Supermarket Disruptors Impact Future HVACR System Designs
Changing times in foodservice, supermarkets, and cold storage result in unanswered questions
A number of disruptors in the retail market and an active regulatory environment present obstacles for HVAC and refrigeration systems’ designers in foodservice operations, supermarkets, and cold storage facilities. The changes in the market make it difficult to determine a clear and consistent path forward and leads to individual end users driving diverse design decisions on a case-by-case basis.
Those were among the conclusions of a panel discussion convened at a recent Emerson 360 Forum in Chicago. The regulatory uncertainty and the new paradigms being forged in the retail market by e-commerce and other disruptors mean system designers are often left to help their customers meet their first cost, energy efficiency, sustainability, and maintenance goals based on a moving target: the future.
“We work with a number of end users and supermarkets, and every one of them has a different approach as to how they want to handle system design,” said Tony Welter, vice president/director of refrigeration, Henderson Engineers. “It ranges from ‘We’re going to do what we’ve always done,’ to ‘We’re going to do everything we possibly can,’ and everything between. Until we get a definite answer as to what the regulations are going to be, we’re going to continue to see that entire spectrum.”
Randy Mielke, president, Mielke Consulting, said uncertain regulations necessitate a guessing game to a certain extent — and guessing is a strategy no system designer prefers.
“You don’t know where the regulations are going to end up, so you have to be flexible enough to move with them,” he said. “But for your customers’ sake, you also must try to guess where the regulations are ultimately going. We have some ideas, but are we right? We won’t know until the day comes.”
We’re in a unique situation, according to Charlie Souhrada, vice president, regulatory and technical affairs, the North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers.
“The current regulatory environment requires us to look further down the road than we’ve ever had to before,” he said. “You have to monitor what the DOE [U.S. Department of Energy] and EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] are doing, and although that doesn’t provide a crystal ball, it can at least give you an idea of where things might be headed.”
Tim Prater, president, Prater Engineering Associates, noted when energy codes ramp up efficiencies, the size of the equipment typically increases. That means system designers must have an eye on the future when planning mechanical rooms and space above ceilings today.
“If we squeeze the equipment in now, and the regulations have changed in 15 years when it’s time to renovate the building, there might be different space requirements in the mechanical rooms and up on the roofs,” he said. “So we must be forward-thinking in planning those spaces now, or we could seriously hamper the owner’s ability to use the building effectively in the future.”
When it comes to natural refrigerants, Prater said he relies on the equipment manufacturers to do the research and development of their products to ensure they comply with the relevant regulations.
“As system designers, our job is to make sure we’re applying the products appropriately for the building owners and end users,” he said.
Souhrada noted the industry is gravitating toward propane for self-contained equipment, but technician and public education will be a key to widespread use of the refrigerant.
“It’s important that people who are installing, repairing, and dismantling this equipment understand how to deal with propane,” he said. “Another challenge is public perception. We must educate authorities having jurisdiction, including building inspectors, fire marshals, and even consumers, so they understand that, when used properly, propane doesn’t put them at risk.”
For larger systems, Mielke said he has been seeing a growing interest in CO2.
“Interesting new systems are being developed using transcritical or subcritical CO2, and cascaded systems using CO2 are moving into the market now,” he said. “Of course, CO2 has its own safety challenges, such as oxygen displacement. So we’re always trying to balance the scales.”
The higher operating pressures of CO2 systems create a need for education for the owner, the installer, and the commissioning personnel, Welter added.
“The manufacturers who make CO2-based equipment are working hard to educate the industry, and once technicians see these systems and become familiar with them, they’ll realize they’re not all that complicated,” he said.
Prater said end users’ preferences play a huge role in system design. Cost is always a factor, and many clients request a life cycle cost analysis to analyze a number of systems and calculate how long it will take to pay each system back.
Energy codes are also an important driver.
“As applications engineers, we find it takes a while for the codes to catch up to the energy efficiency technology, and, typically, supermarket owners don’t want to be out on the leading edge because it costs more money,” Prater said. “They just want us to apply systems that meet the energy code and don’t break the bank.”
In addition, sustainability is becoming ever more critical. Prater estimated approximately 20 percent of the projects his company designs now have some degree of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) aspirations. That drives the systems that are selected and the refrigerants that are used.
“Finally, we always have to consider maintainability,” Prater said. “That’s the ‘last taste’ that an owner gets from one of our projects, and if we give them a system that’s easy to maintain, we’re more likely to get another project from them in the future.”
Adding to the maintainability challenge, however, is the varying degree of expertise and sophistication of maintenance technicians around the country, he noted.
Changes in the retail world mean many supermarkets are actively looking to repurpose some of their square footage into new uses, such as creating a distribution center for online shoppers, according to Welter.
“The future of retail has a question mark on it,” he said. “And the question for us then becomes how we use existing buildings with existing systems, refrigerants, and electrical and add an appendage that’s going to support the online business. Supermarket owners — and, in turn, us — are dealing with challenges that simply didn’t exist five years ago.
IMPACT OF ELECTRONICS
Mielke said remote system access represents a key technological advancement in the cold chain.
“The capabilities of [remote monitoring systems] are impressive,” he said. “The systems are becoming more intelligent and are actually helping to combat the technician shortage. Instead of facilities relying on a technician to diagnose a system issue, the system can monitor itself and diagnose its own problem.”
Welter agreed but noted that individual retailers will make their decisions based on their comfort level with technology.
“To be attractive, technology has to be affordable and robust,” he said.
THE BIGGEST DISRUPTORS
Ultimately, Welter said the biggest disruptor from system designers’ view is regulatory uncertainty.
“Until someone puts the gavel down and says ‘this is what we’re going to do,’ there are going to continue to be many divergent paths,” he said. “In addition, R-404A is still in many stores, and that becomes a consideration when we’re asked to do a special project, such as adding a distribution center — we can’t add compressor or condenser capacity because then it would be considered a new system, and we’d have to use a different refrigerant.”
However, the challenges on the system designers’ side pale in comparison to what their supermarket clients are facing, Welter added.
“The biggest disruptor of them all is the retail climate going forward,” he said. “E-commerce is the most disruptive thing we’re all dealing with right now because if that’s how retailers are going to be making their money in the future, it’s going to affect how all of us do business with them.”
Publication date: 12/25/2017