— By David Bolaños —

How regulations are reshaping restaurant refrigeration.

In some respects, not much has changed. As always, restaurant owners want the optimal refrigeration system for their situations. Nothing new there.

But planning a restaurant’s cooling/freezing strategy is more important than ever these days because of proposed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations regarding refrigerants. The details of the tighter regulations and the exact timing of their implementation are still to be determined, but they are coming. The new regulations might be in effect as soon as January 2025.

The wise restaurant owner will factor the new regulatory atmosphere into decision-making when determining how best to cool and freeze food.

There are pluses and minuses all around, as always. So, it’s vital that restaurant owners partner with suppliers and contractors who are knowledgeable about current and upcoming regulations and have access to manufacturers that have the right type of equipment. It’s important that restaurant owners arm themselves with the right questions to ask.

The EPA’s Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) Rule 23 is poised to drive the industry toward refrigerants that are low in Global Warming Potential (GWP), reducing harmful emissions. A select number of the prime commercial refrigeration refrigerants that will be available are hydrofluoroolefins (A2L safety classification designation), also known as HFOs, which are synthetic refrigerants that have GWPs below 150 and 300. Compare that to R-404A, which has been used in commercial refrigeration for at least the last 20 years. Its GWP is 3,922 in a category in which the lower the score, the better.

Each refrigerant class has operational and application pros and cons that need to be weighed for each situation.

Natural refrigerants, such as CO2, still will play a role for select restaurant owners. CO2 operates at higher pressures than those already mentioned and its efficiency depends on factors like system configuration, ambient temperature and the condensing temperature, to name a few, compared to other refrigerants, all things being equal. CO2 has been used in refrigeration for nearly 150 years and has a GWP of 1.

Propane is another natural refrigerant that could be used. However, because it has UL refrigerant charge limits in commercial refrigeration, its use in larger refrigerated spaces is limited. For propane, toxicity is less of an issue, but flammability is a real concern.

The refrigerants R-448A and R-449A, like R-404A, are in the A1 classification, with minimal toxicity and are not flammable. But their GWP is still high, at 1,273 and 1,397, respectively.

A2Ls have minimal toxicity and are mildly flammable, requiring design changes to the refrigeration equipment, with sensors and controls that monitor for refrigerant leaks.

It’s important that restaurant owners ask questions to understand these differences and are provided options by contractors and suppliers, making it easier to choose the optimal system and refrigerant that fulfill the application’s needs.

Efficiency is Key

As always, efficiency remains paramount. The industry’s longstanding emphasis on efficiency benefits the buying public, restaurant owners included, and dovetails with the drive toward lower GWP, reducing harmful emissions and benefitting all.

Today’s manufacturers offer the highest efficiency commercial refrigeration equipment ever made, using the most efficient components available.

Current Department of Energy (DOE) regulations, enacted in 2020, require that the typical refrigerated boxes that restaurants use meet the minimum Walk-in Cooler and Freezer (WICF) efficiency requirements. As a result, equipment being built today uses EC motors, for example, which are brushless DC motors that are more efficient and quieter than traditional AC or DC motors.

The Latest Innovations

Just as the refrigeration industry responded to regulation with innovation in that case, similar advances are already in place to help businesses such as restaurants react to the upcoming regulations.

For example, smart electronic controls are a clearly attractive choice for restaurant owners to select when deciding their refrigeration future. These controls reduce the number of defrosts required per day, especially in low-temperature applications where electric defrosts are used. Ultimately, this can reduce the energy consumed by the equipment. These control systems leverage electronic expansion valves, which are much more precise components than mechanical expansion valves. The result is enhanced performance within the refrigerated space, with reduced temperature fluctuations.

Advanced cold storage solutions will be increasingly necessary in a warming world, and it’s up to each of us to determine how to approach each situation most efficiently and in the most environmentally friendly way possible.

Of course, we also always must consider the effect on total cost of ownership. For each restaurant owner, that’s crucial.

The answers may vary, but for restaurant owners, there is no question that the time to learn about options is now.

— David Bolaños is head of product management at Heatcraft Refrigeration Products, boasting nearly 25 years of experience in HVAC/R — primarily with Lennox International, parent company of Heatcraft. He has led business development, sales and customer service in domestic and international markets, focusing primarily on commercial and industrial refrigeration.

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