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Meeting for the first time since 2019, the Food Marketing Institute’s (FMI’s) 2022 Energy & Store Development Conference was recently held in Orlando, Florida. The three-day event consisted of numerous peer-led sessions, which covered everything from new refrigeration technology to changing store formats to regulations that are requiring the phasedown of HFC refrigerants.

Many things have changed since the last meeting, as the pandemic fundamentally shifted the way stores operate and how consumers want to shop. In addition, the passing of the AIM Act in December 2020 means food retailers will need to make plans for transitioning away from high-GWP refrigerants in their refrigeration equipment.

As Andy Haig, vice president of tax, trade, sustainability, and policy development at FMI, summed it up during a panel discussion, “The EPA is a much bigger player than they ever have been, and there's a host of rulemakings that are currently underway. To this environment you have to throw in COVID, supply chain challenges, workforce challenges, getting components, as well as the uncertainty that goes with this. This is an ever-changing field and I think people are extraordinarily nervous that they make the right decisions at the right time.”

In order to move forward, we need to have some certainty in the industry… without certainty, it's harder to make that investment.
Russ Barnthouse, P.E.
Executive vice president
United Refrigeration Inc./National Refrigerants Inc.

Refrigerant Transition

Seeking to help attendees make these right decisions were Nick Doherty, refrigeration engineer at Cushing Terrell in Missoula, Montana; Jim Salamone, branch manager of the Northeast Region of Climate Pros in Huntington Valley, Pennsylvania; and Russ Barnthouse, P.E., executive vice president of United Refrigeration Inc./National Refrigerants Inc. in Lenexa, Kansas. During the aforementioned panel discussion, these experts discussed some of the many challenges affecting the industry, including the refrigerant transition, new store formats, and the labor shortage.

Barnthouse discussed how this refrigerant transition differs from the last one. He noted that while there was essentially a 30-year window to transition from R-22 to R-410A, the AIM Act has far more aggressive stepdown goals. Indeed, the first big production cut occurs in 2024, when HFC production must be reduced to 60% of the baseline established by the EPA. Another big cut comes in 2029, when HFC production will be reduced to 30% of the baseline.

“We as an industry are going to need to work together to meet those goals,” he said. “I think that CO2 is going to be a part of this solution, as well as A2L refrigerants. But in order to move forward, we need to have some certainty in the industry. We need to know what [GWP] levels we're trying to attain. And, quite frankly, we need EPA to approve some of the proposed [A2L] refrigerants that are out there. Once we have that certainty, OEMs can start developing more equipment, and investment can happen. Without some certainty, it's harder to make that investment.”


FACE TIME: At FMI’s Manufacturer / Retailer Exchange, companies such as Emerson were able to talk with end users and contractors about their products. (Staff photo)

As for what food retailers can do now to prepare for the HFC phasedown, Barnthouse advised them to start making plans for how they will operate their existing stores once supplies of refrigerant start to drop. This includes properly reclaiming and banking refrigerant, as well as fixing leaks.

The latter point is important, said Salamone, and contractors should be helping their food retail customers develop a solid leak management plan. To that end, everybody needs to understand not just what to do and how to do it, but why they’re doing it, he said. He’s found that explaining the regulatory environment and what is needed to support their customers helps technicians better understand the importance of what they do.

“We encourage our technicians to start up that leak detector up and keep it on,” he said. “We leak check on every call, because it's that important. With today's technology and leak detection systems, you can get early indicators to drastically reduce leak events. The other piece is documentation, because you can have the best practices in the business, but if your team isn't documenting exactly what they're doing and getting that information into the customers' database, it might as well have not happened. That's a key point.”

Food retailers should also start evaluating their current refrigeration equipment and understand what they have in their store, said Salamone.

“Historically, there's been a lot of attention paid to merchandising — what's on the sales floor — and back rooms tend to be neglected. I think that sometimes owners might not really understand what they have and what their exposure is going to be to this upcoming regulation.”

Store formats are also changing, and combined with the refrigerant transition, new types of refrigeration architecture are being used to meet food retailers’ goals. For example, distributed systems are often used in smaller format stores, which usually range in size from 40,000 to 60,000 square feet, said Doherty, and CO2 systems are also an option for larger stores. But the commercial refrigeration industry is still waiting for the approval of A2L refrigerants.

“I'm assuming long term that there will be approval on increased propane charge sizes and that there will be approval on A2L refrigerants,” he said. “You can't really plan a whole lot around it right now, but I do believe that it’s going to happen. We're getting there, we're seeing equipment that is meeting our needs for smaller stores and being able to add on that fulfillment center to the grocery store. It's just a matter of planning for the future right now, and it all starts with understanding what the store’s needs are, and where they want to go.”

If we're going to attract talent, we need to find ways to have an environment that's a little more flexible than it has been historically.
Jim Salamone
Branch manager, Northeast Region, Climate Pros

Labor Shortage

As new refrigeration technology becomes available, the need for skilled technicians to work on it becomes even greater. That’s why attracting new people to the industry — and keeping those already here — is extremely important. Salamone believes that predictive maintenance is the key to the future when it comes to technician retention.

“With predictive maintenance, instead of receiving an alarm for a case at 3:00 a.m., you can see if that temperature is acting abnormally. Then you can schedule technicians during normal working hours, Monday through Friday, in most cases,” he said. “There's always going to be overtime, weekends, nights, and weekends, but I see this as an opportunity to retain talent.”

This would help address one of the biggest challenges in the industry, said Salamone, which is that while technicians may like to work on refrigeration equipment, they don’t want to be called out to a supermarket to fix something in the dead of night.

“I think in the future, there's real opportunity to manage that,” he said. “And to give that flexibility to the younger generation, which is very important. If we're going to attract talent, we need to find ways to have an environment that's a little more flexible than it has been historically.”

Another way contractors can address the technician shortage is to completely change the way new employees are brought into a company. Salamone noted that when he started in the industry, he was given a van, some inventory, and told to head out into the field and prove what he could do.

“That needs to change. In our company, when we onboard technicians, we spend a week with them before putting them in a van and sending them out into the world,” he said. “They are going to be familiar with all the documentation, as well as the specific requirements of our customers. They’re going to be comfortable and feel appreciated.”

Salamone’s company is further training their technicians at their in-house school, Climate Pros University, which is essentially an operational supermarket in Glendale Heights, Illinois. An additional school will be opened soon in Texas, with others opening in other regions.

“This indicates to our technicians that we're investing in you. We are here, you have a career path, you have the ability to grow into this industry and not just stay where you are. You've got an opportunity here,” he said. “Showing the techs that there's way more opportunity than what's right in front of them helps attract and retain talent in our market.”