CHICAGO — Supermarket technicians who consider themselves “masters of the mechanical” had best consider ways to add the titles “Connoisseurs of Controls” and “Purveyors of Open Protocol” to their job descriptions.

While innovation in mechanical technology continues, the most recent Food Marketing Institute Expo here found much attention being paid to the way everything from refrigerant racks and air conditioning to fire alarms and security systems are monitored and operated.

The big buzz was over open protocol, whereby a wide range of control systems would be able to more easily talk to each other. The concept was designed to pave the way for a more simplified approach to storewide monitoring, including reduced wiring during initial store construction.

Let's be open

An example of the protocol talk was at the booth of Tyler (Niles, Mich.). One official, Al Yob, said, “This new technology will involve an open-end system. The customer will actually buy the software, and we will put smart modules on the compressor rack.

“Maybe one of these modules will have the brains to start and stop the compressor. Another will be located up at the condenser, and it will cycle the condenser fan. All this will have common communication with hvac, lighting, etc.

“Now, through a central station, one person would control the supermarket. This method will reduce wiring dramatically. You will have two wires looped around the store and have each smart module (linked to) the two wires.

“The software is intelligent enough to determine which device it was talking to and where it would have to transfer information in order to perform a function.”

A variety of controls were shown in the Tyler exhibit area. An example was MT Alliance from Micro Thermo Technologies (which was also discussed at other booths on the show floor). The unit was said to integrate third-party companies using LonWorks technology onto its platform. This was said to reduce system hardware cost and extend the lifecycle of existing control-monitoring systems.

Joining in such control considerations was Hill-Phoenix (Colonial Heights, Va.). Product manager Richard Heath said, “We have developed a truly open-architecture Echelon system.

“It’s a distributed control system. Each one of the modules — the nodes — do all of their control features on that module. They do not require a host processor.

“We have a system that uses Windows®-based software to develop a platform for distributed controls. Most of the tools are standard software. The platform allows you to develop other applications that reside on top of that. We’ve developed with [Micro Thermo Technologies] the application for refrigeration control.

“Racks are able to operate independent of a host processor. If there is a problem with an individual module, you do not lose the rest of the rack. We have nodes in our cases that are smart nodes, which allow us to put the logic out in the case instead of a central processor.”

The display area demonstrated the mixture of options available to supermarkets. Racks showed a range of controls technology, and compressor brands and types.

Other topics

Such was the buzz throughout the technological side of the expo. Everywhere one turned, the talk was open protocol. But there were other hot topics as well. Here is a sampling.

Kysor/Warren (Conyers, Ga.) showed its Direct Impulse, based on the idea of eliminating the need for completely filled liquid lines between the unit and the fixture.

A valve sends a liquid-vapor mixture through the liquid line to each fixture or group of fixtures. The refrigerant is then distributed to each evaporator by a refrigerant relay and balancing valve. That valve equalizes the temperature from fixture to fixture. Refrigerant is then returned to the fixture through the standard suction line.

There are no mechanical adjustments. A computer compares the suction temperature and the common suction line temperature at the fixture to regulate the Direct Impulse valve operation and control refrigerant flow to the fixtures.

For latent heat defrost, discharge gas is fed through the liquid line to a multicircuit header inside the fixture. The gas then enters each evaporator through the side connection at each distributor. A suction stop at the fixture closes the common suction line and forces refrigerant to bypass through a regulator to maintain a maximum temperature of 40°F during the defrost cycle.

The technology was touted as being able to reduce refrigerant charges as much as 70%. It was said to provide energy efficiency equal to conventional direct-expansion systems.

Furthermore, it was said to provide latent gas defrost to reduce thermal shock to all components, and provide heat for space heating, dehumidification, and water heating through a secondary fluid arrangement.

Among the technology twists at the Hussmann (Bridgeton, Mo.) booth was the Protocol LP2000, a low-profile unit for mounting on top of a case. Horizontal scroll compressors are piped in parallel and automatically equaled at startup to minimize compressor starting torque.

Other products on display included KO Series outdoor condensing units that work with hermetic, discus, screw, scroll, or semi-hermetic compressors. The condenser is constructed with 3/8-in.-od copper tube with plate-type, die-formed aluminum fin stock.

The company also announced that it and the salad company Fresh Express were working together to test a modular defrost system. The system has been designed to keep cases running colder.

Instead of defrosting an entire case line at once, the system only defrosts every third coil down the line-up, which keeps the entire case from warming up.

The company also joined in the focus on controls by including technology that is Echelon-based.

Also in the rack business was Systematic Refrigeration (Maple Grove, Minn.). Its customized product included an oil cooler that relies on a pump to recirculate liquid from the condenser to cool the oil before pulling it back to the condenser. Liquid is pumped through the receiver in a loop in order to flatten out the subcooler discharge temperature, to get rid of the fluctuations in subcooled liquid.

Copeland Corp. (Sidney, Ohio) drew attention to some of the compressor technology featured among the rack manufacturers. Copeland announced refrigeration scroll compressors of 15 hp, allowing the company’s scroll line to range from 2 to 15 hp.

Its horizontal scroll design came in a 2- to 6-hp range. The compressors included what the company called a Discharge Temperature Control (DTC) valve, described as a simplified method of liquid injection that eliminates cap tubes, relays, solenoid valves, and a current-sensing relay. The concept uses an oil sump and oil pump for lubrication of bearings.

The company’s new line of screw compressors, called “Contour,” included 16 medium- and low-temperature displacements (20 to 90 hp) designed for supermarket refrigeration applications. The units have two steps of unloading for capacity control.

Good old days, part II

“The Good Old Days Are Back” was a slogan at the Carlyle (Syracuse, N.Y.) booth, where the company was touting a solution to a problem it called “stiction,” which happens when suction valves fail to open properly because of the need to use POE oils with new refrigerants.

The solution involved a redesign to reduce the area of the valve seats so there is not as much of an area for the valves to stick to. The product focus also was on compound cooling compressors, gear-driven screw compressors, and reciprocating compressors.

The company also showed an electronic safety module designed to protect the compressor against high motor and discharge temperatures. It was said to have capabilities with Echelon and LonWorks.

Control technology from Genesis (Arnold, Mo.) included a defrost clock, datalogger, room temperature control, and refrigerant gas monitor in one control unit; plus an electronic control system with capabilities such as rack defrost, hvac, lighting, energy, multizone temperature monitoring, and refrigerant gas monitoring.

Weiss Instruments (W. Babylon, N.Y.) showed the XJ500, a monitoring and control system said to work with “the European decentralized systems.” The unit, which does not require a PC, can control and record case temperatures, defrost cycles, and compressor run cycles, along with printing the data on charts and graphs.

A refrigerant monitor called “Arctic Fox” from the Foxboro Co. (Foxboro, Mass.) was said to be able to help supermarkets monitor refrigerant leaks. The unit is said to be capable of tracking 31 locations and providing an early warning system.

Capabilities include data collection, multiple refrigerant detection, Windows data management software interface, and long-distance sampling.

Yokogawa (Newnan, Ga.) focused on what it called a low-cost, multigas refrigerant monitor. Model HMG300 operates as a stand-alone alarm monitor with infrared technology. It can be used with the RDM800 remote display monitor to provide a wall-mounted station to program the HMG300 and display its outputs.

DeltaTrak (Pleasanton, Calif.) highlighted an infrared thermometer said to have compact design, a temperature range of -40° to 950°, and a 33:1 field of view.

Also of note was a datalogger designed for monitoring food products. The product is Windows-driven and is said to be able to program and download 3,800 data points in 5 sec.

Cooper Instruments (Middlefield, Conn.) drew attention to its HT2002 handheld, dual-input thermocouple thermometer, which calculates temperature differential between the two probes, and the 460 “Slim-Line” infrared thermometer, designed for fast measurement of surface temperatures.

Going for the gold

Parker Hannifin (Cleveland) noted an item from its Refrigerating Specialties Division in Broadview, Ill. It called the “(S)port II” evaporator pressure regulator as “Good As Gold.” The product was designed exclusively for supermarket refrigeration.

At the booth of Henry Valve (Melrose Park, Ill.), attention was paid to new catalogs of valves and accessories from Henry, and compressor protection devices from AC&R Components. It was noted that the catalogs were available in both print and CD-ROM formats.

Sporlan (Washington, Mo.) showed its “Oil Master” electronic oil level control. The unit employs solid-state sensing which negates the need for mechanical floats, and is said to be unaffected by magnetic particles.

The company also featured a temperature control board designed to allow the control of most Sporlan electric valves with generic PID or similar controllers.

Aeroquip (New Haven, Ind.) showcased its backseat valves. A booth official said the valve “acts as a shut-off valve for compressors.” A brass version is offered with copper stubs, “so you can braze into the existing copper line.”

The booth of National Refrigerants (Philadelphia) featured a variety of products. Technology under the KeepRite name included coolers, condensing units, and freezers. Under the Bally name was a line of walk-in coolers, freezers, and refrigerated warehouses.

Display cases said to have wider doors and increased capacities occupied the booth area of ZeroZone (North Prairie, Wis.).

Remanufactured reach-in units were the forte of Resnick (Mountaindale, N.Y.). The company said it gets involved in everything from new faces and new trim to new expansion valves and evaporator coils.

The Hoshizaki America (Peachtree City, Ga.) focus was on its reach-in refrigerators and freezers, which are now available using R-404A, an HFC refrigerant. The show floor also featured a cuber with 500 lb of ice production in 24 hrs, and flakers with 800 and 1,000 lb of production, all using R-404A. The company noted that some new technology changes allow for 1,000 lb of ice production in a frame that used to max out at 800 lb.

Scotsman (Vernon Hills, Ill.) showed two 1,200-lb/24 hr icemakers atop a 1,300-lb storage capacity bin with a new catch-type hinge. Flaker and nugget makers can be placed side by side atop such a bin.

Also at the booth was a 500-lb/day cuber, part of a modified CM3 line that includes a more contoured, molded look and a reduced number of screws (two) needed to remove the service panel.

Tube ice was the topic at Vogt (Louisville, Ky.), which talked about large icemakers.

A mixture of products was featured at the booth of Eliason (Kalamazoo, Mich.). Its Econo-Cover Division showed night covers for open refrigerated self-service display cases. The Refrigerator Division highlighted walk-in coolers and freezers.

Another technology drawing attention in the supermarket sector was a condensate collection system from Envirovac (Rockford, Ill.). It allows a 2- to 3-in. vacuum pipe to be routed above a dropped ceiling or near roof joists in an open-ceiling store.

Drainage for a refrigerated case fills a small box. When the box fills, pneumatic sensors signal the system to transport the water to a central collection tank in the back of the store.

Sidebar: Here's a profit margin that speaks volumes

When a contractor closes out the books for the fiscal year, hopes are that more money came in than went out. The bigger the gap, the better, the theory goes.

But in the supermarket industry, profit, as a percentage, is not a big number. For the fiscal year April 1997 to March 1998, the net profit margin was 1.22% for supermarkets that are members of the Food Marketing Institute, which has more than 1,500 members operating 21,000 retail food stores.

That and other statistics were provided in reports issued during the recent FMI Expo here.

So how do supermarkets stay in business with such seemingly miniscule margins? They do it by volume.

“To earn a dollar, supermarkets would rather sell a $1 item 100 times, making a penny on each sale, than 10 times with a dime markup,” said the report. “Low markup to stimulate high volume is the fundamental principle of mass merchandising.”

And massive it is. The FMI domestic member companies who operate 21,000 retail food stores, have combined annual sales volume of $220 billion, more than half of all grocery store sales in the United States.

Overall, there are 126,000 U.S. grocery stores, of which 30,300 are supermarkets. Food retailers employ close to 4 million people.

Upgrades a-plenty

Change is constant in the industry, especially when it comes to new and upgraded stores and equipment within those stores.

The report said, “Industry experts estimate that a typical store requires remodeling 10 years after it opens, and every six to seven years thereafter to improve its appearance, efficiency, and operation.”

Typical total capital investment per major remodeling in 1997 was reported to be $1 million, 2 1/2 times the typical investment of $350,000 in 1992.