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Blog 1: Why natural refrigerants are playing a larger role in commercial refrigeration

AndrePatenaude_Blog_Image Andre Patenaude | Director, CO2 Business Development

Emerson Commercial & Residential Solutions

 

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In an era driven by historic regulatory activity and the necessity to deploy sustainable refrigeration system architectures, more businesses are looking at systems based on natural refrigerants to help them achieve these goals. Unlike the synthetic hydrocarbon (HFC) refrigerants that have commonly been used in refrigeration applications — such as R-404A, R-507A and HFC-134a — ammonia (NH3 or refrigerant name R-717), propane (refrigerant name R-290) and carbon dioxide (CO2 or refrigerant name R-744) are three naturally occurring refrigerants that pose very little threat to the environment.

The direct environmental impacts of refrigerants are measured by two key factors: global warming potential (GWP) and ozone depletion potential (ODP) — while their indirect impacts are measured by energy efficiency. While new synthetic refrigerants are being developed that offer lower GWP and no threat to the ozone layer, many of them are either largely untested or have yet to be deemed as acceptable substitutes by global environmental regulations, such as those set forth by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In contrast, natural refrigerants are not only the benchmark for ultra-low GWP and ODP, they’re also acceptable for use in most refrigeration applications (subject to use conditions).

Let’s start by looking at the historic usage and performance characteristics of these natural refrigerants.

Ammonia
With its superior thermodynamic properties, R-717 was a logical first choice for early refrigeration systems. Classified as a B2L, its toxicity and mild flammability require the careful adherence to safe application procedures. The introduction of lower-risk, synthetic chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) refrigerants in the mid-twentieth century turned the refrigeration industry away from R-717. Even so, ammonia’s suitability in low-temperature applications has made it a mainstay in industrial, process cooling, cold storage and ice rink applications to this day.

Propane
Propane is a hydrocarbon that was also identified in the early days of refrigeration as an extremely effective refrigerant. Offering high-capacity, energy-efficient performance and a very low GWP (3), its A3 classification (flammable) led to concerns about its safety. And as synthetic refrigerants became available, R-290 was overlooked in favor of its CFC and HFC counterparts. However, since the 2000s, R-290 has been regaining global popularity as a lower-GWP, effective alternative to R-404A and HFC-134a — especially in a wide range of low-charge, reach-in displays.

Carbon dioxide
CO2 is non-flammable and non-toxic and has proved to be a very effective natural alternative to HFCs in both low- and medium-temperature applications. CO2-based refrigeration systems have been successfully deployed in commercial and industrial applications in Europe for nearly two decades. Because of its low critical point and high operating pressure (around 1,500 psig or 103 bar), CO2 refrigeration strategies — such as cascade, secondary and transcritical booster — must be designed to account for its unique characteristics. In light of current environmental regulations, the popularity of these systems has increased significantly in North America in recent years.

Read the full Accelerate America article [pg.16].

Can Amendments to Apprentice Act Address the Technician Shortage?

RajanRajendran2 Rajan Rajendran | V.P., System Innovation Center and Sustainability

Emerson Commercial & Residential Solutions

This blog summarizes an article from ACHR News, entitled “Amending the Apprentice Act”. Click here to read the article in its entirety.

In October, we discussed the growing technician shortage within our industry and ways in which the Apprenticeship Act could help bridge that gap. Here’s an update on how this amendment has taken the next step in the legislative process.

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This past summer, President Trump signed an executive order to expand apprenticeship programs and vocational training. Now, Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi has proposed the Apprenticeship Enhancement Act of 2017, amending the National Apprenticeship Act. In short, if this were to be passed, the Department of Labor’s apprenticeship agency would be required to act quickly on applications and create an apprenticeship program within 90 days.

This all sounds like a step in the right direction, but what does it mean for the HVAC industry?

“This legislation could be a game changer for the HVAC and refrigeration industry, which is in desperate need of technical staff,” said Don Langston, president of Aire Rite Air Conditioning & Refrigeration Inc. and Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) chairman of the board. “My goal, as chairman of ACCA, has been to help address the skills gap and workforce challenges that the industry is facing. I offer full support of ACCA as Senator Wicker works to advance this legislation.”

With that being said, here are some additional pieces of information to consider:

  • It’s estimated that by 2022, the U.S. will need 115,000 HVACR technicians.
  • There are more than 44 million student loan borrowers, each borrower accumulating an average debt of $37,172 — with no guarantee of a job/steady salary upon graduation.
  • Apprenticeships are typically funded by outside resources, eliminating participant needs for student loans.
  • The average starting yearly salary for apprentices is $60,000.

Expanding apprenticeship programs and vocational training could help bridge the gap between the technician shortage and students in search of a career that won’t saddle them in student loan debt. Skilled apprentices in the U.S. not only earn a higher average starting wage than the average college student, they do so without the financial burden and stress of not finding a job in a timely manner post-graduation. With more money to be made and an open job market, it stands to reason that these new apprenticeship programs will fill quickly.

While this legislation may not be the panacea to the technician shortage, it could be huge step toward eliminating it. We’ll continue to watch this legislation closely and see how it develops.

To read more about the apprentice act, visit the full ACHR News article

Why Whole Foods Made R-290 Integral to its Refrigeration Strategy

 

AllenWicher Allen Wicher | Director, Foodservice Marketing

Emerson Commercial & Residential Solutions

This blog summarizes an article from our most recent E360 Outlook, entitled Pioneering Natural Refrigeration.” Click here to read it in its entirety.

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When it comes to the use of natural refrigerants in commercial refrigeration, Whole Foods Market (WFM) is a true pioneer in the U.S. food retail space. Even before the recent wave of regulations prompted retailers to look for more eco-friendly alternatives, WFM was deploying sustainable refrigeration systems with the intent of reducing harmful environmental impacts and improving energy efficiencies. Today, 22 of its 465 stores utilize all-natural refrigerant systems, with most of them moving to the hydrocarbon R-290 (propane) for their self-contained cases.

According to Tristam Coffin, WFM’s director of sustainability & facilities for its Northern California region, refrigeration comprises roughly one-third of their total energy usage. Their commitment to moving to natural refrigerants arose out of a desire to lower energy consumption and reduce the potential for direct environmental impacts from refrigerant leaks.

But figuring out a natural solution for their self-contained cases presented a unique challenge for the company. When they first started looking for R-290 case manufacturers in 2013, AHT Cooling Systems USA was among the refrigeration equipment manufacturers offering R-290 units. AHT National Sales Manager Howell Feig said that developing R-290 products for the European market enabled AHT to help early adopters in the U.S.

Since 2013, WFM has deployed R-290 self-contained cases across the company’s entire network of stores. Currently, 50 to 60 stores per year are migrating to R-290 as replacements to HFC units, either in new stores or in new programs.

“While these units make up less than 10 percent of our overall refrigeration footprint, they have hit a home run for us in that they’re 10 percent more efficient in most instances, and they’re using a natural refrigerant,” Coffin said.

Both Feig and Coffin believe that the U.S. food retail industry is slowly shifting toward R-290 use in self-contained cases. From AHT’s perspective, Feig explained that early adopters like Whole Foods Market have served as a proof of concept for less progressive retailers. As a result, adoption has increased to the point where AHT will transition its entire equipment platform to R-290 by the end of this year.

The 150g charge limit of R-290 systems largely restricts its usage to these low-charge, self-contained units. While the standards governing the safe use of R-290 are currently under review, Feig and Coffin agreed that a charge limit increase would open new opportunities that aren’t currently possible. Raising the limit to 500g would allow R-290 to be used in open-door cases as well as walk-in coolers and freezers. This prospect could potentially even allow for a full-store solution of self-contained R-290 cases, which would be particularly advantageous in smaller urban locations where space constraints prevent the use of centralized racks.

The Impacts of Technology and CO2 on the Future of System Architecture

DerekGosselin_Blog-Title Derek Gosselin | Technical Product Support Director

Hillphoenix

I recently spoke at Emerson’s Chicago’s E360 Forum and spelled out the challenges and benefits of CO2 systems. For a complete look at the costs and opportunities, we encourage you to watch the full presentation.

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Regulatory changes to the use of refrigerants are creating difficult business decisions — and more change is coming. Reducing Global Warming Potential (GWP) is going to be an issue, so it’s worth looking at how this industry trend may influence your refrigeration strategies.

HFC/HFO blends lower GWP, but only moderately. In contrast, CO2 is a zero-ozone depleting natural refrigerant that has a GWP of 1. Non-toxic and non-flammable, it’s classified as an A1 refrigerant by ASHRAE. In today’s uncertain environment, it offers a potentially future-proof solution to your long-term plans. You won’t have to retrofit out of CO2.

Because CO2 is more efficient, it has more cooling capacity. That allows you to have smaller compressors and line sizes, reduce installation, and use less refrigerant within a store.

Best of all, the technology isn’t new. CO2 already has a majority of the market share in Europe. Since 2013, the total number of CO2 transcritical booster systems in North America has grown from 30 to 310. More than 60 of these systems are located in warmer climates, operating efficiently with just a few modifications.

CO2 system costs are also coming down, thanks to the growing involvement of OEMs, wholesalers, contractors and end users.

When considering CO2, understand the total cost of ownership. The lower first cost of traditional HFC systems offers only one-time savings. While CO2 systems have higher first cost, their lower installed cost and lower energy and maintenance costs offer savings annually throughout their lifecycles. Some organizations are even lowering first costs by collaborating with local energy utilities to secure rebates and incentives.

For a complete look at the costs and opportunities, we encourage you to watch the full presentation.

 

More Food Retailers Opt for Natural Refrigerant Systems

AndrePatenaude_Blog_Image Andre Patenaude | Director, CO2 Business Development

Emerson Commercial & Residential Solutions

This blog summarizes an article from our most recent E360 Outlook, entitled Natural Selection.” Click here to read it in its entirety.

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One of the most complex decisions food retailers have today is selecting which refrigerant will serve as the basis of future refrigeration platforms. While there are very few refrigerants that can deliver regulatory compliance and align with corporate sustainability goals, three natural options are at the top of this short list: carbon dioxide (CO2 or refrigerant name R-744); the hydrocarbon propane (refrigerant name R-290); and ammonia (NH3 or refrigerant name R-717).

In recent decades, as synthetic chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) and hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants were found to have either ozone depletion potential (ODP) or global warming potential (GWP), natural refrigerants have made their way back into the commercial refrigeration conversation — even being listed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as acceptable for use in most commercial refrigeration applications (subject to use conditions).

Make no mistake: these refrigerants are by no means perfect — each has its own caveats — but in terms of thermodynamic properties, operational efficiencies and eco-friendliness, natural refrigerants are often referred to as “future proof”.

Innovative installations

As modern refrigeration technologies continue to improve, equipment manufacturers are working closely with early adopters to develop innovative solutions. This has resulted in several creative natural refrigeration applications that belie their traditional uses — like ammonia being used in supermarket systems and CO2 playing a larger role in industrial process cooling.

Ammonia trials in food retail
In September 2015, the Piggly Wiggly supermarket company opened a new 36,000 square-foot store in Columbus, Ga., that utilizes an NH3/CO2 cascade system manufactured by Heatcraft Worldwide Refrigeration. The all-natural refrigerant system uses an ultra-low charge of ammonia (53 pounds) located away from occupied spaces (on the facility’s roof).

CO2 adoption in industrial cooling
In cold storage applications, where ammonia has been the preferred refrigerant for decades, companies are also seeking to lower ammonia charges. As older ammonia systems near replacement, many operators are determining the best option to expand their facility’s low-temperature capabilities. They’re accomplishing this by adopting NH3/CO2 cascade systems that not only utilize very low charges of ammonia, but also keep the R-717 circuit out of occupied spaces.

Propane in food retail
When major retailers like Target publicly announce their intentions to use only propane in their self-contained units, it’s an indication that the perceptions about the mainstream viability of R-290 are shifting. The smaller charge limits make R-290 a logical fit for Target’s smaller, stand-alone refrigerated display cases and coolers.

While efforts are needed to mitigate their associated risks and ensure their safe use, natural refrigerants represent true sustainable alternatives that do not sacrifice performance. As regulatory bodies and industry organizations work to refine these standards, natural refrigerants will continue to play a key role in the future of commercial and industrial refrigeration

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