First published in Frozen & Refrigerated Buyer Magazine January 2015
Are you looking in the right places for unbiased opinions about your systems and refrigerants?
One of the first things I learned about refrigerants and supermarkets is that there is never one right answer, regardless of the question.
Doors on cases? It depends on lots of factors, including the case contents, the types of shoppers that frequent your store, how old the cases are, and, perhaps most important, how much deference your management gives to your merchandising people.
Best type of refrigeration system? It depends in part on the layout of the store, the location of the store, the amount of money available, and, it seems, a lot of hearsay about the downfalls and dangers of the various types of systems that you yourself have never tried.
I could go on and on. You name an issue in commercial refrigeration, and I’ll tell you that the answer depends on X, Y, and Z.
TWO MAIN CAMPS
One of the most polarizing issues in our industry is the right strategy for approaching the environmental harm caused by refrigerant emissions. There are two main camps: those who believe that the answer to this problem is leak tightness and those who believe that the answer lies in environmentally friendlier refrigerants.
The leak tightness camp proclaims readily and willingly that the refrigerant is not the problem. It doesn’t matter if a specific refrigerant harms the ozone layer or if it is the most potent global warming gas on the planet. If the refrigerant doesn’t leak, it doesn’t cause any harm. Therefore, we shouldn’t regulate refrigerant type; we should install commercial systems that never leak and make sure that service techs are trained in best practices.
The people who believe that the answer to the harm caused by refrigerant emissions lies in using refrigerants that are not harmful will tell you that there is no such thing as a leak-tight system. They point out that refrigerant emissions are often outside of human control. Components fail without warning. Natural disasters result in catastrophic leaks. Copper theft can cause a store to lose its entire charge overnight. They also refer to human error. I myself am fond of mentioning the inattentive high school forklift driver who bangs into a display case. I have no idea whether high schoolers are even allowed to drive forklifts in supermarkets, but I keep using this example because I think it gets the point across.
So what’s the answer? I’d like to say “it depends.” But this is an issue where “it depends” doesn’t really work. It boils down to your fundamental world view, similar to whether you believe that guns kill people or that people kill people, or perhaps more aptly, whether the answer to our energy future lies in renewables or cleaner fossil fuels. Needless to say, though I’m saying it anyway, there is a lot of money at stake in all of these areas.
Not surprisingly, many chemical manufacturers and the associations that represent them belong to the camp that professes that the refrigerant is not the problem. As the EPA focuses more on low GWP refrigerants, this camp will become more vocal about the need to better communicate best practices for leak tightness and leak prevention, the need for more training, and better enforcement of Section 608 of the Clean Air Act. They don’t want to seem blind to the problem, so they’ll focus the blame for the environmental harm somewhere other than on the refrigerant.
Also not surprisingly, many environmental organizations belong to the camp that believes that refrigerants will always leak, so the industry needs to move to refrigerants that do not harm the environment when emitted. This camp often makes broad, sweeping pronouncements about what everyone in the industry is doing wrong, without offering much in the way of concrete solutions to the hurdles that stand in the way of adopting environmentally-friendlier refrigerants.
Though I find systems manufacturers to be more agnostic, their agnosticism mainly comes from their desire to sell to all end-users regardless of their own opinions. Most of these manufacturers will, however, suggest that you try to reduce your HFC charge as much as possible and that you invest in a system that prevents HFC refrigerant leaks. They offer refrigeration systems that reduce the amount of HFC refrigerant needed by anywhere from 75%-90%. They also offer systems that use only natural refrigerants. Depending on how they position themselves in the market, they will focus more or less on these attributes as the key for your preparation for future regulations and market developments. However, if an end-user comes to these manufacturers wanting the leakiest type of system that uses the most 404A they can pump into it, most will also gladly sell that type of system. They might even take this end-user out to dinner and gladly agree that all this environmental nonsense is a load of hogwash.
If you get the impression that I feel this is an area where beliefs have a lot to do with money, you’d be absolutely right. Cynical? Maybe. I prefer the term bluntly realistic. The term “cynical” suggests that I feel there is something wrong with all parties in this industry trying to make a living. I don’t see anything at all wrong with that.
The problem in this situation is when end-users, in trying to figure out what is best for their stores, gather information from people who are trying to sell them something and never ask themselves whether they are being presented with the whole picture. What baffles me is that these end-users are usually the types of people who consult Consumer Reports or some other neutral source of information before purchasing a flat screen TV. They ask their friends who have flat screen TVs for their opinions on the pros and cons of various models. They understand that the flat screen TV salesperson may be trying to push one particular model or another based on the amount of commission he or she stands to earn. Yet when it comes to million-dollar decisions related to refrigerants and refrigeration systems, decision-makers rely on information from people who have a vested monetary interest in their decisions.
GREENCHILL: A GOOD SOURCE
The best source of neutral, user-friendly information that I know of is the EPA’s GreenChill Partnership. Lest you think that this organization escapes my cynical or bluntly realistic viewpoint, I readily admit that this neutrality is mostly due to the competitors that belong to the partnership keeping each other honest. The various best-practice guidelines, for instance, are written by groups of competitors. Any hint that a team member is trying to swing the document in his or her company’s favor is gleefully pointed out by multiple parties. Yes, there are situations where a whole group of competitors have the same economic interest, but the guidelines are peer reviewed by end-users and other industry stakeholders, too. They then go through a lengthy process of EPA review, where the pressure to eliminate anything that resembles a definitive statement is great. Nevertheless, the result of this whole process is a set of pretty good guidelines. The guidelines don’t answer all of your questions on any one topic, but they do point out the questions that you should be asking yourself and anyone who is trying to sell you something.
As long as end-users rely on salespeople for the information they use to make million-dollar decisions about which system to install in a new store or which refrigerant to use as their standard, this whole issue will, in fact, boil down to “it depends.” Unfortunately, in this case, the factors in the “it depends” equation are who you get your information from, what they are trying to sell you, and how much of it they are trying to sell.