By Keilly Witman
KW Refrigerant Management Strategy LLC
Convenience stores and drugstores have long had the luxury of being blissfully unaware of refrigerant environmental regulations. Historically, most retailers in this sector were able to meet their refrigeration needs with self-contained refrigeration equipment that uses less than 50 pounds of refrigerant, meaning that most of the EPA’s Section 608 regulations did not apply. Some larger convenience stores or other stores with slightly greater refrigeration needs may have used cool rooms and single condensing units, but overall, it was uncommon to hear of a convenience store with a full refrigeration system.
But as stores in this sector add more fresh and prepared foods to their assortment, they are finding themselves suddenly immersed in a refrigeration world that they are no longer able to avoid.
Equipment manufacturers, having recognized the largely unmet need for more sophisticated refrigeration systems in convenience and drug stores, are now going after that market aggressively. This means that convenience store owners are faced with a barrage of information, with little time to absorb it. It’s like an American watching her first cricket match with a group of Brits: everyone fights to be the one to explain the rules to the newcomer, and the newcomer tries to appear interested while wishing she were just about anywhere else on the planet.
To the uninitiated American, a cricket match looks like a bunch of people running around with no clue where they are going and no idea what the next move is, adhering strictly to a random set of rules, with no end in sight. That may sound familiar to those who have spent decades in supermarket refrigeration: Supermarkets moved away from one “bad” refrigerant only to find that the alternative refrigerants themselves turned out to be bad for the environment. Supermarkets struggled to comply with a set of seemingly random EPA rules, and it’s clear in hindsight that those rules got the industry even further away from the desired endgame.
Imagine a different scenario: The same American is invited to a cricket match, and she shows up very late in the game. Someone leans over and says to her, “if the guy holding the bat does x, the game is over and we’ve won.” That’s not so bad. In fact, it could turn out to be fun … or at least tolerable. That’s the enviable position where convenience stores find themselves now. They’ve come late to the refrigeration game, arriving just as it becomes clear what needs to be done to win.
It is widely acknowledged that the EPA and CARB want supermarkets to move to low GWP refrigerants, but up until now, no one really knew what the definition of a low-GWP refrigerant was. Supermarkets began the transition from high GWP refrigerants like 404-A and 507-A back in 2009 by moving to the “low-GWP” 407 series, which, as it happens, were never low-GWP at all. They were just a temporary reprieve. Lower GWP HFOs are on the horizon, but the industry is already in agreement that, while they are lower-GWP, they are still not low-GWP.
For the first time ever, the industry has true low-GWP options available in the various natural refrigerants now on the market. The end of the game is in sight. While supermarkets face all kinds of challenges in shifting their old refrigeration paradigm to take advantage of naturals, convenience stores new to the refrigeration game can go straight to the new paradigm and bypass the struggle.
Instead of choosing to install traditional HFC refrigeration systems, thereby placing themselves right in the middle of the traditional supermarket quagmire, convenience stores have a chance to skip the confusing middle innings and go straight to naturals, showing up just in time to record the win.
Keilly Witman is the owner of KW Refrigerant Management Strategy, a consulting firm that helps the supermarket industry manage the many strategic challenges of today’s and tomorrow’s refrigeration world. In 2015, she helped found the North American Sustainable Refrigeration Council, a nonprofit that promotes the use of natural refrigerants in the grocery sector. Prior to starting her own firm, she ran the EPA’s GreenChill Partnership, which grew to encompass more than 8,500 supermarkets during her tenure.