Grocers are looking to reconfigured cases and alternative refrigerants to keep the lid on refrigeration costs.

By Kim Ann Zimmermann

Store layouts are continuously adapting to consu­mer trends, and at the moment that means devoting more space to refrigerated and frozen products as shoppers seek convenient and affordable meal options. As the refrigerated and frozen sections expand, however, so do operational costs as older equipment struggles to keep pace.

While costs and consumer preferences are pushing grocers to upgrade their refrigeration equipment, they are also facing limits on certain ozone-depleting refrigerants, which experts say are forcing them to look at alternative refrigerants.

“We’re seeing grocers deploying their capital investments into upgrading existing stores and we’re seeing more space devoted to frozen and refrigerated items when they remodel,” says Jim Knudsen, vice president of sales and marketing for Kysor/Warren, based in Columbus, Ga. “We’re seeing more frozen and refrigerated space in bigger stores and small stores are also devoting more space to these sections.”

He says manufacturers are reworking the layouts of cases to maximize space. “Grocers are looking for narrower and taller cases to get the maximum amount of merchandise in the space,” he says. “They’re also looking for lower front fill to optimize the amount of product they can display.”

While an attractive display is important in any aisle, industry executives note that many supermarkets struggle with merchandising refrigerated and frozen products. As some turn to putting doors on the refrigerated cases to keep the cold—and precious energy dollars—from escaping, they are balancing the benefits of lower costs with potential barriers to sales.

“Since the majority of medium temp cases in use in supermarkets today are open display cases, we are now seeing significant retailer interest in decreasing annual energy consumption by transitioning from open cases to door cases for medium temp product display,” says Carl Petersen, marketing and advertising manager for Zero Zone, Inc., based in North Prairie, Wis.

He says that compared to open multi-decks, Zero Zone’s Crystal Merchandiser not only decreases annual energy costs by up to 84%, but does so with a unique open look that is very appealing to shoppers.

“Our 74-inch CoolView doors and minimal mullions maximize the product viewing area while providing as much as 35% more product facings and up to 25% more product capacity,” he says. In addition, he says the merchandiser takes up less floor space, allowing for wider aisles that appeal to shoppers.

“Shoppers also like the warmer aisles, motivating them to spend a longer time shopping and alleviating the need to rush through the cold dairy, deli and beverage aisles they have experienced with open cases,” he says.

Cool lights

While closed cases trap the cold air, the lights inside of freezer and refrigerated cases can generate a lot of heat. This is prompting many grocers and manufacturers to consider LED lighting, which experts say is more energy efficient and doesn’t emit heat into the cases.

“One of the biggest advantages of LED lighting in refrigerated and frozen cases is that you are not spending money refrigerating the space and then heating it up with lights,” says Knudsen.

Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, the El Segundo, Calif.-based U.S. subsidiary of Tesco plc, is currently retrofitting the medium temperature cases at all 159 stores with LED lighting. The project is a partnership between Kysor/Warren and Nualight Ltd., a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based manufacturer of LED lighting.

All meat, dairy and fish cases will be upgraded to LED, replacing the existing T5 fluorescent canopy and under-shelf lighting, according to company officials.

Refrigerant fixes

While lighting and doors are some of the visible changes in refrigeration, experts say there is plenty going on behind the scenes when it comes to improving the efficiency, sustainability and performance of refrigeration equipment.

Experts note that the production and use of R-22 has been limited starting in 2010 and will be phased down over the next 10 years.  Therefore, retailers have been looking for alternatives such as R-404a, R507, R410a, R-134a and new refrigerants such as R-407a and R-407c.

“It really is a balancing act for grocery retailers,” says Clay Rohrer, global refrigeration systems product manager for Ingersoll Rand, based in Davidson, N.C. The company’s Climate Solutions division incorporates the Hussmann and Trane and Thermo King brands.

“They’re looking at environmental sustainability, carbon footprint, refrigerant charge, leak rates and energy consumption,” he says. As a result, he says alternative refrigerants such as CO2 and glycol are gaining attention.

The need for equipment to support these initiatives is being driven by the larger supermarket chains, according to Danielle McMiller, director of marketing for Structural Concepts Corp., based in Muskegon, Mich. “The more savvy manufacturers participate in industry associations like FMI, ASHRAE, AHRI to keep their development cycle ahead of the demand for these new technologies,” she says.

In addition to exploring refrigeration alternatives, McMiller says there is a trend to reduce operating costs by running the refrigeration rack at a warmer temperature.

“While most refrigeration racks chill the refrigerant to 18 F to 20 F, we’re seeing more and more retailers wanting to operate the rack at 24 F to 26 F in order to save energy,” she says. “This requires that the equipment connected to the main operating rack be able to support warmer refrigerant temperatures while maintaining the necessary product temperatures.”

Reducing leaks

Another area of focus for supermarkets has been reducing refrigerant leaks, according to Dan O’Brien, national sales manager for Zero Zone, Inc. “Our Zero Zone EDGE Distributed System locates the refrigeration systems closer to the refrigerated cases,” he says. By doing so, the amount of refrigerant in each system is significantly reduced.

“The other option is to utilize a secondary glycol system similar to the Zero Zone ColdLoop technology,” he says. “Secondary refrigeration systems use the refrigerant to chill a glycol solution. The glycol is then pumped to each refrigerated case to cool the products.  The amount of refrigerant is typically reduced by about 40% on this type of system.”

Peterson says that Zero Zone has been an active member of the EPA’s GreenChill Advanced Refrigeration Partnership, working to reduce refrigerant emissions and decrease their impact on the ozone layer and climate change.

Some supermarkets are investing in self-contained refrigeration systems, which industry executives say further reduces concerns over refrigerants and running temperatures. “Our self-contained merchandisers simply need a 110-volt outlet,” says Howell Feig, director of sales for AHT Cooling Systems USA, based in Hanahan, S.C. “There is no need for piping or aisle drains, which saves quite a bit of money, and grocers can start selling product out of the case two hours after it is plugged in.”

He says the company recently introduced the Athens XL model, which is wider than the company’s Paris line of merchandisers. “Merchandisers gain 20% capacity and display area with the new model compared to the Paris,” he says.

Varying the speed

In addition to examining refrigerant alternatives and adjusting temperatures, Dustan Atkinson, product manager, supermarket segment for Heatcraft, based in Stone Mountain, Ga., says that variable speed fans are helping to optimize the efficiency of refrigeration systems. “Instead of shutting on and off, which uses a lot of energy in itself, variable speed fans that adjust to the changing demands of the system continue to gain interest among supermarket operators,” he says. “It is like starting a car cold in the morning. It takes more energy to get up and running. Variable speed motors speed up or down based on demand.”

Supermarkets and refrigeration m­an­uf­­acturers are also looking at methods for integrating the refrigeration system with the store’s HVAC system to optimize energy use, according to industry officials.

“We use the terminology ‘high-performance grocery,’” says Prakash Iyengar, global product management director-HVACR, for Ingersoll Rand. “There is an interplay between HVAC and refrigeration in grocery. Refrigerated cases spitting out sold cold air and the HVAC is working to make shoppers comfortable.”

He says the company is working on integrating technology so that these systems work in concert and expects to announce availability later this year. “Intelligent, integrated refrigeration and HVAC systems will help to improve efficiency in the grocery environment,” he says.

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