The end of the road for chlorofluorocarbon gases, whose production is banned as of year's end, does not spell the end of the line for retailers' coolant problems.
Despite the much-touted early test successes of the new-generation hydrochlorofluorocarbon and hydrofluorocarbon gases, retailers involved in wider rollouts of the replacement coolants are still facing some challenges.
The phaseout of CFCs is forcing retailers to pick and choose from among three main options: continue using CFCs as long as possible, convert to middle-solution HCFCs, or make the leap to totally CFC-free HFC gases.
For some, like Jitney Jungle Stores of America, Jackson, Miss., the decision to switch to HFCs chainwide as a long-term coolant solution is seen as a resounding success.
The retailer has converted 69 of its 105 stores to HFCs and plans to complete a chainwide conversion by April 1997. "We're right on schedule," said Norm Twisdale, a consultant who manages the company's refrigeration program. "Every new store we're building is totally HFC and we're retrofitting the entire company."
At some other chains, though, the conversion of CFCs to HCFCs and HFCs has sparked controversies, especially involving the sensitive issue of pricing.
Hannaford Bros., Scarborough, Maine, was one of the first chains to enact a chainwide HFC conversion program. The retailer completed its chainwide conversion to HFCs earlier this summer and is now converting newly acquired stores in Virginia and North Carolina.
But the company partially regrets its decision now, primarily because of a failure to reap expected cost benefits, said Tom Mathews, director of mechanical and energy services.
A proposed tax on HCFCs, which would have helped level prices between the two gases, never emerged, and as a result, Hannaford feels it has been placed at a competitive disadvantage by going with the more expensive HFCs, he said.
"We're hopping mad. We're very upset with the Environmental Protection Agency for basically telling us five years ago that a tax was coming [on HCFCs]. They told us that besides helping out the environment, companies switching to HFCs would also be making a reasonable financial investment," Mathews said.
Hannaford is now considering using HCFCs in new stores in the future. "We recently did change back to R-22 for air conditioning and we may go all R-22 very shortly. All the new stores we're building down south have HFCs for refrigeration and HCFCs for air conditioning," he said.
HCFCs, which cost less but face the possibility of being phased out sooner than initially scheduled, were the first choice for Shaw's Supermarkets, East Bridgewater, Mass. Production of HCFCs for use in new equipment is now scheduled to end by 2010, and for use in older equipment by 2020, as stipulated in the Montreal Protocol. But those dates may well be moved up even further.
Shaw's is now edging away from using HCFCs, even though it remains wary about the costs of HFCs. The chain's coolant needs today are being met about equally using HCFCs and HFCs, but the retailer will be shifting more to HFCs in the future, said Bill Burdwood, refrigeration systems manager.
Shaw's, though, is unhappy about the pricing trends for HFC gases. "It's ridiculous. A year ago I was pleased with the way HFC prices were coming down, but this past year they've been stuck in the same place," Burdwood said.
"It's really made me rethink and say, 'Gee, maybe we were a bit too far ahead,' " he added.
Jim St. Charles, vice president of store engineering at Gooding's Supermarkets, a 19-store chain based in Altamonte Springs, Fla., also cited the prices of HFCs as an obstacle to conversion.
"HFCs are still up to $7 to $9 per pound, and that just doesn't make sense to me. A lot of the guys who did [convert to HFCs] now regret it," he said.
Despite the short-term costs, Jitney Jungle remains convinced that moving directly to HFCs, and not HCFCs, is the best decision. "There are a lot of problems with HCFCs. There's a lot of problems with R-22 in a low-temperature application, and based on that, we just couldn't see moving to HCFCs. It would be an interim refrigerant and that was not the company's desire," Twisdale said.
"R-22 is just not a good low-temperature refrigerant," said Lowell Hettinger, refrigeration manager at King Soopers, Denver. "We converted some stores [to HCFCs] in the late 1980s, and the service-call ratio and compressor losses are higher than at our HFC stores."
King Soopers is committed to a chainwide HFC conversion. Only about eight stores have been equipped presently, but the retailer hopes to have all 68 stores running on HFCs by 2002.
King Soopers is seeing improved cooling systems efficiency [with HFCs], but Hettinger said the quality of the refrigerant is only a small factor. "Most of the savings is due to better technology," he said. "We're using more energy-efficient cases and screw compressors. [But even] if you look at refrigerant performance by itself, there's a slight gain in efficiency."