Innovation: cold-side’s sustainable future

Innovation is a constant in foodservice equipment. Jim Banks considers the last 10 years of development in cold-side technology to see what has changed and how

Not too long ago, cold-side equipment in commercial foodservice meant a walk-in freezer and a refrigerator, but over the years there has been a blossoming of innovation. Though the principles of keeping food cold have not changed dramatically, the versatility and specificity of cold-side equipment
have increased greatly.

In the last 10 years, the blast chiller has become almost as commonplace as the freezer in a commercial kitchen, adding a new dimension to food safety and convenience.

At the same time, equipment has become more multifunctional and, crucially, more efficient. As the industry embraces sustainability and keeps a keen eye on costs to make the most of
slender margins, equipment has had to adapt to both regulatory pressures and economic drivers.

“I think a combination of expected legislation and energy costs have driven a lot of innovation,” says Pamela Eaton FCSI of US consultancy NGAssociates Foodservice Consultants, Inc. “I’ve always felt that LEED has stayed out of commercial kitchens both because of their complexity and because cost saving by reducing energy use is such a drive for many establishments.”

“If a piece of equipment reduces usage costs by 10-30%, that’s an enticing carrot for the owners,” she adds. “While expected legislation pushes companies to continually innovate, being able to
demonstrate cost savings over a similar product from a competitor is an advantage. More so if you can show it extends product life or quality.”

The increased options for blast chillers and blast/shock freezers is making the technology more appealing and relevant to many operators who did not utilize them before. The fact that the machines are becoming smaller is another key factor, as is the fact that Irinox, for example, has models that reheat, proof, bake as well as melt chocolate.

Versatility and economy are key. Blast chillers are having a major impact, but game-changing cold-side technologies are few and far between. The story of innovation is more about incremental change.

“There has been a big change in how people approach cold equipment and the biggest change in the last 20 years is the blast chiller,” says Primož Černigoj FCSI of Slovenian consultancy PROprima. “Now every chef and kitchen know what it is even if they don’t fully know the benefits.”

There has also been a move to using different coolant gases for refrigeration and growing demand to include systems that remotely monitor temperature in every fridge and freezer to ensure that food is stored as safely as possible and with the greatest cost-efficiency. Change is slow and steady.

“There has been a lot of incremental change over the last 10 years,” says Jay Bandy FCSI, president of US consultancy Goliath Consulting Group. “I am happy to see that compressors now don’t run at one speed. Multiple speed compressors that can run at a lower rate save money. Also, the compressors last longer. Durability and efficiency are areas where improvement has been made.”

Slow and steady road

The fundamental principles of cooling remain the same after more than a century, but a series of small improvements over time have led to much more flexible equipment suited to a range of highly specific tasks. That trend has continued in the last 10 years, leading to more sophisticated choices for chefs.

“We now have switchable components – hot to cold, refrigerator to freezer – giving more options in the same footprint and the ability to more easily modify your kitchen to meet day-to-day or season-to-season requirements,” explains Eaton. “Under stone frost tops are really exciting but there needs to be a better way to deal with the water after the frost melts at the end of the meal period.”

For Helge Peter Pahlke FCSI, Managing Partner at German consultancy KDREI, key improvements that have helped in the hospitality sector include invisible frost tops that are replacing cold wells that were not quite as satisfactory in terms of appearance.

“No one was happy – not the operator, not the guest – so this has changed and the frost top looks like the buffet top,” he explains. “You have to be careful about condensation, as they are flat and invisible, but there are some nice options in stainless steel, glass, brass, copper and other finishes that appeal to interior designers.”

Though some new types of equipment are hitting the market – such as blast chillers that can also heat food – the refinement of existing types of equipment to become more efficient is a much stronger trend.

“The focus is on more efficiency as there has been no major innovation since the blast chiller,” says Černigoj. “There has been a small step forward with the combination of a blast chiller with low-temperature cooking technology in the same machine, which can store, blast-chill and heat food. This kind of multifunctional equipment is important as kitchens are getting smaller.

Efficiency gains are being driven by customers and sometimes by investors, who want to pay less for energy.”

“At the moment it is efficiency that is driving change,” says Pahlke. “Everyone is looking at energy consumption for both cooking and cooling. Three-layer glass is being used instead of two-layer glass, and equipment is being developed that needs less energy to run. The next challenge will be when we change all the refrigerants. That will be a regulatory change – and there’s no deadline as yet.”

The regulatory component to energy efficiency gains is becoming more significant, and minimum energy performance standards (MEPS) are now part of legislation in many countries.

“This initiative aims to limit the maximum amount of energy a product uses during operation,” explains Michele Romano, business and brand development director for EMEA and APAC at Ali Group.

“Manufacturers are encouraged to develop products with advanced energy efficiency and continuously research potential improvements. This results in manufacturers being more environmentally aware, reducing global warming potential (GWP) and lowering their carbon footprint.”

Sustainability sets the refrigerant tone

MEPS promote lessening the cold chain impact on the environment and removing the most damaging offenders from the marketplace. At the same time it raises environmental awareness while decreasing GWP, carbon footprints and energy consumption. It is just part of a broader regulatory drive that is targeting a reduction in GWP of refrigeration while the industry explores new ways to better display food while still keeping it safe.

The use of R290 – refrigerant-grade propane – is a key change in cooling technology. It has zero ozone depletion potential (ODP) and very low GWP.

“It has been around since 2017. I remember our rep talking about it and it sounding too good to be true,” says Eaton. “Then there was a long discussion at FCSI about its safety (for example, were factories in danger of blowing up?) and now, less than five years later, most manufacturers offer it and the vast majority of the units we specify utilise it.”

“We are also now working with CO2 on a few projects and discussing the use of R450A and R600A with others on the horizon,” she adds. “We’ve gone from a GWP for R404A of 3922 to R290 at 3 and CO2 at 1.”

Better sustainable performance has been a major driver of innovation over the last 10 years, with new refrigerants playing a key role.

“Eco Design technology has played the most prominent part in cold-side product development,” explains Romano.

“These have been underscored by regulatory developments led by FGAS and MEPS. The overall aim of F-Gas is to reduce and contain emissions by using responsible refrigeration, by phasing down hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and other fluorinated gases. The regulations ban the use of refrigerants with a GWP of 2,500 or more in certain refrigeration units and drive compressor development through switching to new and natural refrigerants such as propane-based R600A and R290.”

The next decade

Innovation is a continuum and cold-side equipment will continue to evolve. There is talk of new ways to achieve cooling through magnetic refrigeration, which uses the magneto-caloric effect (MCE) to provide an environment-friendly way of reducing temperatures, but this is still in its infancy in the commercial context. For now, connected devices and incremental improvements will be how change is made.

“Connection to a network and the ability to monitor temperatures without relying on staff to check equipment helps with understanding what is going on with the equipment,” says Bandy. “Predictive maintenance will also save a lot of time and money.”

“Everything is about cost and margin now,” he adds. “Things are so much more expensive, but restaurant sales have not changed since 2019, so while development costs of a restaurant have gone up 50%, sales are only up maybe 12-15% because prices have gone up. Nevertheless, incremental change will happen, but also when a breakthrough happens and you can punch in your dimensions into a computer and it prints out a cooling box, which will happen soon, then that will be a game-changer.”

At a time when technologies are improving in small steps and revenues are stagnant the question is when to invest. While that is a challenge for many operators, it seems there are no great leaps forward in technological capability imminent, so there is never a bad time to invest.

Jim Banks

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