In November, technicians at a still-under-construction DeCicco & Sons supermarket in Larchmont, New York, set about turning on a carbon dioxide transcritical refrigeration system – something they had never done before.
The technicians, from AAA Refrigeration Service worked with field personnel from equipment suppliers Hillphoenix and Emerson Climate Technologies on the all-CO2 transcritical system, which represents a number of firsts.
It’s the first such system for DeCicco & Sons, a six-store grocery retailer based in Pelham, New York. (See “DeCicco’s Bold Move,” Accelerate America, Oct. 2015). And it’s the first transcritical system installed and started up by AAA Refrigeration, based in the Bronx, New York.
Like DeCicco’s & Sons, AAA Refrigeration Service is a family-run business, started by two Steffen brothers, Ernest and Ed, in 1937; they were later joined by a third brother, Myron, whose son, Don Steffen, is AAA’s current president. AAA’s clients are primarily food retailers, but include cold storage warehouses, including an Amazon facility in New Jersey.
For AAA, which for years has worked primarily with traditional direct expansion (DX) refrigeration systems using synthetic refrigerants like R22 and HFCs, taking on the management of a CO2 transcritical system is a step into the unknown. The system has required intensive training for technicians – a process that will be ongoing.
But for transcritical and other natural refrigerant technology to gain a foothold in the U.S. marketplace, contractors like AAA need to make a major commitment to training and education, in partnership with suppliers and end users.
The importance of trained technicians to the adoption of CO2 systems was manifested when a “large retailer had to stop installing CO2 in areas of the Midwest outside large cities because the contractors there had not seen it and could not support it,” said Dan Steffen, vice president of AAA.
Joel Klabon, field service manager for Hillphoenix’s Eastern Region, agreed that OEMs like Hillphoenix will need contractors like AAA to carry the burden of maintaining CO2 systems. “The future has to involve that or there won’t be a future,” he said.
Whereas Hillphoenix usually trains one or two people on CO2 technology, and those people in turn train the rest of the technicians, AAA has tried to expose as many of its technicians as possible to the CO2 training. “AAA is above average with training,” said Klabon. “We don’t have to encourage them. Some other contractors need encouragement.”
AAA has long embraced a culture of education and training that should serve it well in the emerging world of natural refrigerants. In addition to the contractor’s apprenticeship training program and ongoing training for experienced technicians, AAA has created a “mobile university” trailer that travels between its three divisions—in Connecticut, the Bronx, and New Jersey — to demonstrate new equipment to technicians.
In addition, AAA and Hillphoenix hold an annual symposium for customers, end users and suppliers to talk about new technology and regulatory changes, among other topics. “Our best customer is an educated consumer,” said Dan Steffen. “By educating our customers, we enable them to make better decisions.”
“Hillphoenix believes in the importance of education as much as we do and therefore has been very supportive of our training,” said Steffen.
To teach its technicians about CO2, AAA held a meeting with Hillphoenix two years ago where the OEM’s head corporate trainer, Rusty Walker, explained how the refrigerant works to about 25-30 technicians at a local supply house.
“We wanted to understand CO2 before our customers did,” said Steffen. “So if we did get an opportunity to work with CO2—which we have—we wouldn’t be scrambling.”
Out of AAA’s 105 technicians and apprentices, between 40 and 50 have been experienced CO2 training, with about 20 ready to service CO2 systems, said Kurt Woods, a AAA supervisor and a member of its education committee. “Eventually everybody will be trained on CO2.”
With DeCicco’s permission, the Larchmont store could serve as a training platform for transcritical technology when it is incorporated into AAA’s apprentice curriculum. Already, AAA brought technicians from different areas of the company to the Larchmont store during the startup week to gain exposure to the technology.
Frank Perrotta, a 16-year veteran AAA technician who attended the transcritical training, will be the primary maintenance technician for DeCicco’s transcritical system. Eight other AAA technicians will come into contact with the transcritical system.
Perrotta acknowledged that he’s still adjusting to the new technology. “You work one way all these years,” he said. “This is similar, but still different—the whole nature of it. It’s very challenging.”
Perrotta also pointed to the greater sophistication of the controllers and valves. “Everything is electronic,” he said. “You can’t waste time with one store all day because it’s so complicated.” He expects to be at the Larchmont store frequently until “things settle down.”
Programming the transcritical rack’s CPC e2e controller is more complex than it is for a traditional DX system, said Brent Cheshire, field service specialist for Emerson Climate Technologies. “You’re going from a simple control where you read temperature and open and close valves or handle defrost, to a more in-depth control around the safety of the operation and oil control.”
Bob Silvestro, another AAA technician with 16 years of experience, was responsible for the installation of the transcritical system and participated in its startup. He pointed out that there’s more to learn. “But once you learn it, it will be fine.”
Bob Isola, Vice President of Construction at AAA acknowledged that the technicians’ biggest concern about transcritical refrigeration is the safety of the higher operating pressures. But he noted that the transcritical system is designed with bypass and relief valves to relieve excess pressures.
“In reality, it’s a similar system [to a conventional DX] and should be treated the same,” he said. “In a couple of months after working with it, we’ll be comfortable with it. It’s something new,” he added. “It’s one thing to learn about it in a book or to see videos. Out in the field, it’s different. Some people adapt to change better than others.”
“When R410A came out, everybody was worried about the pressures,” said Steffen. Now there’s not as much concern.”