The leaders in commercial refrigeration are and will be those who strive to reduce if not eliminate refrigerant leaks in customers' store systems.

A recent meeting of some of the industry's leading refrigeration contractors and supermarket executives brought a good deal of attention to their efforts at refrigerant leak prevention. The meeting was held during the HVACR Week show owned and managed by ContractingBusiness.com, a Penton Media, Inc. publication, in cooperation with Supermarket News, also a Penton publication. The day-long event will be chronicled in future issues of both publications.

The contractors were Daniel Steffen, vice president, AAA Refrigeration Services, Bronx, NY; Stan Shumbo, president, Eastern Refrigeration, Colchester, CT; Jim Salamone, president, Precision Mechanical, Southampton, PA; Ron Smith, DHR Mechanical Services, Woodstock, NY; and Mike Sabin, Area Mechanical, Inc. Rockford, IL.

Supermarket executives included: Jim Galehan, refrigeration and HVAC manager, Giant Eagle; Charles Dinsmore, director of engineering for Weis Markets; Jon Perry, director of energy and maintenance, Farm Fresh; Harrison Horning, director of energy and facilities, Hannaford Bros.; and Benny Smith, vice president of facilities, Price Chopper.

The roundtable discussion was sponsored by Heatcraft Refrigeration Products; ServiceNet, HVACR Division; and Hill PHOENIX.

“This roundtable is helping with leak (prevention) because we're talking and learning and the more of that that can happen, the better off everybody will be,” said Harrison Horning.

Leak prevention is affected by myriad mitigating factors: customer budgets, system vibration, detection technology, and even the awareness that leaks have a tremendous negative impact on system refrigerant costs.

Technology was mentioned as a key benefit in the war against leaks. Jon Perry said Farm Fresh is using a hydrogen leak detector that's finding very small leaks. Giant Eagle's Jim Galehan said the chain is having success with infrared detectors. And, remote monitoring is one more techno-tool that has helped contractors and stores detect the presence of leaks.

Maintenance and awareness counts as well, says Perry. "You have to get your eyeballs into that store and look at things. Keep the motor room clean."

Preventive maintenance is high on the list of the best contractors.For one thing, the very nature of the machinery itself can contribute to causing leaks.

"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," said Dan Steffen.

"We find expansion valves to be a weak link in a lot of our systems," said Stan Shumbo. "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 specifying 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 specifying 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."

Time Pressures

Steffen added that the time pressures often associated with overnight installations can contribute to minor leaks.

"After a long night, you've got managers and set-up people starting to pack out on top of you asking, 'Guys, are you done yet?' We understand you can't make money with an empty case, but with proper scheduling, you can reduce some of the leaks that are out that, and that will pop up."

"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.

As a supermarket customer, Benny Smith agrees that there's a merchandising pressure that can be difficult to change.

"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-ft. 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."

Ron Smith agrees that the contractors job is to help the store to keep selling at all costs, and he's seen supermarket managers who also understand the contractors' dilemma: they need time to do it right, but that time is limited.

"I think we all, if we're honest with ourselves, know retail rules our industry. 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're also held to retail's expectations."

ContractingBusiness.com will provide further reports on the refrigeration roundtable in upcoming issues.