Making the Investment

How End Users Are Spending on New Technologies

As they move away from refrigerants with high global warming potential, commercial and industrial refrigeration users said they’re investing in new, natural refrigerant technology, including packaged ammonia systems and CO2 transcritical systems. The move to newer technologies is allowing them to ease some regulatory burdens, increase efficiency and improve safety.

For example, ConAgra is forming exit strategies to move away from hydrofluorocarbons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons, said Bob Port, senior principle engineer, technical services, supply chain engineering. “There is a lot of internal pressure to get out of them from a sustainability standpoint, but it has to come at a reasonable cost and be a good business decision,” he said.

ConAgra has installed a packaged ammonia system, but hasn’t taken it live. “As we go further and further into trying to start it up we realize that the existing chilled water distribution system had never been engineered. It had just evolved over time,” Port said, adding that he hopes the package system will go live soon and provide guidance for other plants that have commercial HFC refrigerants.

Port said he looks extensively at CO2 every time a low, low-temp application comes along but hasn’t been able to make it work. “It seems like every time we get a good application. The schedules are too tight. We have no room for error. It has to go like clockwork,” Port said, adding that his team of contractors, engineers and plant employees are familiar with ammonia. “The CO2 would be new. Our installation schedules are risky enough as it is, and, everything being equal, we’re going to go with what we know and what we think is going to give us the best chance of success.”

For Port, CO2 could increase safety and reduce the risk of ruined product if a leak occurs. When ammonia leaks at -40 or below, it is a liquid leak, which is much harder and more dangerous to deal with. “Product losses are high, as packaging materials get saturated,” he said, adding that ammonia detectors are not effective at detecting liquid leaks. “Liquid ammonia is a dangerous animal.”

Bing Cheng, manager of utilities engineering at Campbell Soup Co., said their Pepperidge Farm bakery in Lakeland, Florida, has installed a CO2 cascade system that will be commissioned in September. “This system will serve a small -10F storage freezer. It made sense to go with CO2 since this refrigeration load is so small and the freezer is the only low-temperature load in this facility,” he said.

In addition, Campbell’s is installing a CO2 cascade system for a new garlictoast spiral freezer at a Pepperidge Farm bakery in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. It should be completed by the end of the year. “A lot of the CO2 system applications have been used in storage coolers and freezers where the load is constant, but in this application, the load fluctuates as warm product is loaded into the spiral freezer,” Cheng said.

Campbell’s has installed a CO2 transcritical system at its corporate headquarters in Camden, New Jersey, which should be in use by October. “Current regulations in New Jersey make it very difficult to install an ammonia system. It made sense to install CO2 instead and avoid using ammonia and HFCs,” Cheng said. The CO2 system will support a new centralized storage cooler and freezer facility in the corporate research and development pilot plant.

The major catalyst for Campbell’s changes was to reduce the use of ozonedepleting refrigerants. “Our company has made a commitment to reduce the use of HFCs at our facilities. That started with our R22 phase-out program to convert to low-charge ammonia and CO2 packages,” Cheng said, adding that adopting natural refrigerants is a good long-term strategy for the company, from an economic and sustainability perspective.

Bob Czarnecki, chairman of the International Institute of Ammonia Refrigeration standards committee and a retired refrigeration program manager at Campbell Soup Co., said CO2 is becoming more and more usable in the commercial sector, particularly in storage freezers. “You have a lot of applications where you’re trying to get away from HFCs. It is easily done with ammonia in most cases but you may have one really small freezer and to put in all kinds of equipment for one freezer doesn’t make sense,” he said.

John Gallaher, vice president of industrial refrigeration for Hillphoenix Inc., said the commercial sector is also seeing some adoption of CO2 transcritical systems. Tristam Coffin, director of sustainability and facilities at Whole Foods Market, said CO2 transcritical systems are the lion’s share of the natural systems used in commercial applications today.

In its store in Santa Clara, California, Whole Foods installed seven modular units with R290 charges in a CO2 cascade system. “There are a variety of different systems and architectures out there but CO2 plays a role in all of them, but there is a huge area of opportunity with the introduction or market adoption of technology,” Coffin said.

One of the challenges of CO2 transcritical systems has been a potential lack of efficiency in warm climates. Different control strategies, as well as ejector technology, parallel compression, adiabatic gas cooling condensing and external subcooling, have changed that, “We’re driving efficiency up and using less energy, which is valuable,” Coffin said.

Mark Menzer, director of public affairs for Danfoss, said he is seeing increased consideration of parallel compression CO2 systems with ejectors, which have made CO2 refrigeration systems more economical, especially in warmer climates. “Before this you could almost draw a line around the northern latitudes of the world and say CO2 systems are economical above this line, but not below. That has changed with this ejector technology,” he said.

Some companies are investing in new technology to improve energy efficiency, said Andre Patenaude, director of CO2 business development for Emerson Climate Technologies. Energy costs can vary by region, which in turn can drive the return on investment. “In Europe, they’ve been trying to push the envelope on energy and refrigerant regulations before North America,” he said.

Patenaude said customers are looking to reduce megawatts. “CO2 can do continuous heating and cooling, so your efficiencies are through the roof. What is slowing us down is large compression technology for CO2 , which we have, but it hasn’t been used in a building quite yet,” he said. He explained that it is still being done, but with multiple compressors; however, industrial users don’t like 12-15 compressors.

CO2 transcritical systems are becoming almost prevalent enough to be called mainstream, said Keilly Witman, owner of KW Refrigerant Management Strategy.

Caleb Nelson, vice president of business development at Azane Inc., said low-charge ammonia, as well as propane systems, have been used commercially in cascade CO2 systems for supermarkets, but CO2 transcritical has seen the largest number of installations where a 100% natural system is adopted.

The concept of micro-distributed propane systems is gaining some traction. “With the potential to have allowable propane quantities increased in the U.S., propane will become a much larger competitor of CO2 for commercial systems,” Nelson said.

Witman said propane and CO2 systems are an intriguing idea because of propane’s energy efficiency. “It can work in any climate very, very easily,” she explained.

Danielle Wright, executive director of the North American Sustainable Refrigeration Council, said, “There is a lot of buzz about the fact that you could build a store with all standalone self-contained cases that run on propane and eliminate the need for a remote system all together. We are seeing this as a trend in Europe in small format stores.”

Coffin said technology has evolved more in the last decade than it had in the last 100 years. “The overall management of systems is becoming much more automated,” he said.

There is a lot of buzz about the fact that you could build a store with all standalone self-contained cases that run on propane and eliminate the need for a remote system all together. We are seeing this as a trend in Europe in small format stores.

–Danielle Wright, executive director of the North American Sustainable Refrigeration Council

The “Internet of Things” is providing greater connectivity, and the cost of IOT devices is coming down, so manufacturers can add devices to equipment and provide remote monitoring. “Those are driving innovation regardless of the size of equipment, whether you’re talking about industrial or commercial,” Patenaude said.

Patenaude said some facilities are upgrading electronics so they can remotely monitor their stores. “The refrigeration may have a 20-year life span, but if they need better tracking or reporting, you can add more sensors and temperature controls and improve performance and monitor equipment,” he said.


Companies generally make a change in technology when they replace equipment or they take an interim step and add new technology to existing equipment, but end users have many different variables they need to go through when determining which systems to invest in because the pace of technology is changing very quickly, Patenaude said. “They don’t want to be guinea pigs on new technology and have maintenance costs go through the roof,” he said.

Technology changes in the industrial refrigeration space are often driven by regulatory demands, Hillphoenix’s Gallaher said. “People are looking at how they can get out from the regulatory burden. Other customers are looking at how they can get out of ammonia completely because there are certain areas that are going to even more restrictions on ammonia,” he said.

EPA’s SNAP program, section 608 of the Clean Air Act, and the Montreal Protocol have all refocused attention to HFC restrictions. “HFC phase-out and carbon reduction is the direction most, if not all, of the developed world is headed,” Nelson said.

Menzer said a federal court recently ruled that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s SNAP Program exceeded its authority under the Clean Air Act with its 2015 rule that eliminated some uses for hydrofluorocarbons. “There is a tremendous amount of confusion right now,” he said. “EPA only has the authority to regulate the ozone-depleting substances and once they are out you can’t regulate them anymore.”

Even if there isn’t a SNAP program, there are other regulations. For example, California is poised to leap-frog the European Union’s phase out of fluorinated greenhouse gases, which include HFCs, regardless of what the U.S. federal government does, Nelson said. “So those doing business in California, or those that want consistency across the US or international markets, will invest today in technology that they believe will be viable for the long haul,” he explained.

Plus, the European Union’s HFC phaseout schedule is more aggressive than the U.S. equivalent, Menzer explained.

“A lot of the new R&D and product development is focused on natural refrigerant technologies, which is an indicator that this is the direction we’re all heading,” Wright said.

Nelson said he is seeing technology investments happen independently of regulatory pressure. “Even if there is a lack of U.S. federal pressure on HFCs today, many realize that it’s just around the corner,” he said.

Some end-users are entrepreneurial and want to be ahead of the curve. “They’ll spend more money on [capital expenditures] to learn something new before their competitors,” Patenaude said.

Companies that see themselves on the leading edge want to show sustainability to their shareholders and customers. “Another group will do lifecycle costs and look at the future and being futureproof,” Menzer said. Companies may invest in natural refrigerants without SNAP due to the economics, but regulations can help. “There are some borderline cases where conservative users won’t use the new technology unless they have a regulatory push as well,” Menzer said.

Nelson said end-users have to look at life-cycle costs when considering new technology. Although newer technology will typically come with a higher capital cost until it gains economies of scale, there are opportunities to improve running costs, reduce safety risk, lessen regulation, increase reliability, and use stable, low-priced refrigerants, he explained.

Deciding when to make a change can depend on existing system’s age, condition, leak rate and maintenance costs. “One of the biggest opportunities is to take advantage of system replacements and new construction to install a futureproof system to avoid future retrofits or spiking refrigerant costs like Europe is seeing,” Nelson said.

The importance of new technology can depend on the industry. Patenaude said technology is advancing more rapidly in the food space because of the Food Safety Modernization Act, which requires additional record keeping and reporting. “Just writing temperatures on a clip board twice a day isn’t cutting it, so they need to automate the process, the IOT technology is doing it for them,” he said.


CO2 cascade systems, which can use ammonia or propane as a refrigerant in small quantities, are providing efficiency and fewer safety concerns and can reduce reporting requirements. “As you get out of the record keeping required with high global-warming-potential refrigerants, there is a lot less hassle,” Menzer said. CO2 is also gaining traction industrially to improve the safety of what would otherwise be a large-charge ammonia system. “By using ammonia to only cool or condense CO2 , which is then sent throughout the facility, ammonia charges can be reduced and also limited to the machinery room,” Nelson said. “Ammonia-CO2 cascade systems can also improve on the efficiency of full ammonia systems where extremely cold temperatures are required (i.e. -40F).”

Temperature sensors, humidity controls and other sensors are working together to optimize performance, Patenaude said. Emerson provides technology that can track temperatures from the field and to the store. “That technology is becoming very important to end users,” he said. “I’d like to have some temperature guarantees that have some shelf life.”

The overarching challenge for some advanced technologies relates to the lack of codes and standards for their use in the field. “Developing new codes and standards or revising old ones is a long process and it is going to take the work of the entire industry,” Wright said.

Technician Shortage Will Accelerate New Technologies

New refrigeration technologies are making maintenance easier, which is increasingly important as the industry faces a technician shortage, end-users and equipment providers said.

“We have fewer and fewer technicians in the field. The shortage is going to get worse and worse as time goes on,” said Keilly Witman, owner of KW Refrigerant Management Strategy. “Recognizing that, we have to ask ourselves as an industry if we should be betting on refrigeration technology that increases complexity or should we prioritize simplicity? What good are complex, high maintenance systems if there is no one to maintain them?”

Tristam Coffin, director of sustainability and facilities at Whole Foods Market, said he’d like to see the refrigeration industry get to a level similar to what the automotive industry has achieved.

“If you go to an automobile dealership today, they’re going to plug the vehicle into a computer and get the diagnostics. I think the industry is moving in that direction where everything will be better automated and better controlled and you could go to a grocery store, plug in, run the diagnostics on the system and make repairs and replacements,” he said.

That vision isn’t too far out of the realm of possibility. New technologies like package and low charge systems, as well as improvements in valve design, control, remote monitoring and more sophisticated computer software – are playing at least a small role in helping companies work more effectively despite a technician and operator shortage.

Andre Patenaude, director of CO2 business development for Emerson Climate Technologies, said reducing the complexity of systems is a priority. “Contractors are concerned with providing good quality technical support. They turn to companies like Emerson and ask us to make equipment easier for techs showing up at the job site,” Patenaude said.

What’s more, because there is a lack of qualified technicians, contractors aren’t always able to dedicate time to training on new technology. “There is a ‘Catch 22’ for contractors. They want the training, but there aren’t enough systems that use that technology out there to warrant the investment in time and money that wholesale training requires,” said Danielle Wright, executive director of the North American Sustainable Refrigeration Council, an environmental non-profit that focuses on natural refrigerants.

One solution is self-contained units, which require less maintenance, Wright said.

To help improve training, Danfoss has developed a training module within a shipping container that serves as an instructional base for using CO2 systems and learning how to deal with high pressure CO2 , said Mark Menzer, director of public affairs for the company.

“We’ve spent a lot of time training the installation crews and the contractors,” said John Gallaher, vice president of industrial refrigeration for Hillphoenix Inc.

Campbell’s Soup Co. has installed three new CO2 systems this year. “CO2 is a brand-new technology for our company, and there is going to be a learning curve for our personnel,” said Bing Cheng, manager of utilities engineering at Campbell Soup Co. “Once we described how easy it is to operate, they were more receptive to CO2 . Our people do a great job operating and maintaining our current ammonia systems, which is much more complicated than some of the new CO2 systems.”