CHICAGO -- The cost of cooling rises with each passing day that retailers delay conversion to non-chlorofluorocarbon gases in refrigerated store cases, retailers say.
Declining prices of non-CFC gases and the rapidly-approaching cutoff date for CFC production are forcing retailers to consider more seriously converting their systems to coolant alternatives.
"There's no reason not to convert," said Richard Oas, director of facilities engineering for Safeway, Oakland, Calif. "The refrigerants are available, their price is coming down, and contractors are learning how to work with them."
While the scheduled CFC phaseout presents an especially difficult financial challenge for independents, delaying systems conversions only compounds the problem, said Mike Snyder, owner of two stores, IGA Quil and IGA Market Plaza, in Oklahoma City.
Both Snyder and Oas urged retailers to move forward with refrigeration system conversions as part of a panel presentation at the Food Marketing Institute's annual convention here last month. The production of ozone-depleting CFC gases is scheduled to halt Dec. 31, 1995, according to an international pact called the Montreal Protocol.
"The upcoming CFC phaseout puts unique burdens on independent retailers," Snyder said. "To say the least, it's an expensive conversion cost and we really have to work to avoid disruption and maintain product quality at the store level."
But delaying conversions is only delaying the inevitable, he added. "CFC compliance is going to be costly at any time. But if you procrastinate, and if you find your system has serious leaks when [CFCs] cost more than $15 a pound, you'll be in real trouble.
"If you wait too long, you may be facing a complete changeover that may run from $30,000 to $50,000 and you may be out of business," he continued.
Snyder converted his Quil store to a hydrochlorofluorocarbon, R-22, in 1991 and plans to convert his other store this summer. The retailer already anticipates the second conversion will cost much more than the first.
"The cost difference has already been substantial," Snyder said. "I look at the refrigeration bills coming in, and R-502 [CFC coolant] at Market Plaza is about three times the cost of R-22 at Quil right now. I'm in a hurry to get it over with real quickly. Our bills are unbelievable."
To ensure a smooth conversion, the retailer plans to work with the contractor to develop a plan of action.
"A good refrigeration contractor can be a critical member of your team as you make plans to convert your system," he said. "This thing is so critical that a poor refrigeration contractor can give you a lot of problems."
Independents need to also review the experience of others in similar situations, Snyder said. "Don't overlook the knowledge you can gain through other independents who have gone through the same experience."
For instance, he noted, another IGA independent operator in the Oklahoma City area demonstrated how a small retailer could defray the costs by converting medium- and low-temperature refrigerated cases in stages over an extended period of time.
Such a two-tiered conversion "allowed them to verify that one unit was running correctly before they completed the job," Snyder said. "This store had no major switch-over problems and were down a few hours at most."
Retailers should be assured that the replacement refrigerants, both HCFCs and hydrofluorocarbons, are effective and more efficient than the coolants they will replace, the panel said
Safeway, which conducted a series of tests on new HFCs over the last year, determined that "all the new refrigerants are going to perform equally or better than the old refrigerants with our existing technology," Safeway's Oas said.
Oas said he was glad several manufacturers were supplying the new refrigerants because market competition is reducing coolant costs.
"The shining light in this whole conversion process, which is costing us a lot of money, is the fact that there's competition out there which is helping drive the costs down," he added.