June 28, 2023

Refrigeration is a modern marvel, allowing us to keep food and other perishables fresher for much longer, storing critical medicines, and more. But it does come with a cost. It is energy-intensive, which means that it is also expensive.

For operations like grocery stores, refrigeration can make up as much as 50 percent of their overall energy bill.

“Think about it in terms of your air conditioning in your house,” said Efficiency Smart Lead Engineering Consultant Tim Stearns. “You know how much air conditioning can add to your electric costs when you compare your August bill with your April bill. It could double your bill. And with refrigeration, the system is delivering much cooler air than just for space cooling.”

Stearns has helped refrigeration-intensive businesses like grocery and convenience stores, restaurants, cold storage facilities, and beverage distributors target energy waste and cut costs.

In some cases, the savings result from upgrading to more efficient equipment, often with a rebate from Efficiency Smart. In other cases, simple things like a good maintenance plan can go a long way toward lowering those costs over the short- and long-term.

Spotting energy waste isn’t always easy. Below, Stearns shares six red flags that indicate your refrigeration system might have an energy problem. 

1. Your coolant is leaking.

The number one problem that people run into with refrigeration is leakages. When refrigerant leaks out of the system, it becomes less effective at cooling the space. When the system is less efficient, it causes your bill to go up. It also carries a larger carbon footprint since most gases used in refrigerants are hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). These greenhouse gases can be thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Refrigeration leaks can be tricky to spot because refrigerant is odorless. Often, people only realize they have a leak once a technician shows up and reports that the system is out of gas.

According to Stearns, the easiest way to detect a potential problem is to observe whether the compressor runs continuously. Most people don't see compressors—usually in the back of the store or even outside—and out of sight is often out of mind.

Make a point of regularly checking your compressors to see if they run continuously. If so, they may be trying to compress too little gas, indicating a leak somewhere in the system.

2. You’re cooling empty space. 

Most stores have an empty cooler at a given time. Often, these coolers aren’t turned off when not in use, which wastes energy and money.

3. You’ve got humidity issues.

Humidity is like Goldilocks: You don't want it too high or too low, but just right. If the walls of your cooler are coated with built-up ice, your system may not be defrosting properly. Conversely, if water runs down the walls, the system probably defrosts too often.

“I've seen water, I’ve even seen it on the sales floor, where the floor underneath the beverage cooler is wet,” said Stearns. "That's because too much condensate is running out of equipment."

Use a smart defrost setting or add defrost controls to your existing equipment to improve efficiency.

4. You’ve got an HVAC issue.

Stearns recommends checking store windows to see if they are fogged over.

"Fogged store windows tell me that outside air is being brought in and refrigeration equipment is being used to cool it," he said. "That means that nothing is exhausting, which results in a ventilation problem."

This can be difficult to recognize since open coolers can keep the temperature comfortable. But not using space cooling can make the humidity inside the store too high, which leads to customers feeling uncomfortable and perishables spoiling more quickly.

5. You’ve got a temperature issue.

If frozen products feel like bricks, the cooling setting probably needs to be lowered.

“If a frozen product has ice crystals or frost on it, that's a sign of temperature issues,” said Stearns.

Stearns suggests investing in a temperature probe to double-check that your products are at the correct temperature. It will help ensure that your system is operating correctly.

6. You don’t have a regular maintenance plan.

Most businesses that use refrigeration only think about it when it fails. At that point, fixing the issue becomes an emergency. If the equipment has reached the end of its life, store owners may opt for whatever replacement model is quickly available.

Regular maintenance appointments with your contractor help keep equipment running longer and cost-effectively. The contractor will also be able to flag when equipment is nearing its end of life and provide you with a quote on the cost for a more efficient replacement before things become an emergency.

Stearns added that the payback for a more efficient replacement is usually six months or less. The savings can be significant for refrigeration equipment designed to last more than a decade.

“Make sure that you have an inventory of your refrigeration equipment and that your refrigeration contractor has a copy of that inventory,” said Stearns. “Tell your contractor you'd like to replace each piece of equipment with the high-efficiency version when it is time.”

Stop refrigeration issues before they start.

Maintaining your refrigeration system is important to keeping operational costs low and customers happy. Setting up a regular maintenance routine can help you identify issues and, sometimes, stop issues before they become a problem.

For more on how to save on refrigeration-related energy costs, contact your local account manager or our customer service team at (877) 889-3777 or [email protected].