Do you have a refrigerant leak detection program in place?
By John Wallace, Director of Innovation, Emerson Climate Technologies Retail Solutions
The Savings – and Costs – Associated with Refrigerant Leaks
Effective refrigerant leak detection strategies can help retailers with savings not only at the individual store level, but across an entire enterprise. Refrigerant leaks are caused by a number of factors and can occur in any system. The majority of leaks occur in racks and cases.
Leak detection programs can help retailers avoid costly EPA examinations, which if found liable, could result in fines of up to $37,500 daily if not corrected. As most commonly used refrigerants today are greenhouse gases, and some are ozone-depleting substances, leaks can also have a significant impact on the environment.
An average food retail store leaks an estimated 25% of its refrigerant supply per year. For an individual store, the loss of R-404A (arguably the most common refrigerant in use today) at $7 per pound, can add up to a sizeable annual expense. Multiply that by the number of stores in the chain and the costs can be largely significant. And, this doesn’t factor in the associated labor costs or the potential loss of business because of service disruptions when fixing a refrigerant leak.
Facilities using commercial HVACR equipment that implement refrigerant best management practices will ultimately reduce their consumption of refrigerant, affecting their bottom line and sustainability efforts.
Best Practices for Effective Leak Detection
Here are four areas that we recommend retailers focus on in implementing leak detection programs:
- Establish a Zero-Tolerance Policy for Refrigerant Leaks
Convenience store leaders should clearly communicate the importance of detecting and minimizing leaks throughout all levels of their organization. Identifying and preventing refrigerant leaks should be everyone’s responsibility. Their goals should be not only to establish proper leak detection response protocols, but also to institute proactive measures that minimize or eliminate leaks altogether. One way to encourage this is to communicate the benefits, including the potential cost savings and environmental impact, of effective leak detection for their specific organization.
We also recommend developing a refrigerant management plan, including a mission statement that does not tolerate leaks. Begin with quarterly inspections of all facility systems using portable leak detection technology. EPA-certified technicians should repair any leaks found promptly. And, it’s important to maintain records of all refrigerant leaks, repairs, storage and disposal.
- Utilize Automatic Detection to Track Leaks
Install Automatic Leak Detection (ALD) equipment to ensure ongoing, proper procedures. Using an automated system can reduce inefficiencies and potential for error with manual inspections. This is becoming more important with recent proposals to amend current regulations around the leak threshold rate.
ALD equipment is critical to detecting leaks, issuing notifications, and continuous monitoring and reporting. Leak detection alarms can be integrated into a facility management system, and remote monitoring can assist with management of leak notifications as well as preventive measures.
- Analyze Data to Identify Trends and Implement Actions
Retailers should integrate refrigerant leak data into their analytics programs. Through utilization of leak detection technologies, they can begin to use that data to correlate the leaks with specific equipment or sites that are causing the problems, and then apply focused efforts to improve those issues. Analyzing the system data can help retailers to identify areas where they may need to inspect further, uncover trends and understand the overall impact of these issues on their business.
ALD equipment helps with early leak detection for any system size. A small, slow leak that goes undetected for a long time can have an effect on that system. Most refrigeration systems are designed with enough excess capacity that a small leak will get masked and is hard to notice unless you employ ALD technologies. But, that leak does drain the excess capacity and impact the refrigeration system performance – which is when retailers may see costs build through wasted refrigerant, energy penalties and food safety issues. Monitoring and analyzing the system data to identify potential leaks early on will help prevent these unexpectedly costly minor leaks.
- Institute Proper Maintenance Procedures
Performing regular preventive maintenance on refrigeration systems will ultimately save retailers more. Avoiding refrigerant leaks is less expensive than repairing them after they’ve occurred. It’s important to have proper maintenance procedures in place to minimize leak rates.
The EPA estimates that if every food retail store in the country reduced its refrigeration system’s leak rate to the GreenChill Partnership average, the industry would save approximately $108 million every year on reduced refrigerant costs.
Characteristics of Leak Detection Technologies
There are two categories of refrigerant leak detection technologies: direct and indirect.
Direct technologies, which can be fixed hardware or portable devices used by technicians for inspections, directly monitor the concentration of refrigerants in the air. Both active and passive sensors are available for direct leak detection technologies, enabling connection to a site monitoring system to provide notifications. Active detectors use a central system with tubing that samples multiple areas. Passive sensors utilize zone-specific infrared technology, but can be expensive if a lot of them are used.
For stores with refrigeration racks, indirect technologies analyze data to detect leaks. Indirect leak detection monitors the operation of a refrigeration system to infer whether a leak is present. This application is conducted with existing sensors and hardware on site, and it relies on algorithms to look at existing conditions, such as temperatures, liquid levels and ambient conditions to interpret if a leak is occurring. It also monitors the equipment history and trend analytics.
Refrigerant Leak Detection is Good Business
It’s critical for retailers to develop effective leak detection strategies. By utilizing ALD technologies, retailers can achieve continuous monitoring and satisfy reporting requirements. But compliance with current or future regulations is only one benefit. When you add up the total potential costs of lost refrigerant, the degradation of refrigerated systems performance and eventual food loss, the business case for implementing effective leak detection programs is even more apparent.
John Wallace, director of innovation at Emerson Climate Technologies Retail Solutions, has been active in the design and development of electronic control systems for more than 20 years. He is a registered Professional Engineer and holds several patents related to HVACR control systems. Wallace has served on many industry committees, including the Lonmark Refrigeration committee and the Department of Energy’s Better Building Alliance.