Refrigerant Management Program: What's the Best Approach for Grocers?

Refrigerant Management Program: What’s the Best Approach for Grocers?

In Articles by Elizabeth OrtliebLeave a Comment

As a grocer, saying you have a refrigerant management program simply isn’t enough to reduce your corporate refrigerant leak rate. It’s what you do in your day-to-day operations that truly matters. That’s because not all refrigerant management programs are equal; in fact, some are more effective than others. And with the cost of refrigerant leaks, can you afford to have an ineffective refrigerant management program?

Thus, in this article, we’ll be telling the tale of two national grocers—Grocery A and Grocery B—and analyzing their effective and ineffective approaches to refrigerant management. We’ll look at these supermarkets’ attitudes and behaviors towards refrigerant leaks as well as how they manage contractors, system design, refrigerant options, and leak detection.

By the end, you’ll have a better understanding of what the best approach to a refrigerant management program is. Let’s get started.

Stakeholders Must Have A Full Understanding: Refrigerant Is Central to Business

Refrigerant management has always been important to grocers, and it’s for these core reasons: compliance, cost, system performance, and food safety. While a supermarket’s focus may change over time, these drivers remain constant.

The part that gets tricky is how these goals are communicated and executed upon by the diverse group of stakeholders within the grocer chain—from the executives to the store managers, maintenance managers to the contractors. In fact, the single most important issue that differentiates grocers’ approach to a refrigerant management program is communication.

That is, how the message—of refrigerant being central to business—is shared amongst stakeholders. While rarely admitted, some stakeholders often take this for granted. As a case in point, let’s start comparing and contrasting the characteristics of Grocery A to Grocery B.

But Refrigerant Management Program Awareness Not Always Shared Amongst Stakeholders

For Grocery A, the message is fully understood amongst all stakeholders. Everyone understands that they have a part to play because of the fact that refrigerant is so central to the business. Therefore, refrigerant loss and leakage are deemed extremely important.

Juxtapose that with Grocery B, in which the message is not fully understood and is muddled amongst stakeholders. Numerous team members are left out of the process, and the importance is mostly siloed into the maintenance department. Along the same lines, corporate executives are not “championing” refrigerant leak rate reduction.

Thus, the outcomes are drastically different.

On the one hand, Grocery A has reaped numerous awards because of widespread stakeholder involvement, including a low sustained refrigerant leak rate and awards by the US EPA GreenChill Partnership. On the other hand, Grocery B has been just a little better than average.

Keeping in mind that the average supermarket loses 25% of its total refrigerant charge in a given year, take a look at the graph below of Grocery A and Grocery B’s 12-month rolling average refrigerant leak rates, and you will begin to see the measurable difference in their respective refrigerant management programs:

Rolling Average Leak Rate Comparison of Refrigerant Management Program

This discussion on the importance of having a full understanding of the refrigerant management program amongst stakeholders leads us to how the respective grocer chains manage contractors—Here, too, you will notice a difference.

When It Comes to Contractors, the Emphasis Should Be on Proactive Maintenance

First and foremost, contractors play a central role in the success of your refrigerant management program. Not to mention, the desire to expand chilled and freshly prepared product offerings to customers increases the importance of their role.

Thus, attention should be given to how contractors are managed and what they do throughout the lifetime of a grocer’s refrigeration systems, which includes installation, maintenance, leak events, and retirement. Contractors, like other stakeholders, should be made well-aware of the grocer’s goals of the refrigerant management program, and their contract should emphasize proactive measures to help achieve such goals.

Make Proactive Measures A Part of Contractor’s Contract

That’s where maintenance comes in, which has two main facets: reactive maintenance and preventative maintenance (PM). The latter, PM, coupled with a strong emphasis on refrigerant leak checking, is the route that grocers and their contractors should take. However, as you might guess, this is not always the case.

You see, Grocery B has a widespread group of contractors; some who only touch a few stores, and it’s difficult for the goals of the program to filter down. On the other hand, Grocery A has proactive contractors who are closely aligned with the chain’s refrigerant management program goals. Having a smaller or more manageable set of maintainers is easier to manage and drive the message with.

As such, Grocery A tends to have more PM leak checks, whereas Grocery B tends to have less. Plus, the mostly standardized refrigeration design across Grocery A’s stores may also explain why maintenance is easier for the chain, compared to Grocery B.

The point is, you and your team need to find a balance between planning regular refrigerant leak inspections and responding to refrigerant leaks. Contractors are a large part of the success of your operations, so make sure the importance of refrigerant management is shared with them.

By doing so, repairs will be made more quickly and effectively and thereby callbacks will be reduced.

Ascent of New Refrigerant Options Does Not Change the Approach

Before you think the importance of a refrigerant management program will be lessened as we move towards the next generation of refrigerants, think again. The ascent of new refrigerant options (e.g., HFOs and CO2) does not change the importance in how you approach a refrigerant management program.

“[Food retailers] should adopt a zero tolerance policy towards refrigerant leaks regardless of the size of the refrigeration system or type of refrigerant.Jason Ayres

Bacharach’s Jason Ayres states, “My own message to grocers who are keen to start this journey is that you should adopt a zero tolerance towards refrigerant leaks regardless of size of refrigeration system or type of refrigerant. Maintaining this mindset is the ultimate message you are feeding through to your stakeholders.”

While moving away from high-GWP refrigerants (e.g., HCFCs and HFCs) and to new refrigerants may change and introduce new requirements, the core reasons for refrigerant management, mentioned previously, remain true: compliance, cost, system performance, and food safety.

Thus, no matter what refrigerant types are used in your stores, refrigerant leak detection is of the utmost importance, which leads us our next and final point:

Extensive Refrigerant Leak Detection is Needed

The drive to low level refrigerant leak detection is key, and the essence of detecting refrigerants at low levels will continue to hold true to the overall refrigerant management strategy.

Grocery A recognizes this and has extensive refrigerant leak detection coverage across all areas, including each individual rack, walk-in cooler and a number of sample points across the sales floor. To illustrate, Grocery A’s coverage has 16+ sample points and gives a good early warning to leaks across most of the refrigeration system.

Grocery A Has A Uniform Approach to Detection, Whereas Grocery B Has a Fragmented Approach

Additionally, Grocery A has a fully connected and integrated solution for alarm management. Refrigerant leak detection alarms are responded to quickly (i.e., in the region of 4 hours) because of contractor service level agreements (SLAs). The immediate notification and desire to respond within a short time period helps mitigate the refrigerant leak, loss of refrigerant, potential downtime of the system and lost sales that could happen if a refrigeration system goes out of service.

Conversely, Grocery B has a fragmented approach to refrigerant leak detection, in which detection systems have been adopted but not in a uniform and consistent manner; Plus, not all the critical leakage areas within a food retail space are covered. Also, they have not seen the value of a fully connected solution to understand leak patterns and dramatically improve the speed of response to refrigerant leaks. The good news is, the refrigerant leak detection coverage can be easily extended to bring in other key leak locations and provide a more robust solution.

It should be noted, too, that, in years prior, refrigerant leak detection alarm trigger points for HFC refrigerants were typically in the 100s of parts per million, which then signaled an engineer to investigate and repair the refrigeration system. Understand, however, at this level the refrigerant leak could be extensive and the refrigerant loss large.

Now, with improvements in leak detection sensing technology and the use of infrared sensing technology to detect refrigerant down to 1ppm with no cross sensitivity, the drive for finding low-level refrigerant leaks that contribute to overall refrigerant consumption is the new norm. In fact, alarm levels of 50 parts per million (or lower in some cases depending on if there is a focus on very small habitual leaks) are recommended and used across the food retail sector.

Widely Communicate Refrigerant Management Program Goals for Operational Excellence

Ultimately, extensive refrigerant leak detection is needed for compliance, cost, system performance, and food safety. In a very competitive and low-margin business such a food retail, reducing refrigerant leak rates can truly improve a food retailer’s bottom line, and it all begins with sharing the importance of a refrigerant management program with everyone in your organization, from the executives to store managers, maintenance managers to the contractors.

In the near- and long-term, if you more closely follow the practices of Grocery A than that of Grocery B, you will see a measurable difference, and that is the lesson from this tale of two grocers.


How does your organization communicate its refrigerant management program to all stakeholders? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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