As we convene our Refrigeration Roundtable each year, as part of our Comfortech show we include a discussion of a non-technical aspect of commercial refrigeration. That discussion usually is focused on what it takes to work together. A technician may possess all the required technical knowledge, but if people can’t work together, the road can be long.

During our 2012 Refrigeration Roundtable in Schaumburg, IL, much of the discussion was related to a small but important word: TIME. Contractors say they often need more time than supermarket managers are willing to give, to install, test and start-up a store refrigeration system.

Steve Tibbetts, president, T&O Refrigeration, Fayetteville, GA —one of the largest independently owned refrigeration contracting companies in the Southeast — has been installing systems for more than 35 years, but even the best of the best need time for each project.

“We’ve got to have time to properly start up a new store installation, test it, and get it right, if you want it to operate properly going forward,” Tibbetts stressed. “I understand time constraints, and that a store has to open by a certain date, but sometimes the chains shoot themselves in the foot to save a week. I understand certain contractors may try to drag out the installation, but you need proper time to install a supermarket refrigeration system. Without that, you’re going to get a problem store,” he continued, and added that the benefits of sufficient time are clear, and lead to cost savings, especially in leak rates.

“It’s amazing to look at leak rates in stores that were properly started up 10 years ago against stores that weren’t started up properly at the same time,” he said. “You see trends going forward for years. We know, because we’ve tracked it. You need to let the system sit under pressure long enough to determine if you started it correctly.”

How Much Time is Enough?

Tibbetts said a system for a standard, 50,000 sq.ft. supermarket requires a minimum of two weeks to prepare, for proper system pressurizing and establishment of vacuum settings.

“One week for the entire process is impossible. You need a month from the time all the fixtures are installed till the doors are opened.”

Jai Hoover, vice president of Remco — the 2011 Refrigeration Contractor of the Year— agreed.

“We see the same thing. No matter what the delay is, it always falls back onto the refrigeration contractor to have the store up and running on that particular day,” Hoover said. “I call it the ‘extreme makeover’ situation. You can’t accomplish what they want you to accomplish in that time frame without problems.”

Hoover said with a faster startup, problems can arise, and it eventually reflects on the refrigeration team.

“As soon as there’s a problem, the contractor is pinned to the wall. It’s not the electricians’ or plumbers’ problem, it’s the refrigeration guys’ problem, because the case isn’t cold. We need adequate time to get those stores started correctly and have the systems dialed in. We’re talking reasonable time, not an extended amount of time.”

The general contractor plays an immense role in the pain or pleasure of any project, said Bob Axelrod, president, Cooling Equipment Service, Chicago, IL.

“If you don’t get a quality general contractor to oversee the entire project, you’re asking for nothing but trouble — an angry consumer (in this case the supermarket team), and an angry refrigeration contractor who gets put behind the eight ball. The eight ball is the GC who’s making excuses and pointing fingers,” Axelrod said.

Jon Scanlan, director of refrigeration and energy management for HyVee, said the various stories of time constraints during start-ups illustrate the inherent value in the contractor/store relationship.

“Typically it’s operations or the general contractor steering the ship, or the schedule got off track at some point in time. From our side of the table, we’re kind of a go-between,” Scanlad said.

Scanlan added that refrigerant leak reduction, energy savings, and an understanding of what’s required to get the job done are areas in which contractors provide help and advice to store managers. 

Paul Anderson, senior group manager of engineering for Target Corporation, stressed the value of better planning at the start of every project.

“Stores getting feedback from contractors will help us work together, to ensure that our plans and specs are clear and concise, and that they meet the intent of the design,” Anderson said.

“At Target, we bring our refrigeration contractors to headquarters and train them. We spend a day with them, and it’s not because they don’t know what they’re doing; it’s done to help them understand our expectations,” Anderson continued. “If we can communicate and help refrigeration contractors understand why we’re doing things, and be open to their feedback, we’re all going to be better off. It starts with the installation.”

Axelrod said reasonable expectations must be accompanied by trust. Supermarket teams have to believe what contractors tell them, in terms of a logical time frame, delivery expectations, and who’s responsible for getting the equipment to the site, the contractor or the supermarket team.

Anderson described the “Specification Council” he initiated at Target. He meets monthly with internal team members, manufacturers, vendors, and contractors, for input on the installation process.

He asks, “What does my team need to look at before beginning this next store? We’re open to feedback,” Anderson said.

Working “prime” — that is, directly for the supermarket rather than a general contractor — was mentioned as the best way to get the project up and running and fulfilled properly.