Connecting the Cold Chain: The IoT is Revolutionizing Refrigeration
Many of us remember the pre-internet days, when access to information was limited to books, newspapers, and other written materials, and controlling systems or machinery was generally confined to manually turning a dial or flicking a switch.
Today, we all rely on the internet for an abundance of things. And while much of it is for fun, the internet is useful for more than watching cats riding vacuum cleaners or squirrels surfing. The internet has matured, but it’s also still growing and becoming ever more deeply ingrained in our lives.
The latest buzz phrase you have probably heard is IoT or the Internet of Things. Basically, the way the internet has connected people, the IoT is connecting machines. The IoT is extending the monitoring and control capabilities of machines — from home refrigerators that can tell you when it is time to buy milk to pacemakers that doctors can remotely access to check on their patients.
The refrigeration industry is a part of this IoT explosion. A good example can be found in the sector devoted to maintaining the integrity of the food chain. Poor monitoring and temperature control anywhere along the food chain can increase waste and spoilage or, at worst, cause illness or even death.
A preventive approach to food safety called hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) requires temperature traceability of food “from farm to fork.” Much of that traceability relies on site monitoring or manual record keeping. Imagine how much more efficient and precise internet-based monitoring and recording is versus manually tracking this data.
Enter the IoT for refrigeration. Now, control devices can automatically connect themselves to the internet in a secure manner to record and graph data over time, send out email or text alarm notifications, allow changing of set points, and provide the ability to perform diagnostics from anywhere in the world.
But connecting to the internet is only part of the way to full utility. If the data is relayed by proprietary protocols, it can be difficult or expensive to fully access.
The most generic “language” in the world today is TCP/IP (transmission control protocol/internet protocol). This is the basis for all browsers and familiar to anyone who is watching those cats or squirrels, even if they don’t know they are using it.
Figure 1 shows a refrigeration controller with TCP/IP built in and its own IP address and webpage on board. If a simple Ethernet cable is used to connect the controller to a router or other means of access to the internet, the controller is able to set up its own password-protected website.
Any authorized person, at any location, can receive email or text alarm notifications, change set points, download graphs, etc. The webpage shown requires no additional software and provides a snapshot of current conditions. Additional tabs on the page provide access to all the other capabilities of the controller.
Knowledge of networks, computers, or the internet is not required to participate in the IoT. Part of the philosophy of the IoT is that the devices are simply plug-and-play, and actual operation and setup is in the device, completely transparent to the user. Contractors, technicians, and grocery store owners and operators can all benefit from the technology, and companies, such as KE2 Therm Solutions, are providing ways to easily access and apply it.
“[The IoT for refrigeration] is a great time saver with more accurate diagnostics being able to web connect to a controller,” said John Johnson, owner, Nordvik Refrigeration Inc., San Jose, California. “Checking the defrost and temperature history tells you a lot about how the system is operating. The ability to remotely check evaporator superheat, coil temps, suction pressure, and many others is remarkable.”
“All of the controllers can be seen on a smart access portal,” added Darren Washington, HVACR supervisor, E-Z Mart stores, headquartered in Texarkana, Texas. “My techs really like looking at the system on their phones and preparing before they go to stores.”
The local area dashboard and alarms are simple to interact with, and the application programming interfaces make it easy to connect the defrost solution to a custom program, according to Bobby Sanders, Jr., journeyman electrician and IT technician at Braum’s, a family-owned chain of fast-food restaurants and grocery stores in Tuttle, Oklahoma. “I wrote a program to send our desired configuration to our refrigeration cases,” he said. “Instead of having to configure each point individually, I can send a configuration file to each case in about 10 seconds per case. On average, that would mean our defrost solution is configured in about two minutes.”
While the mechanical aspect of refrigeration is generally mature, with relatively minor changes ongoing, the IoT is bringing the control of, and information from, refrigeration equipment and systems to a whole new level. The future of refrigeration is unfolding before us.
Publication date: 11/6/2017