At the third annual Refrigeration Roundtable, refrigeration contractors were quite vocal on the challenges they face in setting up refrigeration systems at new stores — namely that they’re often not given enough time to do it correctly. Their supermarket counterparts were sympathetic to the contractors’ plight — and had a number of constructive suggestions.
This was one of the topics addressed at the roundtable, held Sept. 20-21, 2012 at the Schaumburg Convention Center, Schaumburg, Ill. The roundtable discussion also went into the relationship between HVAC and refrigeration, as well as the perennial concerns about technician training and recruitment, among a number of other topics. (See Part 1.)
Hosted by SN and ContractingBusiness.com, 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.
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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, former manager of refrigeration & HVAC services, BJ's Wholesale Club, Westborough, Mass., and now special projects manager, Bay State Cooling, Bridgewater, Mass; Howard Hehrer, former senior engineer, Meijer, Grand Rapids, Mich.; and Ted Alwine, director, engineering, Martin’s Super Markets, South Bend, Ind.
Read More: Contractors Ask for More Start-Up Time
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.; Ed Mattos, president, Remco; and Brent Beishuizen, service manager, Zone Mechanical, Chicago. Also participating in the start-ups discussion was Scott Martin, director of sustainable technologies, Hill Phoenix, Conyers, Ga.,
A full transcript of the discussion of start-ups, HVAC-refrigeration and technician training/recruitment follows. Read Part 1 of the transcript and the related story Refrigeration Roundtable: Enery Mavens.
All photos by Tim Ryan
Challenges with Store Start-Ups
SN: Steve, how much time does proper installation of refrigeration in a new store typically involve?
TIBBETTS: To completely start up a standard 50,000-square-foot store, including a pressure test, vacuum test, setting all TXV’s and fine-tuning the store, we need a month. When looking at stores that were started up 10 years ago, it’s easy to see the ones that were properly started up vs. the ones that weren’t. In general, a proper start-up leads to reduced leak rates.
HOOVER: No matter what the delay is, it always falls back on the refrigeration contractor to have that store up and running on that particular day. I call it the extreme make-over situation. You cannot accomplish what they want you to accomplish in that time frame without problems.
And as soon as there is a problem, the contractor is pinned to the wall because it's my problem. It's not the electrician’s. It's not the plumber’s. It's the refrigeration guy’s because the case isn't cold. We need adequate time to get those stores started correctly and dial the system in. We're talking reasonable time — not extended amounts of time.
ANDERSON: I think it goes back again to the size of the store. A month may be right for a full-blown supermarket. You can reduce that time depending on the market area.
SCANLAN: I think those stories really just go to show how much a partnership is valued. Typically it's operations or the GC [general contractor] steering the ship, and I know from [the refrigeration] guys on our side of the table, we're kind of a go-between. We would love to give you a month if it's a new store, whatever time is needed. I think it comes down to a reality show at the end — virtually every one of our stores does — because there are so many unforeseen circumstances.
I think that partnership is huge because there is so much give and take, going down to the end; every one of our stores is the exact same way. We’ve been known to make fixture changes right up to the last minute, sometimes just a few weeks before we open. Without that good working relationship, it doesn't work.
TIBBETTS: From the [retail] customer’s perspective, until they start selling groceries, nothing else really matters. And we understand that pleasing the customer is what it’s all about.
MATTOS: There is a big difference between working primarily with you [supermarket] guys vs. working with a GC. Any reason the project could get delayed — weather, concrete, the roof — we're the last guys there, so it gets pushed back to us. To a GC, we look like plumbers. They have absolutely no understanding of what it takes to put a refrigeration system in.
GALLEGO: I think you would get agreement from everyone on this side of the table; we're facing the same pressure. It would be nice to see case studies done on a building that didn't have time to start up and a building that did have time to correctly start up, something that we could present to upper management as concrete evidence.
MATTOS: It's allowing the proper time frame to do these things. You can't change physics. It takes so long to evacuate a system. It takes so long to do all these processes with GreenChill, and that's extended the amount of time it takes to do the start-ups because it's a much better start-up, a more thorough evacuation process.
GALLEGO: What we've come up against is that the property development/real estate group builds their ROI off the opening date. This is just an unfortunate and unavoidable fact. We start making money on this date so it (opening date) cannot move and we just have to pass that along. We know just as much as you that it's going to hurt us and it's going to drive you guys crazy causing you to scramble at the last minute.
S. MARTIN: That's a great idea for a case study: Pay me now or pay me later. Either wait and open that store two weeks from now or open it today and it will cost us double what normal stores should cost to maintain. I’ve heard many people joke that the supermarket industry has created the whole retro-commissioning industry because of this forced implementation. What Ed [Mattos] said earlier about charging the rack while they're loading food in the case — that's not funny. That really happens. I've seen mechanics with torches drying the water off of a suction line so they can insulate it because the rack is running — food is going in the cases and the store is opening tomorrow. It's not an exaggeration.
GALLEGO: From our standpoint, we have nothing to bring back up to the chain to show them here's what's going to happen. There is not a case study that I am aware of.
TIBBETTS: A lot of times there are different budgets, too. There’s the installation budget vs. the maintenance budget and the two don’t work together. If the installation person was in charge of the maintenance, then I guarantee it would change.
ANDERSON: We've been talking about start-ups, but I think we can go upstream a couple of steps and start when we issue our plans and specs. Getting feedback from contractors before, during and after the construction will ensure that our plans and specs are clear, concise, and properly communicate the intent of our designs.
And then prior to the installation phase, one thing that we do at Target is meet with the installation contractors to train them on Target best practices, expectations, and common pitfalls. By clearly communicating our expectations to you, helping you understand why we're doing things a certain way, and being open and receptive to feedback, the projects run much smoother. That way, when we turn the project over to the store teams the service technicians are best prepared to keep that store operating at the lowest total cost.
AXELROD: Then on the opposite side, how does the contractor educate you [supermarket] guys to have reasonable expectations? It's all right to have expectations, but somehow they have to be grounded in reality to exactly the things that we were talking about.
Every month, we meet as a team and ask ourselves, “What needs to change?” What does my team need to look at before we put the next store out? We’re looking for feedback from manufacturers, consultants, contractors, etc. Now, everyone may not be 100% satisfied but as a team, you know you made the best decision at that time.
AXELROD: Along with reasonable expectations you have to have trust. You have to believe what we're telling you in terms of the logical time frame, the delivery expectations, whether you're responsible for getting the equipment there or we are.
ANDERSON: Absolutely. There is a lot of trust that comes into play. One of my favorite quotes is “Feedback is a gift and every day is Christmas” and it has to go both ways. So there are things you're going to bring to us and we're going to say, “I get it Bob, but for our model it's not going to work.” We need to take the time to explain why it won’t work so you understand what’s driving our decision. That will go a long way in building trust and partnerships.
AXELROD: I agree. As long as it does go both ways, that's the important thing.
ANDERSON: It starts at the design phase and works down.
AXELROD: Of course, what I've always found, too, is the way most jobs flow depends a tremendous amount on the general contractor. If you don't get a quality general contractor to oversee the whole project, you're asking for nothing but trouble — an angry consumer, you [supermarket] guys, and an angry contractor who gets put behind the eight ball. That's a general contractor who sits there making excuses, pointing fingers at everybody but him.
ANDERSON: We have remodeled an entire store, put in an entirely new supermarket in one week, but there was a lot of planning and a lot of feedback both ways and a lot of just strong collaboration that made that project successful. You can do it. We can do it.
TIBBETTS: In a week?
ANDERSON: In a week.
ANDERSON: Properly installed and started up. It's running really good.
TIBBETTS: Why would you need such a scenario?
ANDERSON: To understand what is possible. Just like testing new technology. How do you know if you don't try? How do you improve if you don't take the step to try it?
CONTRACTINGBUSINESS.COM: When I visited Remco, you were working on that supermarket that was moving across the street and was supposed to open in July. Anything you can share about what made that work smoother?
HOOVER: It was a Wakefern member, a ShopRite store in Brodheadsville, Pa. They built a 95,000-square-foot store. They had an existing store that was about 50,000 square feet. They were moving in the direction of CO2 and glycol. It was Hill Phoenix equipment with Emerson controllers. It was our first CO2 store of that size. The process went extremely well. We hit every target that we needed to hit getting the store open. We look at the CO2 side and the glycol side — it was a very simple system. We did not have any challenges. We did work hand-in-hand with Hill Phoenix throughout the project and through their training and expertise and our technicians that were on the job, it was a great store. The store has been up and running three months and we've had one service call and that's fantastic. It's dialed in, it's running, and it's doing what it's supposed to do.
TIBBETTS: Have you had a power failure?
HOOVER: They have a full-store generator. We let it have several power failures and it switches right over.
CONTRACTINGBUSINESS.COM: How was the GC on this to work with?
HOOVER: The GC was a supermarket GC that was very familiar with building supermarkets. We work prime, which we absolutely prefer. It was seamless.
ANDERSON: Is that the preferred method for everybody— prime?
CONTRACTINGBUSINESS.COM: Please explain prime.
HOOVER: Prime means working directly for the supermarket chain, not through the general contractor.
TIBBETTS: Most of us aren't real large contractors. It only takes one general contractor not paying to put you out of business. I've seen it with competitors.
MATTOS: It's a scary world with the GCs out there. We have no idea what their financial stability is and it's a huge risk.
HOOVER: And it's a trust factor because we have received calls saying, hey, I have a number here, can you beat that number? That's not the way you want your store built.
CONTRACTINGBUSINESS.COM: So how can that be improved?
MATTOS: Just stay prime.
ANDERSON: One step that we took beyond going prime was we reached out to the refrigeration industry and selected 25 people who we felt were highly qualified refrigeration personnel who actually stayed on the job during construction to answer refrigeration related questions.
SN: Who were those folks from?
They were handpicked from the refrigeration industry. Some of them are retired contractors, some of them were working for contractors and some used to work for equipment manufacturers.
TIBBETTS: They work for Target now?
ANDERSON: No, they started their own company. We developed the program when we launched PFresh to ensure Target received a high quality installation and top notch start-up.
MATTOS: Because you had guys that understood.
ANDERSON: They understood it. They gave us feedback. They heard from you guys and brought it directly to me and my team and said this is not going to work, what are you going to do to change it?
S. MARTIN: These guys were the eyes and ears for Target on the job site, and they also represented Target to the contractor and to the manufacturer, so it facilitated communication between manufacturing and Target, installation crew, everyone involved. It is a really unique program that I've never seen anybody else do before. These representatives are A players.
SN: You still use those folks?
SN: I think it was Joe who mentioned that in an ideal world supermarkets would give contractors the time they need to do proper installations. So who makes the ultimate decision about how much time they get?
GALLEGO: One thing they have done with some success at BJ's is extend the schedule four weeks, so the goal is to be substantially complete four weeks ahead of opening. That way the operations group has access to the sales floor after all the mechanicals are done and they are allowed time to do their jobs without worrying about stepping over the mechanical trades. If there is a delay, we've got that little bit of extra time where we don't have to really scramble and that seems to be working pretty well.
SN: But who ultimately sets the schedule at BJ's?
GALLEGO: The real estate property and development group.
SN: So they need to be educated better on what the contractors need to do the job right?
GALLEGO: They did listen and give us that extra window because we were at that point where we were stripping product out of a case to set the initial super heat.
CONTRACTINGBUSINESS.COM: I think in a lot of cases it's not so much real estate, but the GC, the project manager, who is going to set the schedule. But real estate is going to set the open date, and then we're going to back into that date. And that date could change, but once operations agrees to it and signs off on it, once real estate signs off on it, it's pretty much gospel and it takes a lot to move that date.
ALWINE: I think a lot of it comes down to proper schedule management. If you can start a project with a realistic schedule you will have the diversity to adjust the schedule. However, contractors must understand that somewhere in a project we reach a point of no return. Advertising has been done and product orders have been placed and there is no choice, the store must open on a specific date.
How many times have you been on a project, and the schedule is blown. so contractors stop paying attention. Without a periodic schedule review process with all the players involved, the situation just gets worse. Schedule management and updates will deal with scheduling problems early on and avoid an overload of work at the end of the project.
SN: What about in terms of general maintenance? How can the working relationship be improved in that regard or is that less of an issue?
TIBBETTS: We don't have problems doing maintenance in open stores or with scheduling with the store personnel. As long as they feel like it's in their budget, they like seeing us in there taking care of their equipment. Nobody wants to lose product. It's just something that has to be done, and more so more now than in years past. Now we do it when it needs to be done, whether its annually, quarterly, or whatever is called for.
Connection Between HVAC and Refrigeration
ANDERSON: Many of the contractors do both HVAC and refrigeration repair work. I think one way we can work closer together is to help us as the end user to truly understand the interaction between those two systems. I don't think we do that very well today and we need to continue to advance our knowledge when it comes to the interaction between those systems. Because when you think about energy penalties, you can take moisture out of the store at 6 SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) or you can take it out at 15 SEER. What do you want to do? And a lot of times we assume it's a refrigeration issue.
TIBBETTS: And it's not.
ANDERSON: It may not be. How do we ensure that we understand that? I don't know if anybody else has any comments about the interaction between the two systems.
I always recommend that the refrigeration contractor take care of the HVAC in the building as well because they understand where that store environment needs to be so that you're not dehumidifying your store with your cases. You're doing it with your HVAC system. I think it's very important those two systems are coupled together.
TIBBETTS: Plus now everybody has to worry about liability and safety issues — everyone is looking to sue someone nowadays. It's unbelievable how many people slip and fall in a store and sue. If the relative humidity is not at the correct level in a supermarket in the
Southeast, there will inevitably be water on the floor and dripping off the cases. And if there’s water on the floor, you will inevitably get sued. You’ve got to have the RH [relative humidity]where it needs to be in the supermarket now for equipment to work properly and to protect against accidents.
GALLEGO: BJ's made the jump [in 2011] for a procurement deal where we took a section of our clubs and separated the trades — HVAC contractor and refrigeration contractor were two different companies. We paid a little lower rate for the HVAC trades. But it was an abysmal failure for us. The low-rate HVAC-only contractors — they could go into a non-refrigerated retail building and take care of any HVAC issues with no problem, but to not understand the role that RH or more importantly dew point plays in supermarkets is a key factor. It was an abysmal failure for us, so we’ve gone back the old protocol where the same contractor handles HVAC and refrigeration.
SN: Has anybody made changes in the dehumidification systems of late that have helped to lessen the load on refrigeration?
ANDERSON: Through our program, we've installed dehumidification units, specifically for the market area. I think it's important for us as a refrigeration industry to understand that when we talk relative humidity to HVAC engineers, it doesn't mean anything to them because what they really need is two conditions such as dry bulb temperature and relative humidity, or dew point temperature. How far can we stray from some set point that we think we need in the store? A lot of times we talk about the cases operating at 75 [degrees], 55 [degrees] — that's just the rating conditions for case performance, a baseline measurement. I think you alluded to the water running off the back side and underneath the case. What's the dew point temperature of the skin on that case? That will tell us what we need to maintain in the market area.
Do we consider that? Do we measure it? Do we know what it is? Can we change it quarterly or monthly based on the location once you're servicing our stores so we can maximize the energy efficiency of both the equipment and stores?
SCANLAN: That's a major piece of our program — 50-degree dew point. It's what everything is designed to. We don't see too many exceptions, and there are not too many issues with that at all. Dew point is key, as opposed to RH.
SN: Do the contractors here tend to handle HVAC as well?
TIBBETTS: Yes, we take care of the HVAC, water heaters, and minor plumbing issues.
MATTOS: The refrigeration guys are in the store anyway, so it just makes sense.
Technician Training and Recruitment
SN: We wanted to end the discussion today by spending some time on a really key issue — technician training and recruitment. There seems to be such a shortage of technicians, especially younger technicians who are going to be needed to do this work in the future. The contractors are probably most directly hit by this. Are you seeing any change in the availability of technicians and how do you recruit them to do this type of work?
M. MARTIN: We use internships in the trade schools. We try to find that guy with the right work ethic who maybe doesn't have any training, and helping him through school with financial assistance. Realizing I might have a good employee when it's all done. Hiring when I don't need to hire.
SN: Are you struggling with a shortage of people?
M. MARTIN: I am not right now, but I try to constantly have somebody coming in.
TIBBETTS: We're currently staffed up for the first time in 25 years but we always lose a couple of technicians every year. I've had success with service techs who started in our construction department. After working in construction, they’ve got a good work ethic, they know how a store works and how to weld and brace. After a few years in construction, we can move them into service and easily train them to be a great service tech.
We have hired plenty of technicians straight out of trade school over the years and have had very limited success with it. They do alright in the beginning but the first time they are on call by themselves, they get overwhelmed and a lot of them will subsequently quit. I don’t think they are adequately prepared for those high-pressure situations.
I try to look for people who have general mechanical skills. In interviews I will ask them if they repair their own cars or home appliances because you need people who are mechanically inclined.
CONTRACTINGBUSINESS.COM: Would it count if he changed his oil?
MATTOS: The problem today is the mentality of the kids. They didn't grow up doing the things that we did when we were kids and what you're getting now are kids that don’t want to get their hands dirty. There are fewer people getting into the trades. That's what we're running into. We definitely have a shortage of technicians in our marketplace.
We tap the schools, the trade schools, the colleges, but it's like the gentleman here said — you can hire 50 of them, maybe two will work out because they want to get white collar jobs and stay clean.
GALLEGO: They say up in the Northeast that if you see a refrigeration/ HVAC truck going down the road, there is an 80% chance the driver will have gray hair. Not many young guys get into the supermarket end of the trade.
HOOVER: We're big on growing our own. We have in our location full-time trainers, which is a cost. They are senior technicians that can no longer do the day-to-day physical work of running service calls and night calls. We can use them for training classes. We have morning schools where our technicians give an hour and we pay an hour. We have night classes. We bring in the manufacturers. We do a lot of outsourcing, sending our guys to Danfoss or to wherever for training. I agree with the process — it's two years. We've had a lot of guys go through the process of two years and then the first time you put them on call, the next day they're knocking on your door saying this isn't for me.
MATTOS: It's a tremendous cost to the contractor. If you look, you've got a guy that's basically non-productive for two years. He's on your payroll. Do the math. You carry the guy for two years, you put $150,000 into him, and the first time you put him on call, he’s gone, so it's a huge challenge.
SN: So the turnover is pretty significant?
MATTOS: In the beginning, yeah. Now, you get a guy that gets it, then you can pretty much count that they're going to hang in there. You either love this trade or you hate it. You just have to find those guys that love the trade.
HOOVER: Out of our Allentown office, we're in an area where we're close to the bigger cities, and then we have an office that's out in the Western part of Pennsylvania, where the work ethic is very good and we get some great workers — very mechanically inclined, teachable, show up every day on time, which is a big part of it.
And you have to incentivize your guys. You have to pay a fair wage, offer a fair benefit package. The young technician is looking to make a quick buck. He wants to make money. The older technicians want the time off, they don't want to be on calls. So you have to find ways around that, like the program we worked out with Joe [Gallego] from BJ's, where the two technicians we've taken out of the field and put in those programs, and they're no longer on call. We have the rotation that would handle after-hour situations in those stores, but that's the incentive to get those guys to go in that direction.
SN: So then who would you have on call for after-hour maintenance? People further down the totem pole?
HOOVER: Yes, we have a rotation of guys that cover a certain area. Some guys like to do seven-day rotation. Some guys like day on, day off. It all depends on what they want to do. We leave that up to them.
TIBBETTS: After a technician has been with us for 10 years, we like to take them off the on-call rotation if we are able to. Most people get burned out at that point and we like to give them a break if we are in a position, staff-wise, to do it.
AXELROD: I happen to be a union company, so they are supposedly trained at the union training center, but we generally have to I won't say retrain them, but expand their training afterwards. The union only goes so far in terms of training them with the basic refrigeration. It's better than getting them out of the school that they've paid to get into on the GI bill or something like that. They're a little more motivated, but they aren't ready when they come out. Some come out as two-year apprentices, some as four-year apprentices. The four-year apprentices are not bad, but they're expensive because you have to pay the fringes along with it.
MATTOS: There are fewer technicians out there and everybody is after them.
CONTRACTINGBUSINESS.COM: I had always really heard that UA [United Association — Union of Plumbers, Fitters, Welders & HVAC Service Techs] was as good as it could be.
AXELROD: They have a good school. It's 50 miles south of here, but it's a good school and the other problem is it's the pipe fitters union, so they do power plants, they do chemicals, so only a small portion of them actually get into service. There are a lot of siren songs saying come over here, you'll get six ten-hour days, and make nothing but money. So it takes a certain kind of individual, as Steve was saying, that loves service. They want to be in it. They like the challenge. They like to use their brains instead of just their muscles. It's an interesting challenge.
SN: Do you see the shortage issue though, Bob? Do you see a shortage of technicians down the line or currently?
AXELROD: I'm not sure. As I say, we've stayed pretty much in the distribution end of things, manufacturing, so in our installations we might do a 10,000-square-foot walk-in. We might do a 200-square-foot walk-in. Or we might do a whole plant for food processing, meat processing, bread processing, produce distribution. So we cover the whole gamut, but we also do HVAC, so it's interesting.
SN: On the supermarket side, are you guys seeing a technician shortage for your internal staffs?
SCANLAN: We don't have in-house maintenance. We have a small percentage of stores that do have their own guys, but that's between the store and them, so I mean it's a different animal. We just go through our contractors. For our purposes, we're fully functional and staffed.
SN: So at least among the people here, it's not as big an issue, but it’s still an industry issue.
CONTRACTINGBUSINESS.COM: It’s an industry issue. I don't see how it can continue. They say that 20% of the work force in this industry will be gone by 2020 or 2030 due to retirement. Things have to be done. A cooperative group of associations tried to get the word out that all of the different career avenues in HVAC are out there. Hopefully, that can help. It also means getting to them young enough to see what the career is about before they can maybe formulate these negative stereotypes.
TIBBETTS: I think one reason I’ve had success in hiring and keeping people lately is the high unemployment. Now the mentality is that you need to get a job and hold onto it. When the economic environment gets better, employees will feel more confident in their ability change jobs and will threaten to leave or ask for higher pay. It's just human nature. Right now I think most people sitting in this room would say if you’ve got a good job, you need to hold onto it, whereas when things get better, and we start building more, people will have more options. We will be back to losing employees to competitors for slightly higher pay because a lot of the time, people think the grass is greener somewhere else.
GALLEGO: Young people come out of school and they're given a choice. Go the HVAC route and work 40 hours and maybe a couple hours overtime.”I'll make $30 an hour. If I'm going to go do supermarket refrigeration, I’ll get beat to death for $30 an hour. I’ll go with HVAC.” We definitely see that shift.
CONTRACTINGBUSINESS.COM: HVAC can have its [challenges]. You go up to 100-degree attic or some rooftop when it's 100 degrees outside.
GALLEGO: That is absolutely correct however there is a heavy monetary stress added to the supermarket tech. I've been on that side of the table. I've been in the truck. It's not a glamorous job. It's a stressful job. You can have hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of product in that building that is all on your shoulders. HVAC is a little different. With cooling/comfort, people may get angry, but you're not going to lose a lot of product.
HOOVER: Most chains are putting in one controller. We're working with multiple chains, so you need to know Danfoss, you need to know Emerson, and the older controllers that are still existing, and then the conventional systems, and then you still have R-12 and R-502 in really old stores and now you have CO2. And a recent graduate walking in, out of trade school, he's looking at that saying “You want me to do all that and pay me that? I can go do this and make a lot more money.”