Contracting Business had the opportunity to sit down with Donald Steffen, president of AAA Refrigeration in Bronx, NY to discuss the challenges of the commercial refrigeration business. In business since 1937, AAA takes care of the refrigeration service and maintenance for more than 300 supermarkets and warehouses in New York state, including New York City, Albany, and Long Island. AAA also services accounts in Connecticut and parts of Massachusetts and New Jersey. The company has 85 employees, with 60 trucks on the road. For more information, visit www.aaarefrig.com.


Contracting Business: For many HVAC contractors, recruiting, training, and retaining qualified technicians remains an ongoing challenge. Are there any challenges specific to commercial refrigeration?

Donald Steffen: A colleague once told me that commercial refrigeration was a "thinking side" of the HVACR business, and that, "If you want to stop thinking, you should get out of the business."

As far as staffing, we're fortunate to have several individuals who have been with us for many years, including a number of second and third generation employees. When it comes to new hires, we look for people who are comfortable with tools and take pride in what they do. Then, we teach them the service business.

As for training, we require all employees to continue their education, otherwise they'll fall behind with all the technological changes that are occurring. If they don't keep up, they'll ultimately be asked to leave.

Our in-house training program is led by one of our supervisors who is also a teacher. He meets regularly with the other supervisors to determine where our employees need assistance. He then structures classes based on that feedback. We also work with our manufacturers who provide additional equipment training.

CB: You describe the care of commercial refrigeration equipment as “mission critical.”

DS: Definitely. If a system fails, food goes bad, which is a huge loss in profits to our customer. When equipment is well-maintained, it reduces the crisis potential as refrigerant leaks and compressor failures are kept under control.

There's also the energy savings benefit. In a supermarket, 50% of the total utility bill can come from the operation of refrigeration equipment. To show how customers can save money, we perform energy audits of their equipment. An 8% to 13% savings can easily be achieved through a good preventive maintenance program. With multiple stores, the potential energy savings at every location can really add up.

We also don't just wait for customers to call us with problems. Instead, our technicians are assigned a zone of stores that they visit no less than every two days. As a result, they get to know the store owners and managers, and become part of the store's team.

CB: Do you incorporate remote monitoring into your maintenance plans?

DS: Absolutely. Remote monitoring allows us to anticipate customer needs and service requirements before a crisis occurs. It also allows owners and managers to concentrate on what they do best, which is moving merchandise out the door.

CB: For display cases, R-404A seems to have become the replacement refrigerant of choice for-R-22.

DS: We recommend to our customers that if they’re planning a major system retrofit, they should consider reclaiming the R-22 and convert to using R-404A, whenever possible.

However, because of the concerns over increased competition and energy costs, supermarket operators are being quite proactive in their desire to replace outdated equipment and converting from R-22 to R-404A.