September 18, 2017 by IDW

On Mach 27, 2017 the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) popular Energy Star program released updated efficiency standards, known as Energy Star 4.0.  The release of these updated standards was timed to be enacted simultaneously with the regulatory changes being put forth by the Department of Energy (DOE), which also outlined new standards of efficiency.  The regulations put forth by the DOE were also significant in that they also phased out the manufacture of refrigeration equipment utilizing refrigerants with a high global warming potential (GWP) and ozone depletion potential (ODP).  These two regulatory changes, both released on March 27, 2017, have had an enormous impact on the commercial refrigeration industry.  In this article, we’ll discuss some of the challenges that the Energy Star 4.0 updated regulations have created for commercial refrigeration manufacturers.  In doing so, we’ll look at how refrigeration manufacturers are meeting these challenges with new innovations in technology, and what those innovations mean for consumers.

The primary constraint that the DOE regulatory changes and Energy Star certification placed on refrigeration manufacturers was to drastically increase the efficiency of refrigeration models produced after March 27, 2017.  Of the two, the requirements to have new refrigeration equipment certified as Energy Star compliant were more stringent.  Energy Star guidelines built on the DOE regulations, but took them a step further, requiring manufactures who wanted the coveted Energy Star certification to meet best-in-class standards for efficiency.  Compared to conventional commercial refrigeration units, i.e. units produced prior to the March 27th regulatory changes, Energy Star 4.0 compliant models would result in efficiency increases anywhere from 17-40%.  This wide range depended upon the type of refrigeration unit, whether it was a stand-in refrigerator or smaller beverage unit.

To meet these drastic changes in efficiency, commercial refrigeration manufacturers had to make significant changes to design.  Foremost among these changes was a move toward different refrigerants that could operate more efficiently.  Not only did these refrigerants need to operate more efficiently, but they also had to have a lower GWP and ODP, as both government agencies sought to curtail the emission of greenhouse gasses.  To accomplish this, many commercial refrigeration manufacturers began to incorporate more natural, “green” refrigerants.  Among the potential options, hydrocarbons (HC’s) have become the refrigerant of choice among commercial refrigeration manufacturers.

HC’s have a long history of use as refrigerants both in the United States and abroad.  Their first use was in the late 19th century, and they were used in specific applications until chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s) became popular in the early 20th century.  After the passing of the Montreal Protocol in 1989, CFC’s became heavily regulated and phased out due to their negative impact on the ozone layer.  Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFC’s) replaced these, and were used for many years, until those too have begun to be phased out.  While HCFC refrigerant based units are still in use today, the importing of new HCFC based commercial refrigeration units into the United States has been regulated.  Now, commercial refrigeration manufacturers are seeing the potential of HC’s to not only replace HCFC based systems, but to surpass them by a large margin in terms of both increased efficiency and reduced environmental impact.

Although HCFC refrigerants are still in use in the developing world and many countries to this day, their use is being phased out steadily around the world.  HC based systems on the other hand are seeing a surge in research, development, and use.  In the past, HC based systems were surpassed by CFC’s due to their inherent flammability.  HC’s like propane and isobutane, make excellent refrigerants that operate extremely efficiently, however they are flammable.  Technological advances in commercial refrigeration design have mitigated the danger that these refrigerants pose, while also increasing the efficiency with which act as refrigerants.

Meeting Energy Star 4.0 guidelines for compliance requires having a commercial refrigeration unit, whether single door, double door, countertop, etc. that is continually operating at efficiency levels that were unimaginable a few decades ago.  The EPA estimates that if every refrigeration unit in the country were Energy Star 4.0 compliant, it would reduce energy costs by around $235 million dollars annually.  This is an average annual cost savings of $40-$100 dollars per unit, depending on the specific type of unit.   Additionally, approximately 5 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions would be eliminated.  From these numbers, one can see that the new Energy Star 4.0 guidelines are indeed quite stringent, but by meeting these guidelines both the end-user and the environment will benefit significantly.  While the Energy Star 4.0 guidelines have forced manufacturers to seek out innovative ways to meet new guidelines, and the DOE regulations have necessitated rethinking commercial refrigeration design from the ground up, the benefits of these regulatory changes are immense for nearly everyone involved.