Executive Roundtable: Commercial Refrigeration
Originally published: 11.01.19 by Pete Grasso
Driven by regulations and efficiency standards, the commercial refrigeration sector has changed a lot — with more changes coming.
The commercial refrigeration industry continues to evolve, thanks in large part to greater regulations, which continues to lead to new refrigerants and more sophisticated, efficient systems.
I recently spoke with a handful of top executives at a handful of these top manufacturers to get their thoughts on commercial refrigeration regulations, how contractors should market these solutions to customers and what challenges lie ahead.
This Executive Roundtable panel included Drew Tombs, president of AHT Cooling Systems USA; John Galyen, president of Danfoss North America; Kerry O’Brate, North American general manager for Embraco; Dave Bersaglini, vice president and general manager, refrigeration for Emerson; Chris LaPietra, vice president and general manager for Honeywell Stationary Refrigerants; and Dustin Searcy, division marketing manager for the Sporlan Group of Parker Hannifin Corporation.
How has commercial refrigeration evolved in the past few years?
Bersaglini: The biggest challenge we face as a manufacturer is helping our OEM and end-user customers transition to, and prepare for, their future refrigeration systems. Our customers are facing a proliferation of refrigeration scenarios, and their decisions are being driven by sustainability goals as well as federal and regional regulatory mandates. Contractors and manufacturers must continue to help retailers understand these new refrigeration strategies and technologies — whether that’s recommending lower-GWP (global warming potential) retrofits or moving to new and/or natural refrigeration systems.
Galyen: The biggest evolution is in refrigerants, due to increased regulation, whether that’s at the federal or the state level. California, for example, is proposing regulations that would force many new supermarkets to install refrigeration systems with very low-GWP refrigerants starting in 2022. In addition, some supermarkets have sustainability targets, so they want to move to environmentally friendly refrigerants. And that’s part of their branding efforts.
LaPietra: The industry is witnessing an unprecedented era of technology development to meet regulatory and customer demands with more environmentally preferable alternatives that strike an even better balance between energy efficiency, environmental impact and economic considerations. Refrigerant and equipment manufacturers are introducing innovative, new generation alternatives and equipment that deliver improved cooling performance and energy efficiency while driving down GWP.
O’Brate: The evolution has been a big move in the last few years toward natural refrigerants. Mainly R290/propane has become the refrigerant of choice where everyone’s moved to. The main reason for that has been some of the regulations that we’ve seen in the industry as well as the energy benefits of the R290 itself.
Tombs: Food retailers are challenged with a high number of retail stores with older refrigeration systems approaching their end-of-life, and these systems need to be addressed, either through retrofit or replacement. At the same time retailers are also adjusting to a shift in retail consumers shopping habits which are forcing retailers to adapt to these behaviors. These factors create new opportunities for commercial refrigeration manufacturers to deliver new, flexible solutions to support the changes of their customer base.
Searcy: There’s less brick and mortar stores that are getting built, and we’re seeing an influx of more controls going into that business. Customers are looking for energy efficiency, case controls, and managing everything on the refrigeration side right there at the case. And then we’re also seeing changes related to the shopper and that has to do with grocery pickup. We’re seeing more and more users who show an interest in moving toward case controllers.
What’s been the trend, as far as innovation, for manufacturers?
Bersaglini: A convergence of regulatory and market trends is driving an active period of innovations across our industry. The global transition from hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants toward new systems that use lower-GWP alternatives has led to a proliferation of new refrigeration equipment, components and technologies. In addition, the trend toward smaller retail store formats has end users seeking more flexible refrigeration architectures designed for smaller physical footprints.
Galyen: Improving energy efficiency to meet new regulations, whether they are federal or state. What’s emerging now is the change in refrigerants; more and more toward low GWP. We’re going to start to face multiple refrigerants, and that will be very complex. Refrigerants are going to differ by application. There are transition refrigerants and there are many new refrigerants, especially those that are flammable.
O’Brate: Manufacturers have made a big move to R290, as such on the contractor side, it will take a few years going from the development on the OEM side to the contractor seeing it, maybe because we make things that are so good of a quality. Basically, the contractors will start seeing in the coming years the move to propane, which is not too different as far as the changes that they need to make and how they service the equipment.
Tombs: We’ave seen a shift in focus of OEMs to move towards lower GWP alternatives as the basis for their refrigeration systems — both for increased Energy Efficiency and to support Lower GWP regulations expected to begin impacting the market in the near future.
Searcy: New refrigerants have continued to come out and they continue to evolve. I think they are likely to continue to change over the next few years. So as that happens, I’m sure we will see changes to equipment designs and I imagine there will also be retrofits that occur for existing systems that are out there. I think that will continue to increase in the years to come. The real question is, are we getting towards a sustainable solution that gets us out of this iterative retrofit process? Some of the systems out there were installed 20 or 30 years ago, and they may be on their second or their third different refrigerant at this point. These systems have undergone refrigerant retrofits in the past and likely more in the future.
What type of education and training do you offer contractors?
Bersaglini: Emerson offers a wide variety of educational options to meet today’s diverse training needs — including hands-on seminars in the classroom or online and mobile tools in the field. We provide a combination of course offerings and teaching tools to help technicians of all skill levels work with new technologies and complex systems. These options are designed to allow technicians to continue their education according to their preferences, needs and schedules.
Galyen: We are most active around CO2 training. We have a mobile trainer deployed around the country for contractor training, and it’s been quite successful. We do have an online training portal that is open to contractors with a fairly extensive library. We haven’t been so active yet on the flammable refrigerants, though it is a very hot topic. I am on the AHRI Board and we’re investing a lot in a Safe Transition Task Force that’s trying to look at this holistically because it will be a different landscape.
LaPietra: Honeywell offers a good online selection of publications and video to assist contractors. In addition, our sales and technical marketing teams hold face to face training for contractors and wholesale customers on request. Honeywell proudly sponsors RSES and HVAC Training Excellence efforts as well as hosting Regional training days throughout the year.
O’Brate: We have several channels, including webinars that we offer through RSES as well as some videos on YouTube that are able to provide answers to any kind of training questions. We’re also going to different wholesale branches throughout the country conducting training.
Tombs: For food retailers already adopting this refrigeration design, AHT works closely with the customer and their preferred contractors, as we support the start-up, commissioning, hand-over and maintenance of the system. In addition to the hand on site support, AHT also welcomes contractors to our manufacturing facility to see first hand how the equipment is produced which provides valuable insight into how to support the equipment when installed.
Searcy: Parker Sporlan is a big advocate of education. For years we have conducted face to face training. We had our sales engineers doing training at wholesaler branches in the evenings and it would be very common that you find training in your area in the evening. In addition to these face to face opportunities, we’re moving more online. This is the demand from the contractors and technicians. We’ve been moving our training online to a webinar format over the last few months. Once a month we have a webinar. We capture the content and our future plan is that we will be putting that onto YouTube and our website so that it builds a repository of technical information that people can then view at their convenience.
How has efficiency helped the market?
Bersaglini: It’s estimated that the average 50,000 square foot store can incur approximately $200,000 in annual energy costs, and can emit as much as 1,900 tons of CO2 in one year. Among these costs, refrigeration and lighting account for more than 50 percent of total energy usage. It’s no wonder that the goal of improving energy efficiency has become a top priority for many supermarket chains, especially in regions where energy costs are high. It’s also an important consideration for companies driven to lower their carbon footprints.
Galyen: The greatest benefits of efficiency is achieved when you have owner/operator sites because the owner is benefitting from the investment in more efficient equipment. Supermarkets are a great example of this because energy is their second highest operating cost and they operate on low margins. There are a lot of solutions that can help reduce total cost of ownership and our supermarket customers are very receptive to these solutions.
O’Brate: The efficiency requirements have been coming from the regulation side, but also seeing the benefits from the OEMs and the end consumer side where they’re using less and less energy to power their equipment with higher efficiency. As I mentioned earlier with R290, there’s higher efficiency gained by using that refrigerant. It requires less charge as well from the refrigerant charge level itself and is able to provide a better end product for the final consumer. How is that helping contractors? They’re also able to bring it to the final user, more efficient products, even replacing some older products that are better or less efficient with newer ones that provide the same kind of cooling but with less energy requirements.
Tombs: I think R290 Refrigeration Systems are becoming more commonplace driven by manufactures like AHT and TRUE who continue to take a leading approach to this natural refrigerant. As Food Retailers understand the benefits this type of equipment can offer, both in energy savings and flexibility in their store design process, contractors also understand that the market adoption will continue to expand. Rarely do we encounter contractors that are not actively engaged in this type of self-contained equipment.
Searcy: The efficiency levels have changed on a lot of equipment and it continues to evolve. Going back a few years, we saw a lot of open deck cases, but now that’s changing. So there’s an evolution to cases that are closed primarily. There still are some exceptions, but I think that’s probably one of the biggest changes that we’re seeing in supermarkets is people that are going to closed-door cases and it’s saving energy.
How has the evolution of smart controllers impacted this space for the end user and for the contractor?
Bersaglini: Some alternative refrigerant-based systems have led to a need for system electronics that can help to manage refrigeration cycles and system operation. Elsewhere, built-in compressor protection and diagnostics are simplifying service and maintenance processes by assisting contractors with troubleshooting and repairs. Smart facility management controllers offer operators access to easy-to-use platforms for managing and optimizing all the critical systems in their facilities, including air quality, lighting and of course, refrigeration.
Galyen: We’ve seen greater transition from mechanical controls to electronic controls and now to smarter connected controls. And that’s across this entire space. Whether you’re talking a glass door merchandiser or a commercial refrigeration unit, or a supermarket, which tends to be most integrated. In supermarkets we’ve seen an increasing shift away from a ‘central rack controller’ to more individual case controls.
LaPietra: When properly applied, smart controllers can enhance the performance of commercial refrigeration systems. In an age of technician shortages, contractors can benefit by utilizing the features of very smart controller/loggers. A well-developed controller/logger can obtain great amounts of operational data and utilize the benefits for improved efficiency, predictive maintenance and troubleshooting.
O’Brate: Those are actually helping the OEMs make sure they right size their equipment to have the perfect match between the compressor that goes into the equipment and the overall equipment size itself. So we’re not over-specifying capacity or under- specifying on the equipment. The smart controllers are self-learning, basically, they learn how the equipment and the compressor match and help them speak to each other better. This better match helps reduce energy consumption and better meet energy regulations and food safety regulations throughout. On the food safety side, it’s more focused on the energy needed to prevent temperature variation and energy regulation is basically reducing the energy consumption needed to cool down the equipment.
Tombs: AHT believes that advances in remote monitoring and predicative maintenance will be a major contributor to the way food retailers operate in the near future. AHT is already standardizing its controllers across our equipment platform and are investing in technology to ensure our refrigeration systems remain easy to set-up and commissioning while providing key metrics to help food retailers reduce service issues while increasing food safety.
Searcy: Smart controllers can be preprogrammed from the factory. If the case manufacturer programs that controller with all the set points, it saves a lot of time on the installation time. Less programming results in a quicker startup time. With an electric expansion valve, you don’t have to worry about manually setting the thermostatic expansion valve’s superheat. With an electric evaporator pressure regulating valve, you no longer have to set your EPRs to maintain circuit pressures. It’s all pre-programmed and it’s really about faster installation times. As far as service, when you have all the data recorded at the case controllers, the technician can view or export the data and analyze it. Whether it’s going up to an enterprise solution level where you view all your systems/stores at a glance from an offsite location anywhere or view it at the case level when you’re working at the case, it makes it easy for the technician to troubleshoot problems.
What are contractors saying are their greatest challenges?
Bersaglini: The transition from legacy refrigerants to lower-GWP options presents a number of new challenges for contractors, including: additional costs and using proper procedures of recovery of new refrigerants; additional training to enable safe servicing of some new system types; and helping to educate their customers on the new refrigerant landscape. Contractors must be able to align their customers’ goals with the available equipment options, especially in situations where federal and regional regulations require change(s).
Galyen: First, it’s finding qualified manpower. But there’s also the challenge of the new refrigerants and regulations. That’s why AHRI has decided to spend more than a million dollars to try and bring the collective entities together. Especially as we move again toward some of these lower GWP refrigerants, which are likely going to be flammable, or potentially toxic and contractors will have to manage legacy refrigerants as well.
LaPietra: The lack of trained technicians is by far the greatest challenge. In 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated the current HVACR technician shortage at 70,000, and that there will be a need for 115,000 new HVACR professionals to meet the demand within the next four years. The lack of high-level personnel along with the increasing complexity of some refrigeration systems is a difficult challenge. Honeywell is well positioned to continue to provide training to current and new technicians on safe practices as they navigate changes in the industry.
O’Brate: Honestly, I think the greatest challenge that they’ve seen is lack of information. They’re not able to gain enough information as to what they need to do to stay compliant and to be able to handle these new refrigerants. This is why we expanded the training and try to provide as much information as we can. As far as I see, we are the pioneer within light commercial refrigeration, doing these trainings for R290, promoting the changes that are to come and helping the contractor be ready for when the new refrigerants come to his or her doorstep.
Tombs: Based on industry reports and discussions during key industry events, the greatest challenge seems to be current resources and development of the next generation of technicians.
AHT believes our R290 Platform creates opportunity for both food retailers and contractors to benefit from a simplified system design and ensures that all technicians with a contractor can continue to support their retailer accounts as adoption of this technology continues to grow.
Searcy: The biggest challenge right now is finding skilled technicians. There is a technician shortage and a knowledge gap for new technicians. Bringing new technicians up to speed faster to get them to the advanced level is a challenge.
This is a big concern for a lot of companies. And it’s being recognized not only at the manager level, but I think down to the technician level too. Everyone wants to do a good job, they want to do the best job that they can, but new technicians need some mentoring and somebody to help them develop their skills as they start in this career.
What advice would you give to contractors to help them prepare?
Galyen: I’d recommend getting involved in industry associations to stay informed of what’s happening and to collectively voice concerns. They should be sure they stay abreast of the changes and train their organization because what’s coming at them is like it’s never been before.
LaPietra: The adoption of a larger number of refrigerants as well as changes to system architecture seem to be the most active movers. The industry appears to be waiting on regulatory and code standards surrounding flammable refrigerants and charge size limitations as well as specific application requirements.
Discussions are now underway to address the concerns of contractors and technicians on safe practices in the installation and servicing of HVACR equipment that use flammable refrigerants.
O’Brate: Go to their wholesaler and ask for training, because we’re offering it through them. Also, stay on top of the information of what changes are coming. We have a good resource for information online at www.refrigerationclub.com as well.
Tombs: Like in most industries, adapting and embracing technology advancements is needed to support future changes in commercial refrigeration systems.
Contractors that are investing in their people and their development, exposing them to new opportunities and challenges will remain a key pillar in the continued evolution of commercial refrigeration for food retailers.
Searcy: Contractors need to work with the industry organizations and local chapters in their areas to stay abreast of changes that are coming.
There are a lot of great organizations from the service side. Equipment manufacturers also monitor changes coming — refrigerant changes, efficiency changes, etc. They know what changes are coming related to efficiency and they are working very closely with their teams to not only understand but comply with these requirements and build equipment that meets the new standards.
What new innovations are you introducing in this space that you want contractors to know about?
Galyen: We continue to invest in technologies to support CO2 in refrigeration applications. We recently were honored with the AHR Innovation Award in the Refrigeration category for our CO2 Adaptive Liquid Management (CALM) solution that combines Danfoss’ liquid ejector and adaptive liquid control case controller algorithm to fully utilize the evaporator surface in display cases and cold rooms.
LaPietra: Honeywell has a long history of developing safe, environmentally preferable refrigerants that have been adopted around the world.
Mildly flammable refrigerants (A2L), such as Solstice L40X, Solstice ze or Solstice yf, have been extensively proven safe and have become the refrigerants of choice for a number of applications with charge sizes ranging from less than one kilogram to several tons. They offer users and installers comprehensive range of benefits such as energy efficiency, low climate impact, cost and — indeed — safety.
And as the HVACR industry continues to explore how to best replace R-410A, which is widely used around the world as a refrigerant in residential and light commercial air conditioning applications, Honeywell has developed an environmentally preferable solution with a similar or better performance.
O’Brate: We’re bringing a range of products that cover servicing R290 refrigerant equipment, and we’ve actually already started bringing them this year. We’ve seen more and more contractors coming across this new, natural refrigerant, and we’re doing training throughout the country to be able to support them, answer any questions on what they will come across.
As far as the products, we have several R290 products that offer very high efficiency, on-off as well as variable speed compressors, which are known in the industry as inverter compressors. These inverter compressors add even more efficiency on top of the one brought to you by the switch to an R290 compressor.
Tombs: AHT is continuing to expand its penetration of our R290 Multidecks System as food retailers continue to adopt this system design based on the needs to their organization. And AHT, as a new member of Daikin, will expand our one-stop shop offering bringing about key technology innovations in both commercial refrigeration and HVAC to create greater value to our food retailer customers.
Searcy: We’ve come out with a new case controller in the last few years. It has the ability of being standalone or networked to communicate with an enterprise level controller. This is the S3C case controller. It controls all the case activity — EEVs, EEPRs, lights, fans, defrosts, etc. It is Bluetooth enabled.
So after receiving training, you can download the app and access case parameters, setpoints and performance data — giving the technician the ability to troubleshoot using their smart device. They don’t have to go back and forth between the rack and the display case. That allows a technician to do a lot of things right at the case. This solution brings a lot of benefit to the service technician and it makes their life a lot easier.