Last fall, representatives of five supermarket chains and four refrigeration contractors discussed their experiences with alternative refrigerants and refrigeration systems as part of a Refrigeration Roundtable in Indianapolis hosted by SN and ContractingBusiness.com (both published by Penton Media, New York). The event, the second such roundtable hosted by the two publications, was sponsored by Hill Phoenix, Conyers, Ga., and Emerson Climate Technologies, Sidney, Ohio.
The supermarket participants in the roundtable included:
Sam Cantrell, mechanical engineer, Raley’s Supermarkets, West Sacramento, Calif.; George Ronn, senior manager, refrigeration compliance and system controls, Supervalu, Minneapolis; Jerry Stutler, vice president of construction and facility engineering, Sprouts Farmers Market, Phoenix; Steve Hagen, procurement and engineering director, Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, El Segundo, Calif.; and Gary Cooper, director of refrigeration, Lowe’s Market, Lubbock, Texas.
The contractor participants included: Bill Almquist, president, Almcoe Refrigeration, Dallas; Bryan Beitler, vice president/chief engineer, Source Refrigeration & HVAC, Anaheim, Calif.; Russell Dudan, chief executive officer, Advantage Refrigeration, New Berlin, Wis.; Richard Adkins, sales and marketing, Advantage Refrigeration; and Neil Lansing, owner, Fournier AC & Refrigeration, Jacksonville, Fla. Also participating were Dave Smith, systems specialist, Hill Phoenix, and Tom McFarlane, regional sales manager, West Coast, Hill Phoenix.
The following is an edited transcript of the portion of the Refrigeration Roundtable devoted to the GreenChill partnership and leak prevention. (Click here for a previous roundtable article and transcript focused on alternative refrigerants and systems.)
HAGEN: Fifteen years ago, when the supermarkets started getting out of the HCFCs and went to the HFCs, [the EPA’s] Julius Banks stood in front of a group of people at [the FMI Energy Show] and said, "You know, I don't think the supermarket industry is trying hard enough to reduce leaks, and you guys are just full of excuses when other industries that we fined millions of dollars found ways." And I look at the industry today and I look at the manufacturers and the service companies and the owners, and I think he was right, and he's still right today. People make bad economic decisions without really thinking about the long-term consequences from a cost standpoint, and they don't put the technology out there hard enough and fast enough.
Could a manufacturer say we're using this because it leaks less and we won't sell anything else anymore? They should, and the [retail] owners should say that's the only thing I'll buy. And we don't do that enough. [Sprout’s] has a really low leak rate [6.5%], the lowest in the country among GreenChill members. And ours is about 9%, and I'm kind of embarrassed that we're at 9%, even though that's far below the national average and far below the GreenChill average, which is far below the national average. It's still embarrassing that in today's day and age, we have that much of a leak rate.
Now, the other thing that's difficult is that the more you get into GreenChill and the more you lower your [refrigerant] charge, the less you can leak. So where you used to have 1,000 pounds in a system and you could leak, 100 pounds, now you've got 600 pounds in a system and you can only leak 60. So it's hard to get to that lower leak rate. But I don't think we do a good job with it, and I don't think the industry has.
I think that what GreenChill has done is that once you commit, then you feel bad about not doing better. So you continuously look at ways to improve your refrigerant charge and leak less. At Fresh & Easy, we have a meeting once or twice a year on refrigeration and leaks, and I ask the manufacturers to come and the contractors to come and bring some service guys, and we all sit in a room and talk about the mistakes we've made, how we can correct them, what we should change in the prototype design or go back and fix. But we've also found that we spend less money because we have less leakage.
Usually the things that you change to lower your refrigeration charge change your first cost, too. I mean, you might spend a little bit more money at the front end checking for leaks and pressures and all of that stuff, but you're using less refrigerant, so you're cutting that cost out. You're trying to get things closer together so you cut installation costs out. So at the end of the day, you're doing the right thing for the environment at a lower cost — both first costs and life cycle costs. So that's kind of what [GreenChill’s] meant for us.
STUTLER: I probably couldn't say much more than what Steve just said. I'm going to ride his coattails on that. But I will tell you what GreenChill has meant to our leak rate reduction. I hate to admit this, but we probably wouldn't be anywhere near where we are today — and I'm speaking personally for our company — if it wasn't for the GreenChill organization.
It has inspired pride, it has inspired competition, and everybody knows a little friendly competition will just make you a little better. And quite frankly, I get a little worried about the government cuts and what might happen to GreenChill. I've had conversations with some of the manufacturers that maybe they somehow can put together an organization to kind of continue [should GreenChill be cut], a similar organization to keep us on our toes and to keep our leak rate reductions down and our charge reduction down.
SN: Jerry, Sprout’s won the GreenChill award in 2011 for lowest leak rate, 6.5%. Can you share any of the secret sauce behind that?
STUTLER: Well, everybody here knows a lot of that is luck. You didn't have a lot of leaks, you didn't have a lot of big leaks. We put constant pressure on service providers every time they're in our stores to make sure they are checking for leaks. They do not leave that store if there is a leak without fixing that leak. Then on the installation is strict adherence to the GreenChill specifications and our specifications.
SN: It would seem that the argument, apart from the environmental argument, which is a good one, is that you're saving a lot of money when you do that. That should be, for upper management, persuasive.
CANTRELL: I bet none of us — none of the chains represented here — started on their leak rate crusades purely out of love for the environment, not that we're anti-environment. But there has to be a golden egg at the end of the path, and there is. That's the great thing that I think doesn't get enough press is that there's a financial incentive built into having low leak rates, improving the robustness of your system, making a system that doesn't need to be serviced as often.
As far as how GreenChill does that, I think it really does empower the end users to start taking inventory of what's going in their systems. And it does fall on the end users to try to improve things. We've been tracking our leak rates and where they come from for about 10 years, long before our involvement with GreenChill and long before a lot of the press about refrigerants harming the environment. And we were finding, even from the beginning, that a majority of our leak rates are coming from small components. There's a lot of misinformation floating out there that brazed joints and the piping out in the store are where a lot of these leaks come from, and our data couldn't be further from that. It's coming from small components.
I also serve on the ASHRAE Standards committee on reducing the release of halogenated refrigerants. And one of the things that's come up several times in these meetings is that many of the components that go into racks and cases are never tested in the factory up to the standards that they are tested during the start-up process. Between the pressure test and evacuation test, those components — if they're bigger than a bread box — have never been subjected to those extremes for that amount of time.
This is where the contractors are caught in the middle because a grocery chain could very easily just say, “Why is your system leaking at that spot?” But that valve, that manifold, may not have ever been held to a vacuum for a period of days, at 500 microns or 250 microns or whatever the end user spec is.
So that's where the GreenChill forum is giving the end users that cross-pollination effect. We're getting information and we're starting to see this issue — which we've been beating up on contractors over for years — isn't even really their fault. I think that the importance of that can't be overstated.
SN: Because the manufacturers are also in GreenChill and they have a voice as well?
CANTRELL: Right. And most of the manufacturers will do custom configurations and custom testing requirements. They've been really great about meeting our demands. But up until now, it's been a gaping hole in the industry.
ALMQUIST: We've installed six or seven GreenChill stores, and a couple of things that we've learned is No. 1, everybody wants to save the environment until they realize it's going to cost them something. We do put a premium on our contract if they want us to do GreenChill compliance — the extended vacuum decay tests and pressure tests and so forth.
HAGEN: We require valves that have a positive shutoff. We didn't get that from the manufacturer coming to us and saying we have this valve that prevents leaks and it only costs you $23 on your entire rack. We had to say we want this.
The manufacturers should push not to even provide a standard Schrader valve on a rack. If you brought that up to them and said we would like to implement this on your rack, at this small cost — think about how much it would save over the life of the equipment — I would be very surprised if five out of 100 said no. But sometimes you have to be proactive with that stuff.
RONN: RSES [Refrigeration Service Engineers Society] or one of the other independent bodies could have reached out and tried to do this. But I think for most supermarkets just to sit down with each other and talk about this, then right away, collusion is probably going to be one of the topics that come up. You're going to have some independent body that's going to ask why is Safeway and Kroger and Supervalu all sitting down in the same room — is it contract negotiations in southern California or is it something else? I think having an independent third party, in this case GreenChill, as part of the EPA, was beneficial for getting everybody together. I think it could have been ASHRAE or RSES, but for whatever reason it wasn’t.
LANSING: I think the supermarket industry could set consistent [leak] standards on how they want things done. I have clients that are very, very strict to clients who aren't strict at all where money is no issue to make it work a certain way. I don't care what body it is, no one can take care of that. It's got to be the supermarkets in the end. They have to have a consistent approach, and then that consistency can go to the manufacturer.
CANTRELL: I don't really give sole credit to the EPA or any kind of legislation for the improvements in leak rates, and even GreenChill doesn’t necessarily deserve all of the credit. I think the movement towards this started previous to that. I know Ed [Estberg of Raley’s] has always been pretty vocal about this in his involvement with FMI. There were a few people that were taking it seriously prior to GreenChill and also tracking and doing things about their leak rate. And then GreenChill provided a bigger forum, and I think maybe just the attractiveness that the customer will gravitate to the GreenChill label; it provided some intriguing aspects that got more people involved.
But I think it was that dialogue — hey, look, we reduced our leak rate by 5%. And it's not only giving us our money back; it's paying dividends just a year or two later. That's really the reason for all of this effort because, in our limited experience with it, we've never really publicized a lot of the design elements that we've done that are environmentally friendly. But even when we finally did promote a store as a green project — it initially qualified for GreenChill Gold — there was buzz at that store for about three weeks, which coincided with our introductory period where we have special offers to get some traffic in the store. As soon as that went away, all the buzz went away and it was just performing with sales similar to all the other stores in the chain. I personally really don't see there being this mass movement by the consumer to target environmentally friendly stores yet. And until that is an obvious phenomenon, you're not going to get retailers to start funneling lots of money into environmental programs.
I think the real value in GreenChill is that dialogue that this is all low-hanging fruit that is environmentally friendly, which you can promote to your customers. But when your executives start asking why we are going to spend that money, here's the big bomb you could drop on them: It's going to save them money in the long run, and that's been huge for us.
STUTLER: GreenChill is not only there to help us reduce our leaks and our charge. I tell you it has opened up dialogue between competitors, all of us sitting here, that we never, ever would have talked about. You know, I'm sure there'are some little secrets that we all withhold, and that's the same with manufacturers, but we'll have forums every month with GreenChill, and it has really opened up the dialogue between all of the supermarket competitors on the refrigeration side, along with manufacturers, sharing ideas and sharing experiences, which we never would have done before.
It's nothing for me to pick up a phone and call somebody at Food Lion, Whole Foods, Fresh & Easy and ask them a question. Years ago, they would have said who is calling and for what and hung the phone up.
SN: Of course, the supermarket industry is a highly competitive industry with low margins. As a reporter on this, I think the energy and refrigeration people are the most open with each other across companies — more than any other part of the supermarket business. So you guys deserve a lot of credit for that.
Some of the contractors mentioned that some retailers were not too keen on worrying about leak rates, but didn't they appreciate the cost savings that were possible by controlling their leaks better?
LANSING: It depends on the contract. If you have a fixed-fee monthly contract, that has been pushed over to the contractor. So I have more incentive than the client. And once that happens, then I want to be involved in your design because I've got to maintain these systems.
I've got some clients with three-way valves that were oversized and they put them in 10, 15 years ago and they constantly leak. So I want to be in the room when you design what you do. And they're coming around now to that because I don't think they're used to someone being a little more aggressive, saying it's a fixed-fee contract, I need to know that I can maintain stores for what you're trying to pay me. Otherwise, it can't be a fixed-fee contract.
BEITLER: Regarding the cost of refrigerant, whether we have a T&M [time and materials] relationship or a [fixed-fee] contract, we placed a lot of emphasis on gathering correct data on where the leaks are occurring. We can feed it back to T&M or contract customers or through the manufacturers to say the problem is a specific component or a specific coil or whatever it might be, in order to reduce the overall leak rate. That's our obligation, to feed that information back through.
We're starting to gather that data through our electronic hand-held service applications. It helps us better manage our maintenance contracts and we can offer services with respect to T&M to focus on leak reduction in equipment if we know that's an issue.
SN: The EPA on the regulatory side is planning to lower the trigger rate for leak fixes from 35% to 20%. What effect do you think this is going to have on the industry? Of course, you guys are well below 20% anyway.
RONN: Quite honestly, the trigger rate is meaningless. Unless we have to order a two-inch ball valve or a new evaporator that is not available off the shelf, that leak is fixed that day. We don't wait until it gets to 35% before we say let's go fix the leak. As soon as we find the leak, we fix it immediately. The refrigerant loss, the down-time, the case merchandising, that's all too much wasted money waiting for [the leak rate] to get to 35% or 20% or 10% or whatever number they want to use. We fix the leak and then we'll look at the calculation later. We don't even get to the point of calculating until it's already fixed.
STUTLER: I think [the trigger rate change] probably isn't going to affect this group much, but I think with some of the other supermarkets that are not part of GreenChill and cannot be part of GreenChill for certain reasons, it's certainly going to affect them.
SN: But would the 20% trigger rate put more pressure on the contractors to be more proactive?
ADKINS: In all of the history of working around refrigeration, I don't think I've ever seen an end user, if you went and identified to them that you've got a refrigerant leak, say, "How bad is it? Can we put that off?" If it's identified, it's repaired. There are other things in the supermarket where they might say, "We'll wait on it," but I think with a refrigerant leak, they realize that there is an expense with that and also operating costs that go along with it.
CANTRELL: Tightening up the leak rate trigger is not going to impact any of us. To be up to 35%, you're not trying really. The payback to reductions, at that point, are going to be so quick even for the little basic things to improve your leaks. The payback would be in weeks or months — it would be really easy to justify.
But is that going to affect contractors? I think it could. It depends on how rigidly that gas is monitored during the construction process. Right now what we do — and this meets EPA requirements — is we report our gas, our charge for that store, based on how much gas is added during construction. And there's some gas lost during construction. Most times it's a little. Sometimes it's enormous.
If there is some kind of system that's legislated where they go to the extreme and say we have to pull all of the gas out after the store is started up and weigh it — which would be seriously cost prohibitive — that could be a game changer and really could crush contractors. We'll all have to pay for that.
ADKINS: Being a contractor, we're looking proactively, so we've implemented steps to try to increase the quality of installations. A lot of that's with new components. I believe a lot of the leaks we see are from smaller components, but also installation practices such as welding techniques. We've brought manufacturer in to teach and refresh our skilled tradesmen that braze every day how to make a proper joint, a proper flow rate, with new rods and new materials to give the best installation possible.
HAGEN: Throughout Europe, they don't use elbows. They end the pipe, and they've had incredible success with that. I'm still at a loss to understand why we're not able to do that today. Why can they do something we can't do?
ADKINS: We're seeing that with manufacturers more now than ever before. Speaking for Hill Phoenix, for instance, they're doing a lot more manual bent tubing on their racks, which eliminates potential sweat joints, fittings or possibility for leaks, and I believe you're starting to see that more in the industry. But as far as installation contractors in the field, mandrel bending hasn't been a standard. It's essentially like taking a conduit and bending it. It's hard-drawn copper. In our industry, to mandrel bend, you usually have to heat and take the temper out of it. It's not really looked at as a standard practice. I think to mandrel bend hard-drawn copper would take special equipment. But I agree in Europe they're doing that.
Hill Phoenix is doing it in the factory. I see them doing it in discharge lines an inch and three-eighths copper that they're mandrel bending.
HAGEN: I agree that 95%, 98% of the leaks happen on small components - Schrader valves, etc. But what's the correct leak rate? It's zero. And you do have leaks out in the field from pipes moving and stuff like that that may very well not occur if you didn't have welded joints. All of the [welders] aren't good and welds fail over time. It just seems like one more point of failure. If we could figure out what they've figured out in Europe — there's not an installation in Europe that uses elbows.
ADKINS: Years ago, on most components it was the capillary tube. One of the biggest failures in a machine room was in discharge pressure switches and low pressure switches, due to the capillary tube vibration. And technologies changed there. Components are now installed with super hoses, and I think the failure rate has diminished a lot in those areas. So a lot of things have been addressed as we evolve, but there's a long way yet to go.
ALMQUIST: What is the leak rate in other industries, like the mobile refrigeration industry, and how does it compare to the leak rate in the stationary industry? I'm hearing that our leak right is bad. But compared to what? I would think it would be greater or equal in the mobile refrigeration.
HAGEN: My experience with refrigeration units for trucks is number one, they have really small charges so their leak rate when they do leak is high because there's not a lot in there, but they almost never leak. I think that when we reported it last year to [our parent] Tesco, we had zero leaks on 170 trucks. I think over the life, we’ve used less than 30 pounds. Now, we're only four years old so the oldest is truck is four years old. But it's really pretty tight. The Carriers and Ingersoll Rands, which are about the only two out there, have pretty much dialed in zero leaks, but then that's like a refrigerator. If you look at refrigerators, they almost never leak any more. I think it's pretty low.
The industry that used to be worse than the supermarket industry was with the bakery industry, and after millions of dollars worth of fines, their leak rates are really, really low now. And I think that's where the supermarkets started, with the EPA saying we need some money and you're next, and FMI fighting them and saying no, we're not, we're not the bakeries. We care more than they do. We'll self-police and they kind of put it off. I'm sure there's an industry out there that's not fantastic, but I think overall — and we're getting better now — but we were one of the worst.
ALMQUIST: Have there been any landmark rulings where big fines have been assessed on the grocery chain for leak rates? I know there was in the bakery industry with the Sara Lee deal.
RONN: There were two big cases, [Safeway-owned] Dominicks and the Jewel-Osco stores before we acquired them. The fines weren't tremendously hideous. I think Jewel-Osco had to do 37 conversions. So that's where your big money is — doing those conversions.
STUTLER: There are plenty of pending fines out there with a few of the larger grocery chains that are not members of GreenChill right now, and it's costing them thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars in attorney fees, not to mention I don't think they're going to win the case either. Once they clear those fines, they can become members of GreenChill.