Repair, Replace or Retrofit: How new Refrigeration Regulations Impact Service

The new refrigeration regulations developed by the Environmental Protection Agency will spice up the conversation that surrounds a foodservice operator’s decision to repair or replace an existing piece of equipment. A veteran service agent outlines some of the factors foodservice operators will have to weigh moving forward.

Last summer, the Environmental Protection Agency released rules that ban some refrigerants that the foodservice industry relies on most, including R404A, R507 and R134A. The rules, designed to limit the release of chemicals that contribute to global warming, will phase out these refrigerants over the next few years. Manufacturers will soon choose replacement refrigerants and adjust their product engineering to use these chemicals as safely and efficiently as possible.

These regulations don’t impact factories alone, however. Starting now, foodservice operators should take these rules into account when making refrigeration decisions, says Scott Hester, chief operating officer of Dallas-based Refrigerated Specialists, Inc., and past president of the Commercial Food Equipment Service Association.

Whenever a piece of equipment needs service, one obvious question arises: repair or replace? These regulations, Hester says, will influence this decision while also presenting operators with a third option: retrofit.

Owners of boxes that use the banned refrigerants can expect to get hammered by the law of supply and demand, says Hester. As these refrigerants become less available, their price will almost certainly skyrocket.

This has happened before. In the mid-1990s, R12 was banned due to its effect on the ozone layer. Prior to the ban, it cost about $0.75 a pound - cheap enough that Hester used to fill the tires on his dirt bike with it. Following the ban that price rose dramatically, eventually reaching as much as $90 per pound, he said.

Hester expects something similar to happen with R404 and the other banned refrigerants. That means operators simply looking to recharge their boxes could easily spend hundreds of dollars on refrigerants alone.

Given that spike in price, the market will likely step in with R404 alternatives. These interim refrigerants, Hester said, are typically a cocktail of chemicals that behave like R404 and can be used in R404 boxes.

These alternatives may end up being cheaper than R404 so they may make sense for some operations, but they’ll almost certainly have drawbacks, added Hester. Because they’ll only approximate another refrigerant, interim refrigerants usually cause their boxes to operate less efficiently. This leads to higher electricity consumption, longer recovery times and shorter compressor lives, he said.

Given the added expense of repairing R404 boxes and the potential pitfalls of interim refrigerants, many operators will decide to simply replace a malfunctioning unit. In these cases, Hester recommends operators seek a piece of equipment that uses one of the new refrigerants. Indeed, some manufacturers already make units that use these chemicals. Over the long term, a box that uses the new refrigerants will be a much better investment than one that uses a banned refrigerant.

“If you avoid the new refrigerants for some reason, you’re going to have the last generation of equipment...that has the old refrigerant,” Hester said. “They’re going to be the most expensive to keep ahold of. You won’t get the full lifecycle out of that last one. It’s going to end up getting prematurely retired because of ownership expenses at the tail end of the lifecycle.”

Then there’s the third option, retrofitting an old unit to operate on the new refrigerants when they become available. This is a relatively simple process, Hester said. A service agent will draw the old refrigerant out of the system and then replace it with the new refrigerant. In some cases, the agent will also have to change the type of oil used in the compressor. All told, this extra labor should add about ? to the normal cost of adding refrigerant to a unit, he said.

Hester noted that retrofitting a unit, even if it’s in great shape, isn’t always the best option. While retrofitting makes economic sense for bigger, more expensive pieces of equipment like walk-ins and large reach-ins, the extra cost doesn’t add up for smaller refrigerators like undercounter units.

In general, these pieces take extra time to service: Their smaller size mean components are harder to access and calibration takes longer. Combine the overall cost of retrofitting with the relatively low replacement cost, and the better deal will often be just buying a new refrigerator. For just a few hundred extra dollars, operators can get a brand new, fully-warrantied piece of equipment, he said.

The decision to repair, replace or retrofit refrigeration is one that practically every operator will need to make as the new EPA regulations take effect. These decisions will depend on an operator’s tolerance for risk and ability to make a capital expenditure. Come decision time, though, Hester encouraged operators to consider not just the next few weeks, but the next few years, adding that the need to replace often comes sooner than an operator thinks.

“I’d be inclined to say invest in the future....There’s a smart time to get off [a piece of equipment],” he said.