Part I: Adventures in Leak Prevention
Refrigerant leaks have plagued commercial refrigeration contractors for many years. Since the beginning of this decade, however, leak prevention in commercial refrigeration systems has taken on an entirely new importance, due to legislative mandates, industry initiatives, and the demands of customers — especially major supermarket chains — who want to save money, and be perceived as more environmentally friendly organizations.
Leak prevention, and its many action-item subsets were among the topics discussed at the ContractingBusiness.com and Supermarket News Refrigeration Roundtable, which was held during HVAC Comfortech/HVACR Week in September 2010. The Refrigeration Roundtable was a one-day dissection of issues, and a sharing of the best practices some leading refrigeration contractors and their supermarket customers are taking to manage those issues.
Hill Phoenix, Heatcraft Worldwide Refrigeration, and Service Net HVACR Division sponsored the event. Sponsor panelists were John Gallaher, director of marketing and business development, refrigeration systems division, Hill Phoenix; Grady McAdams, vice president of sales and marketing for North America, Heatcraft; and Craig Funke, president/CEO, Service Net HVACR Division.
This month, we begin a four-part series devoted to the issues discussed at the Roundtable. In future issues, we’ll offer information on training, alternative refrigeration systems, maintenance issues, and technician certification.
Leak Prevention's 'Good Cop'
A major development in leak prevention in supermarkets is the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) GreenChill program. GreenChill member stores must reduce refrigerant leaks, and use more green refrigeration technologies, strategies, and practices. The program also includes refrigeration manufacturers and refrigerant producers as members. GreenChill is something of a refrigeration industry "good cop," that wants to work together with the industry, rather than wield a heavy hammer of sanctions. GreenChill members find the change to be more conducive to progress, and that GreenChill has been a helpful agent of change.
"GreenChill has provided a friendly portal into the EPA for the industry," said Benny Smith, vice-president, facilities, Price Chopper, Schenectady, NY. "I think they've done a good job of raising awareness of environmental issues. They've encouraged all of the supermarket partners to set goals, work toward those goals, and make a commitment that we might not have made otherwise. They've done a good job of promoting dialogue among members, and they've been a good source of data, specifications, and other trade information."
Panelists believe GreenChill's refreshing approach is just one reason for the program’s success.
"The relationship we had with the EPA six or seven years ago was strained," recalled Harrison Horning, director of energy and facility services, Delhaize, America, parent company of Hannaford Bros., Scarborough, ME. "The dialogue was difficult, because we were talking about the rules and how they were interpreted and enforced. I think GreenChill gives us some really good context, and a framework to talk about issues, learn from each other, and share information and experiences. I’m pleased that we signed onto it."
"From the supermarket standpoint, it's a good thing to have friendly communication with the EPA. It's also in contractors' best interests to reduce refrigerant leaks and improve the system," said contractor Ron Smith, president, DHR Mechanical, Woodstock, GA.
GreenChill is not open to contractors, however, some contractors — including our panelists, are keeping track of what types of guidance the best supermarkets are seeking from contractors, based on GreenChill parameters.
Jim Salamone, president, Precision Mechanical, Southampton, PA, now in its sixth year, has dealt with logistical, financial, and legal perspectives of the industry on a regular basis. He appreciates GreenChill as a source of information.
"I see that there are several best practices that are advertised and available to everybody to view, so it does allow us to start evaluating it as a resource," he said. "I think if there was room for contractors to participate and continue this type of dialogue, we could continue to go toward a common goal. We all want the same thing, and that opens up an environment for us to do it."
Contractor panelist Dan Steffen, vice president, AAA Refrigeration Services, Bronx, NY — the 2008 ContractingBusiness.com Commercial Refrigeration Contractor of the Year — became aware of GreenChill through the Food Management Institute's (FMI's) Energy Conference, and later signed up to receive FMI web blasts. He stays in touch with supermarket colleagues, such as panelists Jon Perry, director, energy and maintenance, Farm Fresh, Virginia Beach, VA, and Price Chopper's Benny Smith. That friendship has kept him in the loop regarding the advanced systems they're using.
"By interacting with Jon and Benny, I've been able to see and marvel at the advanced technology they’re using for their stores," Steffen said.
"We service several retail customers consisting of chain stores and independents, who still don't have in-house refrigerant tracking," Steffen related. "Several aren't familiar with EPA regulations and requirements, so we provide them with tracking reports, to make sure they're compliant."
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Communicating Leak Prevention
The industry's best contractors are persistent communicators. They do all they can to encourage their customers to adopt more proactive measures. Unfortunately, they often encounter customer apathy when they suggest retrofits in the interest of leak prevention and efficiency.
"There's the constant budget constraints and quest for return on investment. We're often asked 'how will this retrofit financially benefit my store?' If it's not something that helps to sell more products or have a quick financial benefit, it's not an easy sell," Steffen explained. "This is especially true when you're dealing with some of the smaller retailers; the last thing they consider changing is the rack or supporting equipment. The first things changed are the sales floor fixtures that display merchandise," Steffen said.
It's quite a different experience when the retailer takes a strong position on the importance of the motor room and servicing conditions, Steffen stated. Therefore, in the interest of education, he and the team at AAA continually strive to make inroads with system upgrades.
Whole Lotta' Shakin'
Vibration is a major conributor to refrigerant leaks, which puts regular preventive maintenance at the top of the to-do list of these progressive contractors.
"Through preventive maintenance programs, we perform routine leak checks and tightening of lines and caps, which come loose over time and result in leaks," Steffen explained.
In many cases, however, customers become victims of contractors' competitive pricing, especially when bid specifications are not clear. If the servicing contractor is only providing spotty check-ups, leaks will persist. When a more quality-focused contractor obtains the contract, they take the proper steps right from the start.
"For example, in stores in which we didn't install the equipment, we'll change out capillary tubes with some of the armored super hoses, because we recognize that's a prime source of leaks," Steffen said.
The Pressure of Time
Time waits for no contractor who's working on a system repair. Even when the contractor bends over backwards and provides an overnight repair, they can still run out of time, come the dawning of a new day.
"Most mini-remodels start at 9PM, and cases need to be up and running the next morning by 6AM, which leaves very little room for error," Steffen explained. "We understand that you don't make money with an empty case. But with proper scheduling you can reduce some of the leaks that are out there."
Store remodeling scenarios can also exert pressure on the team to finish faster, and Stan Shumbo, president, Eastern Refrigeration, Colchester, CT, thinks there has to be a compromise solution.
"In a remodel situation, 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 4AM they say, 'OK guys, you’re ready to roll.' Three hours later, the retailer is 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," Shumbo stated.
DHR Mechanical's Ron Smith said all refrigeration contractors are in a sense in the retail business, and must do all they can to help supermarkets continue to sell groceries.
"Most of the facilities' people understand, and they try to give us as much time as humanly possible," Smith said. Smith has applied some GreenChill leak reduction best practices as part of DHR’s installation specifications.
"We've seen already that it's slowed us down a little bit with some of these nighttime turnovers. So, we try to work ahead as much as we can and do some evacuations ahead of time — overcome as much of that as possible through planning. But if we still need a little more time, we'll talk to our store managers and operations side about our GreenChill commitment, and they're willing to give us a little extra time."
Newer Systems = Fewer Leaks
The GreenChill refrigeration management plan often leads to the installation of new systems engineered with reduced refrigerant charges, which automatically improves leak rates.
"We're installing carbon dioxide (CO2) systems that only have 8.8 pounds of R404A. So the leaks by design are going to be reduced," said Benny Smith. "I think getting below a 5% leak rate in new stores is probably a lot more attainable than in existing stores," he said. Price Chopper is also following through on an initiative to improve its sensor efficacy.
John Gallaher, director of marketing and business development in the Refrigeration Systems Division of Hill Phoenix, said the Giant Eagle organization uses infrared leak detectors, to great success. The leak rates within that chain have been reduced to between 5 and 10%.
"So, is there a direct correlation between having these systems in your store and low leak rates? Or can you, with the old-style sensors, possibly achieve that 5% leak rate?" he asked.
Charles Dinsmore, director of engineering, Weis Markets, Sunbury, PA, shared that Weis Markets is on a campaign to provide infrared detectors for every Weis store, based on some stunning research findings. "We compared some stats on those stores with infrareds and those without. On average, the stores with infrared sensors used about 350 pounds less refrigerant per year. That's significant savings," he exclaimed.
Jim Galehan, HVACR manager for Giant Eagle, said management at some Giant Eagle stores have reduced alarm thresholds, for improved sensitivity.
"Sometimes, the leak detector just doesn't detect all the leaks, and you don't know that you have an issue until you're running low on liquid," he said. "We've reduced the alarm thresholds in some stores, to see if that makes a difference. We've had success with that, so it looks like that might be something we’re going to start doing in more stores."
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The Farm Fresh stores have had success using wall-mounted infrared detectors, said Jon Perry. Additionally, to help improve the sensitivity of leak detection sensors, Farm Fresh store designers are isolating mechanical rooms as much as possible, especially in new store construction projects.
"Roughly 50% of all leaks are in the motor room, but most people condition the motor room with exhaust air. That additional air dilutes your leak detection equipment's ability to detect leaks," Perry explained. As a solution, exhaust fans are used to cool the motor room.
"With exhaust fans, you don't have a lot of air motion, so we detect the leaks much better. We find very tiny leaks with a very quick response. We alarm the doors on the motor room, so that doors can't be left open, and air isn't escaping."
"You must take some safety precautions, and train people. However, if 50% of your leaks are in your motor room, then, in my mind, making this small change is equivalent to buying a secondary refrigeration system," Perry said, and added that new measures have resulted in a 200 pound reduction in refrigerant leaks.
Dinsmore said technician methods seem to play a role in leak prevention. He's noticed a strong relationship between leak rates and the practices of individual service technicians.
"We have one technician who averages about a 4% leak rate per year, and several other technicians who are at the 6% mark. We're trying to figure out what they know and do, and apply it to the others. That speaks to the importance of technician training and motivation."
Leak prevention can be a great unifier among contractors and supermarket customers. It's an issue that affects them all, in significant ways: time, expense, scheduling, and selling. Both sides also believe there can be common ground in reducing leaks without disrupting everyone's schedules.
By resolving to share information related to best practices, new system alternatives, and what it takes to do the job correctly, the two side of this issue will be more successful in the battle against refrigerant leaks.
COMING IN FEBRUARY: Our roundtable team shares their experiences with alternative refrigeration systems.
To read parts 2 and 3 in this series, visit: