Of all the commercial refrigeration sectors impacted by President Obama-era regulatory activities, the small-format retail and foodservice markets have arguably been hit the hardest.
Comprised of small grocers, convenience stores and restaurants, these markets not only utilize the widest variety of equipment and system architectures, they are also faced with understanding new refrigerant requirements in each equipment class. The net result is a sea change to refrigeration architectures in these segments — one where natural refrigerants propane (or R290) and CO2 (or R744) play an increasingly vital role.
With so many factors impacting these markets, it’s easy to see why there’s an unusually high degree of confusion and uncertainty. Making sense of it all is not easy, but many owner/operators are tasked with selecting the refrigeration platforms that will accomplish their short- and long-term operational objectives. And with numerous regulatory deadlines from both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy (DOE) approaching, these decisions must be made quickly.
In recent years, the industry has made tremendous progress in developing equipment that is more environmentally friendly and energy efficient than their predecessors. While recent actions from the Trump administration suggest that deregulation measures may yet be on the horizon, the specific extent of these changes is still largely unknown. As things currently stand, environmental regulations introduced by the previous administration remain in place, and the transition to equipment that utilizes refrigerants with lower global warming potential (GWP) is still underway.
New equipment and system architectures
Because of this convergence of regulatory activity, operators can expect new equipment options and architectures from OEMs. It’s also becoming more common for retailers and restaurant chains to state sustainability objectives — from the selection of eco-friendly refrigerants to lowering their overall carbon dioxide equivalency.
In response, many OEMs have taken the approach of integrating both EPA and DOE requirements in the same design cycle. This entails selecting a refrigerant that offers both lower-GWP levels and performance efficiencies to meet the new energy targets. Among these OEMs, some are developing new units in hopes of achieving compliance for future, potentially lower-GWP requirements. For those taking this ‘end game’ approach and attempting to clear these regulatory hurdles once and for all, natural refrigerants are currently the only options for achieving this objective. Here’s a look at some of the new equipment and system architectures for R744.
Overview R744 systems have been deployed in Europe for nearly two decades, and have proved to be a very effective alternative to HFCs in both low- and medium-temperature applications. Only in recent years has the U.S. seen wider R744 adoption in commercial refrigeration. Because R744 has a high operating pressure (around 1,300 psig or 90 bar) and a low critical point, refrigeration strategies must be designed to account for its unique characteristics.
“R744 systems are considered ‘future proof’ to global regulations and directives.“André Patenaude, director-CO2 business development, Emerson Commercial and Residential Solutions
While CO2 is more common in large-format grocery stores, OEMs have begun manufacturing systems and components sized for smaller equipment. Current trends show that system costs proportionately rise with the development of smaller equipment and condensing units. However, these R-744 systems are considered ‘future proof’ to global regulations and directives.
Applications Small, centralized CO2 systems: Appropriately sized for small-format applications, these systems are based on existing CO2 architectures (such as cascade and transcritical booster). A typical small system relies on four compressors to supply the complete refrigeration needs of the retailer.
Remote condensing units: Many OEMs are manufacturing CO2 condensing units that can serve small-format needs, such as walk-in freezers and coolers. These recently developed solutions will likely become increasingly used in applications in the coming years.
While there are still a lot of unanswered questions in the small refrigerated equipment space, natural refrigerants currently offer viable options for today’s operators selecting new refrigeration platforms. Over the next several years, regulatory agencies and governing bodies will hopefully bring additional clarity about refrigerant use in available equipment architectures. As OEMs continue to design, test and certify these new equipment offerings, operators must stay informed of any changes in the marketplace to help them make decisions that align best with their business objectives.
André Patenaude is director-CO2 business development, Emerson Commercial and Residential Solutions (which now incorporates Emerson Climate Technologies). He was selected last year as one of Accelerate America’s 25 Movers & Shakers driving adoption of natural refrigerants.