The International Institute of Ammonia Refrigeration held its first regional seminar for Central America and the Caribbean in Costa Rica last month, an event that marked the organization’s increasing involvement in education and safety advocacy in Latin America.

IIAR leaders said the seminar attracted a record number of attendees, from eight different Latin American countries, and offered an unprecedented opportunity for the organization to work with industrial refrigeration groups inside Costa Rica.

Seminar participants said they attended the October 15-16 meeting in San Jose, Costa Rica, to take advantage of the education and networking opportunities in a region that is seeing an increased focus on industrial refrigeration.

In Central America, where, in many cases, government regulations and safety practices are evolving to keep pace with development, the time has never been better for IIAR to supply its extensive resources. And that need is especially clear in countries that have not been traditionally focused on ammonia refrigeration, said Ricardo Mardones, President and General Manager of Houston-based consultancy, RIMA Refrigeration.

“There are no standards that exist here [in Central America] that the industry can follow,” added Mardones, “So there is a big emphasis on promoting and adopting the IIAR standards within this region. Everyone who does business here is aware that we need these standards to grow as an industry, and to grow safely.”

Mardones was not the only U.S.- based IIAR member in attendance at the Costa Rica seminar. Large companies like GEA Refrigeration and Parker Hannifin are also looking south to new markets, and advocating the widespread adoption of IIAR’s educational resources.

“There are many companies that are investing in this region now,” said Mauricio Quiroga, Sales Manager for Mexico and Central America for GEA. “Where markets were once more closed, they are opening up to investment in ammonia refrigeration. That, in turn, is spurring the growth of industries that depend on our technology.”

Growing demand for agricultural products that are traditionally exported from Central American countries and recent free-trade agreements are bolstering an expanding cold chain. At the same time, several of those countries, newly minted as ecotourism destinations, find themselves facing mounting pressure, either as a result of their involvement in agreements like the Montreal Protocol or from the expectations of their new tourist visitors, to find environmentally responsible cooling technologies.

“There are a lot of agricultural produce industries, like those that grow tropical fruits and vegetables that depend on industrial refrigeration,” said Quiroga. “Those industries are growing, but we’re more focused on ammonia refrigeration these days, not only because of that growth, but because there is a real emphasis on eliminating hydrocarbons in this region.”

As HCFC-based facilities are increasingly replaced with ammonia refrigeration installations, safety will be a top priority for all involved, from small companies to government agencies.

And although Costa Rica is the only country in the region actively working with IIAR to develop and inform safety guidelines, smaller regional companies are already looking to IIAR to supply the resources they need as business grows and attracts government oversight.

Santiago Barraza, a seminar attendee from Panama said he was attending the IIAR event to get safety resources to pass on to his facility operators at an ice factory called Compañía Hielo Fiesta.

But, Barraza added, IIAR resources had already proven valuable to his company earlier this year, when a controlled evacuation of his facility aroused suspicion from neighbors.

“With the knowledge I obtained from IIAR, I was able to proceed to explain to the staff of the environmental department of Panama that a safe procedure based on IIAR information had been followed, and there were no more complications.”

Federico Alarcón López, IIAR’s marketing coordinator for Latin America, said there are two key reasons for companies and governments to collaborate with IIAR, and for IIAR to continue to organize events like the one in Costa Rica. “One of our main goals with this seminar was to explain the importance of designing safer refrigeration systems,” he said.

Alarcón added that IIAR members at the seminar also sought to help people understand the importance of safety standards.

The Costa Rica seminar was a significant milestone for IIAR because it allowed the organization to take a region-specifi c approach to outreach. This marks a departure from previous IIAR seminars, which in the past have focused on specific countries.

Representatives from Costa Rica, Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Panama, Ecuador, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic attended the event. Alarcón noted that “The whole region came together to hear about and implement new ideas that address common concerns.”

Beyond safety and training, the other main goal of the seminar was to emphasize the connection between ammonia refrigeration and energy efficiency, Alarcón said.

In fact, helping other nations develop ammonia refrigeration standards is an important way for IIAR to expand its membership, Mardones said. “By emphasizing the importance of uniform standards, ammonia refrigeration can grow in a way that is both environmentally and economically beneficial to companies and regulators.”

Another highlight of the seminar was a session related to IIAR’s piping handbook. Chris Combs, IIAR’s director of international programs, said the session focused on the importance of pipe sizing, an issue many seminar attendees found important. Combs also praised the government of Costa Rica for taking an active interest in IIAR’s priorities of education and safety.

IIAR worked with INA, the National Institute of Learning, a Costa Rican government training organization to promote the seminar. That effort included a 40-minute interview with Mardones and Alarcón about the seminar during INA’s regular program on a public radio station in Costa Rica, explained Combs.

“Thanks to a public-private partnership, INA has built an ammonia loop facility for training purposes,” Combs added. “INA has a strong interest in expanding the knowledge base here in Costa Rica.”

Besides INA, the other governmental organization that participated in the seminar was MINAET, the country’s ministry of energy, telecommunications and the environment.

Costa Rica is the only country in Central America with a government agency specifically focused on ammonia refrigeration, said Mardones, adding that government involvement was one reason IIAR’s event was so widely attended.

“Costa Rica is leading the way in this region, and the country could eventually serve as an example for Central America in general,” he said. “Ammonia refrigeration is obviously the most viable solution here for many reasons, economic and environmental. That will create some very interesting opportunities for growth here, and that growth begins with events like this one.”