It’s Time for a Fresh Look at Backroom Infrastructure

Clay Rohrer, Business Unit Manager for Electronics, MicroThermo Technologies, Parker Hannifin

It’s been years since U.S. food retailers as a whole have made any significant new investment in backroom infrastructure. The lack of attention is understandable: For decades, refrigeration technology remained largely unchanged, and retailers are focused on selling food, not upgrading facilities. Refrigeration equipment remains an afterthought until it’s time for repairs or scheduled maintenance required to keep the equipment humming along.

But today’s sustainable refrigeration technology offers such a marked improvement over traditional HFC refrigeration systems that investing in backroom equipment should be a front-of-mind priority for food retailers in the United States—one that can help them save energy, reduce maintenance costs, and even improve food safety.

Retailers in Europe, Canada, and elsewhere in the world caught on to the environmental benefits of natural, non-ozone-depleting CO2 refrigerants more than a decade ago, and continued advancements in the design of CO2 refrigeration systems have resulted in smart, energy-efficient operation.

One of the biggest improvements in CO2 refrigeration systems as compared with traditional HFC systems is the addition of display case controls, which are mandatory for controlling high-pressure CO2. Instead of using mechanical valves, CO2 equipment uses electronic expansion valves, which record all the data around the coil and use that information to control the capacity of the case, while providing operators with more remote data to identify and diagnose problems and reducing wiring costs to control defrost, lighting, fans, etc.  

Just as modern factories measure every data point—throughput, pressure, temperature, etc.—to optimize the manufacturing process, and just as the digital systems and electronic sensors in our cars have all but eliminated the need for us to open the hood between scheduled maintenance visits, case controls improve the operating efficiency of refrigeration equipment and reduce the need for both scheduled and unscheduled maintenance.

Many of the physical properties of CO2 help contribute to lower-cost operation. The high heat capacity of CO2, along with its ability to cool quickly, means better temperature performance in the cases, and the heat reclaim achievable with CO2 produces a net energy savings. With CO2, everything gets smaller: smaller pipe sizes mean less time to braise, lower materials costs, and lower capital costs to install a new system versus traditional HFC equipment.

Throughout many parts of the United States, particularly in the Midwest and the South, higher installation costs are still a reality for CO2 refrigeration equipment. But as the demand for sustainable, energy-efficient technology continues to rise and OEMs continue to develop lower-cost solutions, the price of CO2 installation and operation will come down, making the investment in sustainable refrigeration even easier to justify.