Innovative refrigeration system design for energy saving and sustainability

26 October 2023

The importance of energy saving and sustainability

For businesses, saving energy is no longer just about reducing cost. It’s also about sustainability and ethicality; it’s simply the right thing to do. Energy is a precious, limited commodity and we all have a moral responsibility – and, as we move towards NetZero, a legal obligation – to become more sustainable.

Your customers, suppliers, staff and stakeholders will expect this of you; it earns you the right to do business. It protects your reputation, permits you to operate in certain supply chains and may impact on your ability to raise investment capital.

Our industry is also facing increasing pressure due to climate change. The Met Office predicts that the record temperatures we’ve recently experienced in the UK during 2022 and 2023 are indicative of rising ambient temperatures. This will place new and existing refrigeration plant under even greater pressure to perform in the extreme temperatures ahead.

Our view is that innovative system design can help the refrigeration industry meet the challenges of energy saving and sustainability.

What part does innovation play in refrigeration system design?

We can’t just repeat the same designs we’ve always relied on and expect a different, better outcome. Innovation – new methods, ideas, products – is key to meeting our objectives.

We’re looking for a step-change, either from a radically new way of doing something or by combining a number of incremental changes so that by synergy the overall gain in efficiency is greater than the sum of the parts. This might be by taking advantage of more advanced component designs, improving the way software operates with hardware, or by gathering more data to enhance control and monitoring.

Innovation can be key to saving energy, offering ongoing cost-savings as well as lower lifetime costs. It can also give customers a competitive edge or a better experience.

Innovation doesn’t have to be ground-breaking to bring huge benefits for business owners, as Anthony Lomas, Ultra Refrigeration’s Operations Director, recalls. “One of our customers, an independent butcher, used to interrupt his family Christmas every year to go and double-check that the cold-rooms in his shop were working okay. We fitted a remote monitoring set-up for him that allowed him to check his system from home, and spend an uninterrupted Christmas with his family. A small innovation, but a game-changer for the butcher and his family.”

A holistic approach to refrigeration system design leads to innovation

Our approach to system design, for new systems or for upgrades, is to take a holistic approach. To consider all the heating and cooling requirements of an operation and ask, for an existing system, why things are done in a particular way. This is likely to show more opportunities for innovative ways of approaching the design.

We look at innovations from component manufacturers within our sector to see how they can be deployed in existing and new systems to bring efficiencies. We also look at developments from outside our industry – controls for instance – to explore new ways they can be employed in refrigeration.

It may not be as simple as fitting new components and expecting to achieve gains without changing anything else.  Take electronic Evaporator Pressure Regulators (EPRs) for example; these can mirror the operation of the old mechanical valves with some small gains in efficiency. However, the real art, and the source of the really significant gains, is in writing bespoke software and devising a control regime to get the best out of the new technology. This is where the marriage of old-fashioned refrigeration expertise and the newer skills of software design can bring the greatest gains.

These components are no longer ‘fit and forget’; they are now ‘fit and control’ for even greater benefit. We can now continuously and remotely monitor variables such as ambient temperature and liquid pressures to make dynamic changes which ensure all system components operate as efficiently as possible.

Looking at the operation as a whole also brings opportunities to allow other inputs to inform the refrigeration system design and operation. For example, if the refrigeration system knows that the building alarm system is set, it can assume that there will be no personnel within the building and therefore no cold-room doors will be opened. This means defrosts can be reduced and potentially the temperature of the product allowed to rise slightly without impairing its quality, leading to system efficiencies.

There may be some trial and error in setting up such systems, working with customers over a period to get the best out of the system and ensure that planned savings and efficiencies are being achieved.

In terms of energy efficiency, you’ll only know about the energy you’ve used (and saved) once you get the bill. This is why we recommend sub-metering to properly determine the ongoing energy usage of individual systems so that actual usage can be tracked against what was modelled.

Usage data can also pick up when a system is performing just below par, for whatever reason. This is important, not just for energy efficiency reasons, but also because whilst a sub-optimal system may perform adequately for most of the time, it has the potential to fail catastrophically on the hottest day of the year when it’s required to work at full load.

Knowledge of the problem allows planned rectification to be carried out before an emergency call-out is required.

Refrigerant choice impacts system efficiency

Gone are the days when you could simply specify the best refrigerant for the application in terms of system operation and energy efficiency. The legislation to limit the use of high GWP refrigerants has made the choice very difficult for system designers who are now required to balance the effects of system efficiency, against many other factors such as flammability, toxicity, availability, longevity, system pressures and leak prevention.

The transition period in our journey towards lower GWP refrigerants has already lasted 25 years, and it clearly has many more years to run. The difficulty this brings is the uncertainty that it creates for those that need to invest in refrigeration systems and those that design them. With the lifetime of plant being 25-30 years, the choice of refrigerant is critical; will it continue to be available, will its use still be permitted throughout the life of the equipment?

There is plenty to say about this subject and the way it impacts our ability to design the most efficient refrigeration systems. The regulations are still changing, as seen in the recent European F-Gas deal. We’ll cover this topic in more detail in subsequent blogs – watch this space.

Bespoke software delivers refrigeration system efficiency

Using well-proven BMS controls from RDM we’re able to take advantage of their new code-block feature which allows us to write custom programs in machine code, based on the specific components we use for each system. Because we’re not burdened with the PLC manufacturer’s standard codes and settings, we can open up new and innovative avenues, in valve control for example, allowing software and components to operate in perfect harmony. This helps us to achieve unparalleled precision in temperature control, which leads to improvements in overall system efficiency.

This ability is not unique to Ultra Refrigeration, but we believe there are few companies with both the refrigeration knowledge and the specific programming expertise to realise the full benefits this software and control can bring to system design.

Bringing innovative design to existing refrigeration systems

It’s probably true to say that most refrigeration systems currently in operation have already been designed, or enhanced, in an attempt to improve energy efficiency as far as possible. The quick gains, the low-hanging fruit, have therefore largely been realised.

That’s why it’s important to look for new marginal gains, and these are often found in the way the system is operated or the way it’s maintained, or by re-evaluating the system holistically.

For example, we installed a new system – cabinets, cold stores and plant – for Becketts Farm Shop in 2006, which we maintained in good condition until 2016. At that time the customer asked us if we could achieve energy savings, and was prepared to invest in new plant if required. However, we assessed that the existing plant had plenty of life in it, so we recommended updating the control system to provide efficiency gains. We were also able to reassess the heat requirements of the whole building and, by designing and installing a new heat recovery system, we were able to remove an existing air conditioning system and supply all his heating needs from the refrigeration system.

By rethinking the operation as a whole, we were able to reduce energy usage, deliver ongoing cost savings and offer a great return on investment.

Innovation – a leap of faith?

Innovation – doing things differently – almost always carries some element of risk. Some customers will not be ready to take that risk, or may seek to reduce the level of innovation to mitigate their fear of the unknown.

However, by choosing an experienced design team with a wide range of expertise and a track-record of delivering successful projects across different applications, open-minded customers can be confident that ‘fortune favours the brave’.

If you would like to discuss ways of improving the efficiency of your existing refrigeration equipment, or want to talk about a new project, please get in touch by emailing us today at or calling us on +44 (0) 330 2232404.

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