Today, retailers and end-users face many changes in regard to refrigerants, including technology options and efficiency regulations. In the past, choices were made and remained applicable for a year or more. To stay on top of this issue now, decision-makers should review the regulatory changes, updates and their selections at least once per year, as well as the costs and future adjustments needed to reduce their carbon footprint and remain competitive and in compliance.

Regulatory issues are in constant change. The EPA has come out with guidelines to move to low global warming potential, or GWP, refrigerants through its SNAP rulings. The DOE’s energy efficiency mandates also have added major implications for the refrigeration industry. While refrigerant choice and energy efficiency are highly dependent variables in a refrigeration system, we’ve observed that the industry is moving to low-GWP and other natural refrigerants.

What retailers will need to address in the coming years are three primary concerns: new architecture, determining the best type of refrigerant and maintaining energy efficiency. It’s a significant challenge for retailers who are concerned with the costs of equipment, service and operations.

To meet federal directives, natural and low-GWP refrigerant blends represent the best alternatives for reduced GWP and low ozone depletion potential, or ODP. R-290, for example, has a GWP of three and an ODP of zero. CO2 offers similar advantages as well. With a GWP of one, CO2 has very little impact on the environment and is non-flammable and non-toxic. Both also have been proven as reliable options in appropriately designed systems.

For supermarkets and convenience stores, the majority of refrigeration equipment currently in place consists of systems using R-404A and R-407 series refrigerants. The R-407 refrigerants will continue to be permitted for use in new equipment.

However, this refrigerant challenge also is an opportunity. Along with refrigeration equipment, manufacturers, grocers and other retailers of goods will be challenged to adopt a new class of approved refrigerants and equipment with more electronics and automation. None of the emerging or new refrigerant alternatives are “ready-made” substitutes for retrofitting. Equipment will have to be specifically designed, evaluated and tested to comply. Retailers and their industry partners will need to work closely before any retrofit to fulfill all guidelines.

Implications for stores

For retailers currently expanding with new stores, the R-407 series still is a usable refrigerant. R-448A and R-449A are two other options. These two refrigerants have an even lower GWP, but are not widely available yet.

For retailers willing to look five to 10 years ahead, CO2, CO2 trans-critical or CO2 cascade, as well as other lower GWP synthetic refrigerant systems, such as small, self-contained propane systems, also are available options.

Large-format retailers with a wide mix of legacy stores and new builds should consider an entire store profile. Questions you might ask yourself: How old are the stores? When will they be refurbished? Has the maintenance been upheld? Are they going to change out the equipment when they remodel? If so, what changes are needed to comply with new or upcoming regulations?

Planning for refrigerant changes

Decision-makers should develop a path to transition away from old refrigerants. An important element of this plan is a strategy for keeping existing stores in operation while having an active plan for conversion to a new refrigerant. For new stores, input R-447A, R-448A, R-449A. Large retail chains need to do more when it comes to refrigerant changes. Some already are experimenting with CO2, propane and other alternatives, and we’re looking to others to follow suit.

Equipment changes, including more electronics and automation, will follow. Several low-GWP refrigerants are highly flammable. For safety, propane changes will require significant equipment redesign without the ability to retrofit. Any of the very low-GWP options not only will require refrigeration system redesign but also changes to service practices. CO2 systems require completely different system architecture because of high pressure and different components for efficiency.

Refrigerant changes are not a simple decision, but will be necessary for food retailers to address in order to comply with upcoming regulation changes. Those who take the time to understand their options and make a plan will be best equipped in this area today and in the future.

What’s next?

Retailers should work with industry partners and such trade associations as AHRI to stay informed on regulations impacting the industry in both the short term and long term. Active members of trade associations can influence these regulations if they are headed in the wrong direction.

Retailers also should develop a refrigerant management plan, including a mission statement that does not tolerate leaks. The plan should start with quarterly inspections of all facility systems using portable leak detection technology and state that EPA-certified technicians should repair any leaks found promptly.

Food retailers will need to make informed choices on refrigerants for their refrigeration needs. They will need to consider the governing changes and updates, as well as the costs

and future adjustments needed, and carefully implement a refrigerant management plan that serves them effectively over time.

Rajan Rajendran is VP System Innovation Center and Sustainability at Emerson Climate Technologies.