Why Whole Foods Made R-290 Integral to Its Refrigeration Strategy
When it comes to the use of natural refrigerants in commercial refrigeration, Whole Foods Market (WFM) is a true pioneer in the U.S. food retail space. Even before the recent wave of regulations prompted retailers to look for more eco-friendly alternatives, WFM was deploying sustainable refrigeration systems with the intent of reducing harmful environmental impacts and improving energy efficiencies. Today, 22 of its 465 stores utilize all-natural refrigerant systems, with most of them moving to the hydrocarbon R-290 (propane) for their self-contained cases.
According to Tristam Coffin, WFM’s director of sustainability & facilities for its Northern California region, refrigeration comprises roughly one-third of their total energy usage. Their commitment to moving to natural refrigerants arose out of a desire to lower energy consumption and reduce the potential for direct environmental impacts from refrigerant leaks.
But figuring out a natural solution for their self-contained cases presented a unique challenge for the company. When they first started looking for R-290 case manufacturers in 2013, AHT Cooling Systems USA was among the refrigeration equipment manufacturers offering R-290 units. AHT National Sales Manager Howell Feig said that developing R-290 products for the European market enabled AHT to help early adopters in the U.S.
Since 2013, WFM has deployed R-290 self-contained cases across the company’s entire network of stores. Currently, 50 to 60 stores per year are migrating to R-290 as replacements to HFC units, either in new stores or in new programs.
“While these units make up less than 10 percent of our overall refrigeration footprint, they have hit a home run for us in that they’re 10 percent more efficient in most instances, and they’re using a natural refrigerant,” Coffin said.
Both Feig and Coffin believe that the U.S. food retail industry is slowly shifting toward R-290 use in self-contained cases. From AHT’s perspective, Feig explained that early adopters like Whole Foods Market have served as a proof of concept for less progressive retailers. As a result, adoption has increased to the point where AHT will transition its entire equipment platform to R-290 by the end of this year.
The 150g charge limit of R-290 systems largely restricts its usage to these low-charge, self-contained units. While the standards governing the safe use of R-290 are currently under review, Feig and Coffin agreed that a charge limit increase would open new opportunities that aren’t currently possible. Raising the limit to 500g would allow R-290 to be used in open-door cases as well as walk-in coolers and freezers. This prospect could potentially even allow for a full-store solution of self-contained R-290 cases, which would be particularly advantageous in smaller urban locations where space constraints prevent the use of centralized racks.