The commercial refrigeration industry is moving at breakneck speed. One contractor I spoke with during the Mechanical Service Contractors Association (MSCA) Annual Meeting in October, stated that the growth will be due in part to mandated replacements of refrigeration systems in military base commisaries. Add to that the normal decline and replacement of public sector equipment, customer demands for higher efficient equipment, and new systems that make it possible, and, yes, you can see a segment poised for expansion.

So, if outdated equipment is the mother of all trends, what are the trends that necessarily will follow?

I spoke with some leading commercial refrigeration contractors and a manufacturer, to get their takes on what they foresee in the days ahead.

CO2 Train Rolls Into Town
The renewed popularity and interest in carbon dioxide (CO2) — official designation, R744 — as a refrigerant continues to expand. Major supermarket chains are having CO2 systems installed, due to the systems' highly-touted environmental friendliness and lower cost (at present, CO2 costs about one-seventh the cost of R22.).

Bryan Beitler, vice president of engineering for Source Refrigeration, Anaheim, CA, has recently had in-depth experience with a new, CO2-based system. He was one of a Source Refrigeration team that worked with systems manufacturer Kysor/Warren, to install a sub-critical CO2 cascade system in a Fresh and Easy supermarket in Rosemead, CA. He says CO2-based systems are gaining ground, and Source is getting itself prepared.

"In our strategic planning, we consider trends that must be addressed, and that we have to provide solutions for. Those trends include CO2," and there's also interest in glycol/secondary systems. Those seem to be the two major areas in which people are changing their traditional ways. It seems to be more popular in the eastern U.S., in the way of low temperature, recirculated CO2 systems," Beitler says.

Beitler says supermarket managers are becoming more committed to reducing refrigerant charges through a distributed system or other technology innovations.

"Because we install and service those types of systems, we see a lot of opportunity for improvement in reducing refrigerant charges and energy draw. Those are the big hot buttons for us," Beitler says.

Betiler says Source's maintenance customers want guidance in reducing overall operating costs, minimizing refrigerant use, and saving greater amounts of energy.

"We almost deal with it on a daily basis. Customers are driving the conversation," he says.

EPA GreenChill Influence
The perceived effects of man-made refrigerants on the environment is exerting much pressure on supermarket managers — your customers — to change the manner in which they preserve foods. GreenChill, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) program focused on reduced refrigerant emissions by supermarkets, is leading the "charge."

Each year, the EPA presents its GreenChill Distinguished Partner Awards to organizations that have demonstrated a strong commitment to protecting the environment by reducing what is described as "the harmful impact of commercial refrigeration systems on climate change and the Earth's ozone layer."

Whether or not you believe the environmental-based reasoning behind the movement, its impact can’t be denied.

"The retail industry is concerned about emission control and emissions reductions in their operations, and having a natural refrigerant in the store contributes to the retail industry's emissions reduction programs," says Travis Lumpkin, Kysor/Warren's vice president, and systems business unit leader.

Environmantally-friendly, naturally occuring CO2 seems to be the way the industry is going, both in the U.S. and abroad.

"CO2 when used as a refrigerant doesn't cause any harm to the environment, as it's already produced in some other process (e.g. hydrogen production), and it’s effectively a deferred release," Lumpkin explains. "Therefore, you can vent it directly to the atmosphere with no requirements for reclamation. It's much lower in cost than the commonly used HFC's. By using CO2, you can significantly reduce the amount of HFC refrigerant used in a store," Lumpkin explains. "And, the big benefit with CO2 is the improved environmental impact of the [entire] system. Moderate to significant improvements in carbon footprint and energy performance improvements are achievable with CO2."

Talent Search Continues
Contractors and HVACR associations are increasing their efforts at raising the bar for technician training.

"I always thought the recession would make available a large crop of technical people to refrigeration contractors. But, I was wrong. The technician shortage of yesterday is over, but the talent shortage remains," says Brian Hughes, president, Hughes Environmental Engineering, Inc., Montvale, NJ, the 2010 ContractingBusiness.com Commercial Refrigeration Contractor of the Year (see "Champions of Specialty Refrigeration").

"The best low-temp troubleshooters can still get a job anywhere, anytime. The same goes for engineers," Hughes insists.

Bill Almquist, president of Almcoe Refrigeration, Dallas, TX (the 2009 ContractingBusiness.com Commercial Refrigeration Contractor of the Year; see "Branded for Excellence"), says there are many warm bodies out there, but technicians aren't inspired to remain in the industry long enough to reach the upper echelon of talent. Continued training is a possible cure, but Almquist also believes empoyees need to know why they're punching the clock each day. Everyone's goals must be in sync.

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"Refrigeration contractor business owners must share their vision with employees," Almquist says. "We business owners need to know why we do what we do, and cast that vision before all of the people in the organization. You'll reap the rewards, in more stable and loyal employees, customers, and vendors. You'll also see it reflected in your bottom line." (For more on this topic, please see Vicki LaPlant's editorial)

Training Essential, for Many Changes that Lie Ahead
An essential element in a company vision includes its vision for technician training and education. Without regular training, no technician, or company for that matter, can compete. Atlanta Energy Services, Atlanta, GA is one example of a company that’s on board with continued, state-of-the-industry training. AES is also becoming active in CO2; it recently installed a Kysor/Warren system in a Food Lion supermarket in Columbus, GA.

"AES provides in-house training sessions twice each month," says Tom Alesi, president. It's a necessity, he says, because of improvements in refrigeration technology.

"We have ongoing training because the equipment is constantly changing. There's more new equipment and food cases; we have to stay on top of it," Alesi says. "Well-trained technicians are an essential element of customer service.

"You must have a good reputation for quality workmanship," Alesi says. "We have a very high customer retention rate, because we do a very thorough job. Our field service supervisors are involved on service calls, to ensure that we minimize callbacks and provide high quality workmanship. We're not the low cost provider, but we provide some of the best quality work in the area."

The biggest trend driver of all? No surprise there: "It's energy, energy, energy," Alesi says. "Everything's focused on lower energy consumption, ever since parallel systems came along in the mid-1980s."

Next month: We begin our four-part series of coverage of the ContractingBusiness.com Commercial Supermarket Refrigeration Roundtable.

CO2 Applications Explained

There are two ways CO2 can be used in supermarket refrigeration. One is that of a secondary application (also known as, flooded coil or liquid overfeed), where CO2 is circulated through and partially evaporated in the refrigerated fixtures by means of a liquid CO2 pump. This method uses the latent heat of CO2 for cooling thereby requiring very little, or insignificant, pumping energy. This is applicable to both low temperature loads (those loads below 0F) and medium temperature loads (those loads above 0F).

The second method for using CO2 for refrigeration is by direct expansion. In this method, CO2 is circulated by means of a vapor compression cycle either for low temperature loads only (in a sub-critical cascade cycle) or for both low and medium temperature loads in a transcritical cycle. The latter is more prevalent in Europe and is not currently in use in the U.S. Chances are you’re more likely to see CO2 in a cascade system in either a secondary low and/or medium temperature system or low temperature direct expansion system. With this reemerging technology, it's important that refrigeration equipment technicians prepare for installing and servicing these type systems sooner rather than later.

As with anything in human nature, you have things that are familiar, that you have trusted over time. Key questions with CO2 are related to the pressures, alarm protocols, and troubleshooting the system. Once contractors become comfortable with those technical differences, it’s fairly easy. On the display case side it's very similar to what they’re doing today. The equipment is a little bit different, with special gauges that are commercially available.

When setting superheat, the pressures are slightly different, so it's important to be familiar with the pressure/temperature chart. On the systems side (the high side), CO2 in a sub-critical application does require a separate refrigeration system. — Travis Lumpkin, vice president, systems business unit leader, Kysor/Warren.