NEW YORK -- Retailers are challenging the wisdom of changing all refrigerant systems to carbon-free coolants and insist that a short-term strategy centered on interim gases remains the industry's best course.
Many retailers are converting their systems primarily to interim hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) gases, also known as R-22s. HCFCs are now the cheapest coolant on the market -- down to less than $2 per pound in some areas last week -- while the prices of chlorofluorocarbon gases have skyrocketed as high as $35 per pound since production ceased at the end of 1995.
"In the last three to four months we've finally started to see dramatic increases in the price of CFCs," said Edward Mader, energy manager for Randall's Food Markets, Houston. "Costs have escalated a little bit quicker than people anticipated."
Retailers agreed they will eventually have to convert to hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) gases because HCFCs are scheduled to be phased out as early as 2010. But many said they have no plans in the near future to begin such a move.
Even retailers who have already made the move to HFCs are now questioning their decision. For example, Hannaford Bros., Scarborough, Maine, which conducted one of the industry's earliest complete conversions to HFCs, said last year it was rethinking its move and may consider future conversions to HCFCs.
Such retailers believe HFC prices remain too high, and are questioning how efficiently HFCs perform in store refrigeration systems. A few expressed concern that HFCs may one day be found damaging to the environment, thus mandating another expensive conversion.
Norb Parsoneault, vice president of construction and engineering at Hughes Family Markets, Irwindale, Calif., said he never thought chainwide HFC conversion made sense for supermarkets.
"It was a big mistake and I never could figure out why [retailers] were doing it," he said. "I would go to conferences and talk to people and shake my head, saying, 'Am I missing something?' "
Parsoneault said he believed some decisions to move to HFCs may have been public-relations driven. "A lot of companies wanted to go on the bandwagon as being environmentally ahead of everyone else, but I don't know if customers pay any attention to refrigeration.
"I just don't see any pressure to convert to HFCs at this time," he said. "R-22 is a really good buy at $2.66 a pound for us. It's the cheapest refrigerant available and it works well in both medium and low temperatures. For my new stores, I'm putting in 100% R-22."
At H.E. Butt Grocery Co., San Antonio, HCFCs are the coolants of choice. "We believe R-22 is going to be around for awhile," said an executive. "It's a cheaper gas and easier to diagnose and troubleshoot" any system problems.
The H-E-B official said his chain is well aware that HCFCs are eventually heading for oblivion. "But right now it's saving us a lot of money," he said.
Even retailers who plan to convert to HFCs do not feel any pressure to step up their plans.
"We're taking a slow, calculated approach. We didn't run out and do any mass conversions whatsoever," said Robert Francis, director of engineering and store development at Dierbergs Markets, Chesterfield, Mo.
"We're dedicated to convert [to HFCs] but we don't have a formal timetable," he added. "We're doing it on an as-needed basis," such as only converting store cases that need to be repaired or have their coolant supply replenished.
Francis said he is happy the chain didn't opt for a chainwide retrofit to HFCs. "It worked out well for a couple of reasons," he said. HFCs "have come down in price since their introduction and we've learned more about the effects of that refrigerant on our systems."