how this retrofit will financially benefit my store. If it's not something that helps to sell more products or have a financial benefit, it's not an easy sell. This is especially true when you're dealing with some of the smaller retailers; the last thing they consider changing is the rack or supporting equipment. The first thing changed is the sales floor fixturing that sells merchandise.
I have sat through Jon Perry's presentations and would jump at the opportunity to service his stores, based upon the level of details he includes in his design; off the top of my head, he has well lit, conditioned and secured machine rooms. It's not uncommon for our technicians to walk into motor rooms that resemble dark caves with water and obstacles looming behind every corner. It's quite a different experience when the retailer takes a strong position on the importance of the motor room and servicing conditions.
SN: That's a good point. I think GreenChill needs to reach out more to the smaller players. The chains that are represented here today have quite a few stores and have maybe a bit more ability to participate in GreenChill. But the program is not just about installing advanced equipment. The focus is mostly on leaks. Any supermarket could benefit from that.
STEFFEN: Yes; however, in the Northeast region, our service agreements include refrigerant, so the emphasis is on the contractor to make sure we reduce the leaks. I've encouraged some of our customers to come to the FMI Energy Conference, just so they don't have to hear it from the contractor, saying, “You should really consider a refrigerant retrofit.” The common response is, “Why should I consider retrofitting? According to what we read and what you share with me, the price per pound of R-22 is still half the cost of the alternate ones you are proposing.” Once again, ROI comes into play and we are left with, “It's not happening today or anytime soon.”
As a company, we continue to attend conferences and attend seminars so we can educate our customer base; this way, we keep them informed that somewhere down the road these decisions will have to be made. Maybe there's an opportunity for us to participate with GreenChill, so we can collectively pass the knowledge on to them. We share the famous tag line that a local clothing store uses in their marketing, “An educated consumer is our best customer.”
SN: I definitely think contractors could contribute a lot through the GreenChill program, and I hope you will at some point.
R. SMITH: In the Southeast, we have a really high population of independent grocers and there's really no enforcement. I could probably find five independents in the Southeast that leak more refrigerant than these five chains do in a year's time. I'm not sure how we achieve some enforcement or some minimum standards. I'm not necessarily talking about a one-store independent; it could be a 20-store independent. They just buy refrigerant in bulk and pump it right straight through to the atmosphere. You talk to them about service or maintenance programs and they just turn a deaf ear. They'd rather spend constantly a certain amount of money than invest in actually fixing the equipment. Yes, it's a big problem in the South. I don't know about the rest of the country.
SHUMBO: When you look at the smaller chains, as Dan alluded to — some of the chains have 20 stores, 40 stores, and even some of the independents that have four or five stores. But they're dependent on us. If you as a contractor have a service contract, obviously you're going to try to keep the refrigerant charge down and try to keep the losses down to a minimum, but you're under budgetary restraints. We'd love to see a lot of this equipment improved — the underground refrigeration lines and the hot gas defrost that have been there for 30 years; they have leak potentials and we know that.
SALAMONE: The GreenChill program is a major factor in developing this dialogue right here. Looking at the website [www.epa.gov/greenchill] just a couple of days ago, it encouraged me to see exactly what it's about; you can see that there are several best practices that are advertised and available to everybody to view, so it does allow us to start evaluating that as a resource. I think if there was room for contractors to participate and continue this type of dialogue, we could continue to go toward a common goal. We all want the same thing and that opens up an environment for us to do it.
B. SMITH: Many of us are members of the Food Marketing Institute and for many years supermarket operators and owners like ourselves and the companies that we work for have been allowed to attend the FMI Energy & Technical Services Conference to exchange ideas with our competitors in a nice manner, where we learn from each other on best practices. So I'm going to say that leak detection in our industry started a lot earlier than GreenChill. GreenChill probably helped establish better metrics, but FMI several years ago came up with several guidelines on reducing refrigerant leaks and so forth.
In the early 1990s when the CFC [chlorofluorocarbon] conversions were taking place, FMI had a committee and established guidelines for converting, because a lot of independents especially — but the whole market really — didn't understand what the problem was or what the issue was. The FMI technical committee and its members have been very proactive in helping establish best practices. Maybe it's not all in writing, but just by sharing with one another, it got us up to where we are. With GreenChill we needed that next influence to help us better measure ourselves and challenge ourselves to develop better leak standards. But FMI has been very proactive in helping develop some of the best practices as far as leak detection is concerned.
SN: ASHRAE (the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) is trying to set standards for refrigeration manufacturers to improve the quality of their systems and lower leak rates. Does anybody have any updated information on what ASHRAE is doing in that regard?
GALLAHER: It's ASHRAE Standard 147. It's currently under revision and I suspect that either sometime in 2011 or at the latest 2012 it'll be published. It's a standard that covers not just manufacturing but also installation and servicing of equipment as well. ASHRAE 147 will set the standard to manufacture, install and service equipment that will leak less.
SN: Are supermarket operators or contractors finding systems to be more leak-tight than they used to be?
PERRY: Overall, yes. It is a partnership where the supermarket industry works with the equipment manufacturers. On one occasion, Raley's and Farm Fresh went to the manufacturers and helped review an area we felt was weak, which was in the cases; there wasn't much support for piping. You just left it up to the installer. Now, we're specifying cases with supporting brackets for the pipes in the cases.
The industry does often through GreenChill, FMI or some other vehicle put ideas on the table that increase the chance that equipment is not going to leak. It's a really big topic, and there are different organizations that are stepping up their games on making the equipment leak-proof. There are people going to different ball valves for different reasons, going to flare nut seals — little seals inside flare nuts. The industry's recognizing the points where everyone expects a leak on TXVs [thermostatic expansion valves]. A lot of people are getting cases that are soldered, instead of flared and items like that, where I believe it's going to be tighter long-term.
CONTRACTING BUSINESS.COM: What are some of the things that contractors are doing in the field to help reduce leak rates?
STEFFEN: All refrigeration systems have vibration. Through preventive maintenance programs, we go into the stores to perform routine leak checks and tightening of lines and caps which come loose over time and result in leaks.
In many cases customers become victims of contractors' competitive pricing, especially when bid specifications are not clear. The best way to submit a competitive bid might not be the right way long-term and may not result in the best preventive leak installation. But because we're responsible for the refrigerant, we'll take as many precautionary measures that can financially be supported. In stores we didn't install, we'll change out capillary tubes with some of the armored super hoses, because we recognize that's a prime source of leaks.
SHUMBO: What we find as a weak link in a lot of our systems are expansion valves. Pretty much everybody in new installations is going to sweat expansion valves. But we're still seeing a lot of failures and a lot of leaks in liquid line solenoid [valves]. A lot of our supermarket customers are speccing no manual stems because that seemed to be a real weak link two years ago; [that specification] cuts the leaks down a little but it makes it a little more difficult for us on the installation side. As good a job as you try to do with the piping, a lot of companies are speccing plastic saddles, which I think is a tremendous way to keep the vibration down. But I still think we still have a lot of weak links and we could do better.
STEFFEN: One of the struggles that contractors are often faced with is scheduling pressures, particularly with overnight installations. Most mini-remodels start at 9 o'clock at night and cases need to be up and running by 6 o'clock in the morning, which leaves very little room for error. After a long night you've got managers and set-up people on top of you starting to pack out and say, “Guys, are you done yet?” These time-related pressures can contribute to minor leaks. We understand that you don't make money with an empty case. But with proper scheduling you can reduce some of the leaks that are out there, that'll pop up.
CONTRACTING BUSINESS.COM: So scheduling project work is a relatively easy solution to help you to reduce some leak rates?
STEFFEN: You've got to be sensitive to the pressure that they have because empty cases don't sell. But there are a lot of times when circumstances result in late deliveries. The lost time must be made up to keep to the schedule. There are also pressures when new line sets are required. No one's perfect — and from time to time installers will miss joints that with vibration may result in leaks. Pressure testing of lines for recommended time periods is one area that gets sacrificed.
SN: So you need more time to do this?
PERRY: When you start talking like that and ask, “Do you need more time?” the first thing you start thinking is we could mandate that the tech has 24 hours to turn it over. You start thinking to yourself, “OK that sounds great.” But somewhere along the line, somebody in the industry is going to say, “I'm not going to use that case” and “I'm not going to put it on the rack, if you're telling me I can't get it installed between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m.” Then you're going to have industry executives buy self-contained cases. That's going to be the worst thing for the environment ever because they're inefficient. They fail all the time and lose product.
If the case can be done in a remodel where you section off a small portion of the store and you can get more time, that's going to help you long-term. But if we end up not being able to turn a case over in less than 12 hours as a mandate, it's going to hurt us on energy or have other consequences. So we have to make sure we're not pushing in a direction that's going to cause other problems.
CONTRACTING BUSINESS.COM: I understand that there's a certain number of hours that are ideal for you to get something installed and packed and ready to go. But within that timeframe, is there a scheduling method that could help, so that you could get the systems installed properly and reduce the leak rate?
PERRY: There are some things you can do to speed up that timeframe, but it's not just scheduling. There's a lot that goes on — you get a case in and they thought it was 404A and it's 407A. You did your test and all of a sudden it's not running right — I've got to change the power head.
SHUMBO: I think what Dan's alluding to is in a remodel situation where we get put under a lot of pressure because we're not responsible for receiving and setting the cases. The carpenters receive them and set them and at 4 o'clock in the morning, they say, “OK guys, you're ready to roll” and the retailer is standing there at 7 o'clock ready to load product. It doesn't give us a lot of time to react and do it correctly. There's got to be a happy medium somewhere.
B. SMITH: All I can say from an operator's viewpoint is it's very hard to change that philosophy or thinking from a merchandising standpoint. That's been one of my big issues over the last several years and we haven't made much progress on it because, when you leave an empty case, there's no sale. So we'll change a 90-foot dairy lineup, even though it's on two systems, all in one night, and it'll be loaded up at 8 o'clock the next morning. That's our standard that we go by. It sounds like an easy solution to change this, but it involves a lot more input from a lot of people within the organization.
R. SMITH: I think we all, if we're honest with ourselves, know retail rules our industry and whether we like it or not, we're always forced to make those guys happy. I gave up a long time ago trying to understand retail. I do realize that we're at their mercy, that we work for them and our business is to keep them selling groceries. You guys have probably all been in that situation where the electrician or whoever finished at 6:30 a.m. and they want to load it at 7. That's just what we have to deal with.
Most of the facilities people understand and they try to give us as much time as humanly possible; however, they are also held to retail's expectations. I think most of the manufacturers do a good job, but if they can send us products that have been thoroughly tested and pressurized, and we know that's not going to be a problem from a leak standpoint, then all we're responsible for is the connections between the units and the cases. If the cases and the units come in tight, that would be, in my opinion, about 70% of getting a leak-free system installed under pressure.
In a new store, where you've got plenty of time, that's a different scenario. Every truck we have has a vacuum gauge on it and if our guy calls in and says, “I can't get a vacuum,” we say go back and leak check again because you're not putting Freon in it until you do. Those are ideal situations, but for the remodel if we get good tight equipment from the manufacturers, that would be a big help.
CONTRACTING BUSINESS.COM: Ron, do you think shipping is sometimes a factor when units perhaps arrive in a less than ideal condition?
R. SMITH: It could very well be, but most of the manufacturers in their testing labs factor that in and prepare the equipment for shipping.
STEFFEN: I spent 15 years on the retail side of the table, so I am very sensitive to the pressures of downtime which results in lost sales. Now on the support side, I think the worst feeling is when the guys begin the new case install and the nitrogen charge doesn't release from the factory-shipped equipment. That's usually an early indication that “this is not going to go as smoothly as planned.” Whether it's a condenser or a case, the guys want to hear the nitrogen release. If they don't hear that, we've got potential leaks and added problems.
CONTRACTING BUSINESS.COM: It also sounds as if there's really a need for perhaps more empowerment to some store managers who are willing to say, “Do what you have to do — I want this right.”
STEFFEN: It's about partnerships. It's the only way. A forward-thinking manager requested we install ball valves for future isolation of cases. So we went out and bought ball valves. It was the right thing to do, but the short-term delay had negative ramifications towards us. So when you look at your customer base, you also have to realize what is the end goal, and sometimes the goals of merchandising and operations do not go in tandem with being energy efficient and EPA-certified. These are key items in partnering with your customers.
DINSMORE: I think we do have to understand each other's problems, certainly, but I think this is also another example of one of the benefits of the GreenChill partnership. We've adopted their leak reduction best practices as part of our installation specs and that's something that everyone in our company can understand and get behind. We've seen already that it's slowed us down a little bit with some of these night-time turnovers. So we try to work ahead as much as we can and do some evacuations ahead of time — overcome as much of that as possible through planning. But if we still need a little more time, we will talk to our store managers and operations side about our GreenChill commitment and they recognize that it's a company commitment, and they're willing to give us a little extra time.
CONTRACTING BUSINESS.COM: Let's talk maybe a little bit about service agreements. Is that also something that could help a little bit with reducing leak rates — having the equipment looked at and serviced more often?
B. SMITH: When you enter into a service contract, the contractor is responsible for replacement refrigerant. That's got to be in it, because they become owners. If the contractor under a service agreement doesn't have that in his contract, you're not going to reduce any leaks because he has no stake in the ground. But when it's in his contract to supply refrigerant, it has a huge impact. We have it in all our contracts.
STEFFEN: Leak checking is our No. 1 priority. Our policy is when gas is added, our techs must log it and schedule with the supervisor and dispatcher to be back to leak check. We're not going to leak check on overtime, but we'll go back the following day and make sure we locate it.
GALEHAN: We have exclusive contracts for service and maintenance — we don't have any in-house techs — and [leak-checking] is included in their contract to start. With monthly tasks for leak checking and the leak detectors in place, it's definitely helped us. It's helped [the contractors] as well because when we don't have leaks, that goes right to their bottom line as well.
SHUMBO: Absolutely. As a preventative service contractor, if we have a service contract we try to do a quarterly leak check, no matter if there are leaks or not. It's just cheap insurance. If you've got some downtime, or the guys have a couple of hours in the store, leak check.
SALAMONE: I think getting information quickly and processing it and reacting to it before it becomes an issue at any given location is key, and we put a lot of things in place to make that happen. Right now, we're using a mobile work-order management system that allows our technicians to fill out their EPA reports in real time when the work is performed. That information then goes directly to a refrigerant manager, who does a six-month look back on that particular piece of equipment to know if we're having recurring events, and it allows us to prioritize accordingly.
CONTRACTING BUSINESS.COM: So historical analysis of the equipment is a service you sell through your service agreements?
SALAMONE: Yes. It's something we typically do for every location as part of our culture of refrigerant management.
CONTRACTING BUSINESS.COM: Does remote monitoring play into this in any way? Is the remote monitoring handled through the service agreement or is it bought separately?
R. SMITH: We have for a few [retailers], but in the independent market that's an expense most of them are not willing to take on.
STEFFEN: We've had some customers that we used to have access through remote systems — CPC, Danfoss. But after the credit-card theft issues, if the customer doesn't have a dedicated dial-up line, which is ancient technology, we've been denied remote access, taking away a valuable tool.
SHUMBO: A lot of our customers are changing over from the dial-up regular phone line to an Internet base, and we're having a problem with that too because a lot of the chains don't want to give us access to it. And that's a good tool for us to call up and take a look at before we send a tech out, but we're losing that tool.
GALEHAN: We have contractors that have access to our network, but slowly that is going away. But we're partnering with a company now that does have access to our network and is going to start looking at CPC and Danfoss through their portal. They're actually going to go to their website, which is securely linked to our network.
PERRY: For us, we have our own central monitoring and dispatching, but it can be done in almost any fashion. You can have the contractors checking the alarms. I think the key thing with us is we're integrated with our own in-house staff and construction crew, and monitoring has that same partnership. The designer gets the feedback from the guy who repaired the leak, and the monitoring people get trained on what the leaks look like.
But even with sophisticated monitoring, you still have to get your eyeballs into that store and look at things, because if you've got a pipe that is vibrating, it's not leaking yet, but it could shear. We were actually having a service meeting and had an alarm go off at a store that was 20 minutes down the street, and we lost the entire rack.
No warning — there were good leak detectors and they were working. It's a rare occasion, and there are some events you can't stop. You need to have a leak check, and remote monitoring can make you focus the money you have for leak checking in the right spot.
SN: Jon, you've spoken about your hydrogen leak detector system, which is cutting edge. Could you update us as to how you're using that?
PERRY: The hydrogen leak testing is really for installation mainly, or once you've decided that your system is at the point where you are willing to pressurize it to find a leak because you just can't find it otherwise. For those who haven't seen it, we're using a gas called Hydrostar that is a 5% hydrogen and 95% dry nitrogen mix. The hydrogen is a very dry gas. It's one or two parts per million of moisture. The instruments that leak check are an expensive piece of equipment — about $15,000 — and they're coming out with one for around $5,000.
It works like an electronic leak detector. It's all digital, but you're holding a wand. You have to go over the pipe as you do with a regular leak detector, but the sensitivity of it is probably a thousand times greater than a handheld leak detector. It uses a tracer gas and it's so sensitive that we actually started really paying attention to how we pulled vacuums. It actually improved our whole installation process. We're honestly pulling vacuums in the field to 9 microns, with readings above 100 microns considered unacceptable. So we're spending a lot less time pressure testing and waiting on pressure tests and spending more time pulling vacuums.
We've just changed the whole method of how we pull a vacuum. Getting a low vacuum, to me, is much more indicative of a tight system than pressure. So the lower I can get the vacuum, the less time I need to watch it sit. I've been pushing heavily in our group to get everyone up to speed on how to pull a deep vacuum. If I see a vacuum sitting at 9 microns for an hour, I'm pretty sure it's going to stay there. If I see one at 300, I don't know if I come back in two hours if it's going to be at 600 or 1,000 microns.
So part of my thought process on handing over cases has been, let's focus on how deep a vacuum we can get, because it speeds up your timeframe. We all need to educate the retailer — whoever's making the merchandising decision — on the value of the extra time to not stock the cases. You can prove to them that, in general, if you give us three more hours, you're going to save some dollar amount, say $3,000 a year in refrigerant. Is that something they can give you three hours for, or would they have made $3,000 in three hours? Also, what is the product? There's some slow-moving product. If you've got to pull a vacuum on a floral case, you're not going to do it the week of Valentine's Day, but maybe the week after that would be great.
SN: Jim, I know GreenChill has recognized Giant Eagle as having the lowest leak rate over the last couple of years among GreenChill partners. Maybe you could enlighten us as to how you won that award?
GALEHAN: As I said before, we use our contractors and we actually consider it a partnership, because we know that the [infrared] leak detectors we have are not like the detectors of old. These [newer] detectors will send off an alarm to our monitoring company, but at the same time they send me, the contractor and anybody on a list an email instantly when they're seeing a leak above a certain threshold.
The infrared detector takes an air sample every 15 minutes. If it detects refrigerant, it will take three more samples every 15 minutes and if it still detects it, then it knows what that level is. Then it either sends out an alert, which will only happen at the system, or sets off the email [chain] and the remote monitoring. Then they react to it based on if it's an emergency.
We partner with the contractors, and use what they see as best practices, as well as our GreenChill best practices. If they see things that need to be changed, that could be part of a capital project, we have a tendency to listen, because we know that they are helping our bottom line, not just our leak rate, and it helps them as well. So we truly consider it a partnership.
SN: Harrison, any comments on what Hannaford does about leaks?
HORNING: We have about 25 technicians in-house who do service work, and they've sort of been afraid to talk about leaks in the past. They knew they had to report them and they knew the protocol, but there was no real dialogue about it, so we couldn't learn from that. We had some equipment coming in and we kept having suction stops backing off and causing leaks, and after about the fifth or sixth one I asked the equipment manufacturer if they were aware of the problem. No, they weren't. So we needed to communicate that — not be afraid to talk about it.
This roundtable is helping with leaks because we're talking and learning and the more of that that can happen, the better off everybody will be. And it's everybody — the supermarket companies, manufacturers, contractors and others. So I think that's one thing that is better now — things like GreenChill and this roundtable, and other dialogues that happen.
In terms of technology, one is tracking receiver levels — I think there was some talk on the GreenChill website about this, and in one of the webinars. If your system is set up in such a way that the receiver is online, you can check its level. It's going to be moving around, but you try to get an average and track it week to week, month to month, on a clip board or with an automated system. That could be useful information. We've been able to put in 40 or so systems where we have online remote monitoring of the receiver level, and by averaging those data points and doing it over time, we can detect when there's a slow leak in the receiver. That's a great indication that we can act upon.
In addition to the permanently installed leak detection, I think a portable, handheld-type leak detector is an important tool. A 120-volt plug-in type is really the more robust type of equipment, but we need to have enough outlets. You don't want to be running a 100-foot extension cord around a busy store. A technician isn't going to want to be out there in the store, trying to lug this power cord around the aisle. There's an issue there, I think, that needs to be addressed with maybe more outlets or new technology; maybe battery technology can be good enough now to get a battery device that's going to work. Everybody would agree that plug-in is the way to go in terms of performance, but the guy in the field may have a hard time pulling that off.
PERRY: We've been able to find some pretty tiny leaks with the hydrogen system and we use them as benchmarks. So when we have a service meeting everybody has their leak detectors; they put their leak detectors a quarter inch away from a calibrated leak and if it doesn't go off, they get another leak detector. We found 5% of leak detectors not picking up small leaks after regular use. It's pretty impressive.
SN: I know GreenChill asks its partners to track leak rates. Have you found that by tracking leak rates, you've been able to show tangible economic benefits that you can present to your company and maybe make a case for what you're doing?
PERRY: We've been tracking leak rates forever, and there is a big economic benefit in that. But the method of tracking it now, the way that's required, has added cost. To be honest, most chains tracked refrigerants before it was legislated. We did ours on spreadsheets; and that was pretty cheap. So they've added a cost burden for tracking to our chain and, I think, a lot of chains that used to track their refrigerant adequately.
SN: GreenChill has done that?
PERRY: No, just the laws of the EPA over refrigerant management. The tracking that GreenChill has requested isn't any more burdensome than what's already out there. I'm just saying that tracking makes sense and it's required. It's just that the level that's required now is more expensive for the actual gathering of data because now the bulk of the industry with large amounts of stores is paying for external software.
SN: But does it help improve the tracking process and make it more accurate?
PERRY: Not for me, no.
CONTRACTING BUSINESS.COM: Is it realistic someday to have near-zero leak rates, through reduced charges as a result of alternative systems and other technological advancements?
PERRY: The new equipment doesn't have many leaks, so you can do much better. But our industry itself within very little time has improved with existing equipment. Just yesterday, I had a meeting with GreenChill and Keilly Witman stated that everyone she talked to didn't think we'd ever break the 10% leak threshold. Well last year, Giant Eagle was awarded for 7.8% and they're a pretty large chain that has a lot of existing old buildings. I can tell you things that our chain is doing that are improving leak rates. And it's not like we're leveling off yet — we're dropping very far. I can easily see us being below 5% someday soon. We've averaged for months very good numbers.
CONTRACTING BUSINESS.COM: And this is managed in-house?
CONTRACTING BUSINESS.COM: From the contractor perspective, how do you see leak rates for the stores that you service?
SHUMBO: This has been a sore subject for me for a long time. When you look at our industry — I hate to say it — but so much of it is based on dollars and cents. Look at the sensors and the valves that the nuclear industry uses, vs. what we use — and where the costs are being driven to. I think that a zero leak rate is certainly attainable, but is it attainable dollars-and-cents wise? That's my biggest issue. Look at what we use for sensors. We install excellent computer systems, but our weakest link is the sensors; it's a very inexpensive sensor. So we're trying to achieve something better, but I just don't think we go far enough on some of the components because it's so much driven by cost.
SN: Stan, who's going to foot the bill for the greater investment in technology?
SHUMBO: Well, that's a great question. In the end, it's going to be the end user. It'll be the retailer.
McADAMS: Just a comment from a component manufacturer. That's one we struggle with as well. I think it is a factor in the industry, how we get the quality of components you want at the right cost point; it's sometimes impossible. There has to be an agreement to say, “We know, to get to where we need to be, there's got to be a little bit more cost there, but what's the payback going to be?” It's a tough balance how you get from A to B on that.
B. SMITH: GreenChill stands for investing in advanced refrigeration technology as one of the goals. Not only do they require us to put a refrigerant management plan together every year just to be a member, but we're going to see leak rates come down just due to the new refrigeration systems. Then monitoring becomes no issue because we're below the 50-pound refrigerant threshold. We're putting systems in with carbon dioxide that only have 8.8 pounds of 404A. So the leaks naturally by design are going to be reduced because we only put in 8.8 pounds of refrigerant. So I think getting below 5% in new stores is probably a lot more attainable than in existing stores.
DINSMORE: We've seen a strong relationship between leak rates and the individual service tech as well. We track that and make a little bar chart. We know that we always see the same names down at the low end of the chart. We have one tech who averages about a 4% leak rate per year. He just does a great job. We have several other techs who are down around the 6% mark, so we're trying to figure out what they know and do and apply it to the other techs. I guess that speaks to the importance of technician training and motivation.
GALLAHER: Giant Eagle uses infrared leak detectors; there's another chain that I talk to quite often and they use infrared systems as well, and they have very low leak rates — down to 5%-10%. So is there a direct correlation between having these systems in your store and low leak rates? Or can you, with the old-style sensors, possibly achieve that 5% leak rate?
DINSMORE: I can tell you that we're in the middle of a campaign to get an infrared detector into each of our stores. We're about halfway there, and as part of the justification we compared some stats on stores with infrareds and without, and we found that on average, the stores with infrareds used about 350 pounds less refrigerant per year. So that's significant savings.
GALEHAN: Sometimes the leak detector just doesn't get it and you don't know that you have an issue until you're running low on liquid. So we've taken some stores and reduced their alarm thresholds to see if that makes a difference. We've had success with that, so it looks like that might be something we're going to start doing in more stores.
B. SMITH: We've got budgeted plans to convert several leak detectors in our stores with the problem sensors. We've got the old-style and we're in the middle of upgrading. As an owner, we have to take ownership, it's our facility. We have to make those decisions, whether it's under contract or not. And we should communicate with the contractor when we install new leak detecting equipment.
PERRY: On the infrared, we use a different style than the one Jim and Benny are discussing; it's a wall-mounted unit, but it's infrared. The detectors we have work very well. There are some alarms they've missed but we're working on a strategy for testing those ourselves.
In the stores that have the detection, as long as it's working, there's a direct correlation to how soon we detect the leak. It might be a 50-pound leak, as opposed to a 200-pound leak. A lot of times, warm cases will tell you that you have a leak, but by that point it's 200 pounds, so you want to get it down to 30 pounds if you can.
And here's another thing that has really worked for us. Roughly 50% of leaks are in the motor room. Most people condition the motor room with exhaust air. That additional air dilutes your leak detection equipment's ability to detect leaks. So what we've gone to is a confined motor room. It's not submarine-tight or anything, but we're not running exhaust fans to cool the motor room; we're just putting an evaporator in the motor room on the rack. The thing is, you don't have a lot of air motion so we pick up the leaks much better. We find very tiny leaks with a very quick response. We alarm the doors on the motor room, so that doors can't be left open and air is not going out. You have to take some safety precautions and train people. However, if 50% of your leaks are in your motor room, then in my mind making this small change is equivalent to buying a secondary refrigeration system.
About a third of our motor rooms are confined. All the stores are different, but these stores are generally newer — there are some older ones in there too, but it's heavily weighted to stores that are three to five years old. But we were seeing about a 200-pound per year reduction in refrigerant leaks. We're very pleased about it.
STEFFEN: Knowledge is power and obviously some of the retailers participating in this discussion have it and embrace it. We can go in motor rooms that can be anything from a ripening room where bananas are stored to ripen, or where the butcher hangs his clothes to dry out or warm up. Motor rooms are also common resting areas for dead equipment.
Our techs are never amazed by what they find. We'll report the matter to the retailer and express how it creates a dangerous environment. We understand some of the stores in the inner cities are tight, so they have to find space. It's a sensitive issue. We try to resolve it at store level to avoid stepping on toes, because we have a relationship with the store manager. Our last resort is going to a higher level, because we need the store's full cooperation to get access to equipment to leak check.
PERRY: The one thing that anyone can do is make sure that they are respecting the equipment and the technician and keeping the motor room clean. Because the easiest way to leak check is to be able to get to the equipment, keep it clean and see the oil leaks before they are large. You might be there changing a fan and you walk by and see the oil. So, if they're filling it full of cardboard boxes and things, the technicians on a regular call aren't going to be able to help them out. They're not going to go to the effort of moving everything out of the motor room, just on the odd chance they might see an oil spot. They're going to see them when the cases are warm.
CONTRACTING BUSINESS.COM: Do any of you require technicians to be NATE (North American Technician Excellence)-certified?
PERRY: I don't require NATE but I have tested it and recommend it. When NATE had a beta test, Pat Murphy [vice president, certifications, NATE] and I worked together on that and our technicians went and took it. At Farm Fresh, we look at any additional formal education as a plus. But there are guys that are 20-year, highly skilled professionals who do not excel at book learning and test taking. They are great technicians, but probably are never going to pass a test. But we encourage them to take it.
I'd say 80% of my staff just went and took the test just on my request, and they understand that I give them all an educational goal, and I pay them for improving. If they get their journeymen's license, they get a raise; if they get their master's, they get a raise; if they pass a NATE test, they get a raise. If they pass an RSES [Refrigeration Service Engineers Society] CM [Certificate Member] or CMS [Certificate Member Specialist], they get a raise. So it's not a formal, “You can't work here if you don't pass it,” but they do know that if they never try to improve, their future gets narrower.”