LA JOLLA, Calif. -- H.E. Butt Grocery Co., San Antonio, has realized over $2 million in hard savings from an infrared thermography program in addition to soft benefits from avoided losses, said Kapp Japhet, energy manager, at the Food Marketing Institute Energy and Technical Services Conference here.
The company started using infrared more than 10 years ago and in 1997 invested in a $65,000 camera when it established an in-house program, Japhet said. H-E-B examines all of its stores and facilities with the technology. "We are methodically going through them, gathering information, building baselines and trying to solve problems as we go," he said. Information from the infrared program is even being used to train employees about load levels in cooler cases.
In a four-hour session, the two-man crew consisting of thermographer Jack Gregory and an electrician will scan the exterior of the building, including the roof, and the refrigeration and electrical systems inside stores. The infrared camera is an Agema 570 from Flir Systems, Portland, Ore. "In the beginning, we bought the camera to look at electrical and mechanical things. But once we got into it and took the training courses, we saw other opportunities," he said.
"It is a very versatile tool. We use it in a lot of different areas," Japhet said. For example, "within two weeks of opening a new store, we come in with our camera, walk the store, do a total scan on the interior and exterior of the building, and we turn these reports over to our warranty group," he said.
Usually, the team will find loose connections and other minor problems. But one time, Japhet said, they found that a window installer had used single-pane glass on the front of the store where double-pane was called for. "Once we were looking at a brand new roof installation and found that someone had dropped something and cut the roof, and it was already saturated," he said.
The equipment paid for itself in its first use, Japhet said. The crew had gone out to a store where there had been an electrical fire that caused $100,000 in lost sales and product. The damage had been repaired, but the infrared scan found that the original problem had never been fixed. "The first day out, we were able to capture that, stop it and get it repaired," he said.
Following this and other successes, the infrared program has become very much in demand at H-E-B. "As we got out and started looking at our buildings, opportunities started coming at us right and left. We got into refrigeration and even the cooler cases -- food lines and load levels. We had never thought of using it for a refrigeration application, nor had anybody else, but it has turned into a fantastic training tool," he said.
The retailer uses information from the program to educate store directors and employees on the proper way to load cold cases, and is now putting together a videotape to make part of the chain's ongoing training program, Japhet said. "Through this training, we are explaining the effect on product once you breach that load level line. We are training our partners (employees) to keep the product within the cases below the load lines to insure the integrity of the food," he said.
The $2 million savings Japhet reported does not include the benefits of such training and also the avoidance of major catastrophes. For instance, the infrared team was checking a general merchandise warehouse and found a fire alarm motor with a frozen bearing. "If they there had been a fire, the alarm would have failed and the whole warehouse could have burned down. We don't take credit for things like that," he said.
"We've had some great successes at our distribution centers. Once, when we were just out doing baseline scans, we found problems with the primary utility transformer serving the entire facility. It was overheating and on the verge of going out. We were able to turn the problem over to the utility company and get it repaired," he said.
While inspecting an ice cream plant, the team found that the entire roof was saturated, with moisture on top and ice underneath, Japhet said. "We did a core sample and that was all the support we needed to justify re-roofing the whole plant," he said.
As far as Japhet knows, H-E-B is the only retailer in the supermarket industry to have an in-house infrared thermography program. "H-E-B has always been known as a pioneer about doing things," he commented.