Technicians skilled in refrigeration technology and in search of more challenges may want to look at the supermarket sector if they are not already there.

Change - and change on the cutting edge - is almost a constant in the supermarket arena. The sector was first to move to HCFCs when CFCs faced the possibility of phaseout and then moved to HFCs with the first word of the phaseout of HCFCs.

Even today, four or five refrigerants are used in supermarket applications. Stores have a mixture of systems, such as direct expansion, secondary loop, and distributed. The technicians' employers could be independent contractors, the supermarket chains themselves, or even equipment manufacturers.

New stores are constantly being built, as anyone who lives in growing areas of the country can attest. Existing stores seem to be always undergoing remodeling.

According to the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), "A typical store requires remodeling 10 years after it opens and every six to seven years thereafter to improve its appearance, efficiency, and operation."

It's a growth sector, as statistics have generally shown more stores opening than closing each year over the past several years.

Size Matters

Another trend is size of stores.

We all remember when stores seemed to be getting bigger and bigger, going from mom-and-pop stores to supermarkets to mega-markets, in which a department store joined the food side all under one room. Some of the biggest such stores were 150,000 square feet.

Typically, stores were in the 50,000-square-foot range, but there has been a downward trend since 1999. In 2003, the average was 44,000 square feet. Currently, the average is around 34,000 square feet, with a trend toward niche market stores for ethnic and gourmet food.

There are plenty of places where service is needed. The most recent FMI statistics note 100,000 retail food stores in the United States alone, including 35,000 supermarkets, superstores, super-centers, and combination stores.

To the technicians, that means an even greater variety of systems to deal with and a lot of jobsites.

Those paying the bills may be amenable to promptly paying the invoice, especially if the fixing or fine-tuning of a system results in energy savings. According to FMI, "Energy accounted for 3.5 percent of the food dollar."

And there are a lot of food dollars out there - something like $700 billion was spent on food from U.S. producers in 2002, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

Supermarkets are in a politically sensitive situation in which appearance, cleanliness, and - most important - food safety are of utmost importance. And virtually all the food under safety scrutiny is food protected by refrigeration.

Refrigeration technicians in the supermarket sector face challenges, a variety of interesting situations, and - one would hope - a sense of being needed.

Peter Powell is refrigeration editor. He can be reached at 847-622-7260, 847-622-7266 (fax), or

Publication date: 08/01/2005