By Benjamin Brits
As the market’s needs change, so do the products – from system improvements to aesthetics. Bigger is better but trends are indicating a shift towards smaller footprints in future.
As the world generally seeks out better efficiencies, and the drive for energy-savings becomes more pressing – particularly for South Africa through continually rising costs – refrigerated cabinets and islands can play a major role in cost-reduction, even more so with the latest advancements.
Any competitors in this space may state that their products are better, colder or more efficient than others, but these days there is much more to it than that. Factors that play a role in a store or supply chain successfully implementing energy-saving solutions include things like geographical area, facility layouts, type of clientele and LSM, product offering and refrigeration setup.
Standalone and multiplex systems are different solutions and fulfil different needs. There are a number of standard geometric sizes available in different lengths and depths, as well as custom products available too. Generally speaking, cabinets and islands are divided into categories: freezers, uprights and service cabinets, and most food retail stores split this mix depending on their particular needs.
Remote cabinets may offer a better visual display area, where self-contained units cannot accommodate glass [visual area] all the way down the sides of the unit due to the nature of their construction. Remotes typically also have a bigger volumetric capacity but are not suitable for all products. Islands can accommodate more customers at a time where uprights have a much smaller footprint for smaller stores.
In some instances, closed top island freezers are ideal and sometimes it is still better to install an open top volumetric with better display area for certain items such as crustaceans for example – strategy really depends on retailer to retailer as they have their own ideas and vision in catering to their own market, which too is vast.
The many variables in cabinets and islands can make for quite a complex solution in the end for the customer, and what their particular configurations should be. Many customers also want a unique solution and so suppliers have to be very flexible to ensure that their mix of product ranges are available and that their product’s ‘look and feel’ also caters to the customer’s requirements.
Challenges for the South African market
“The mentality on price relates purely to the capital costs but then what is not considered are operational costs like electricity consumption. The return on investment (ROI) calculations that companies perform, don’t necessarily look at these factors in their research. So, for the team responsible for capex – ROI projections look great up front but unfortunately what we then see is that the minimum (cheapest) capex is approved and operational costs are not factored in because this forms part of a different category in the company’s budget”, says Sebastian Hills, sales and marketing manager at Staycold International.
The refrigeration sector is subject to many ‘invisible costs’. Capex is just one element and what is subsequently purchased may have some simple functions or some more complicated setups, all of which contribute to the overall operation of a refrigeration system. Each type of fridge is also different and can either save in the long terms or cost in the long term. As a simple example, you could save R3 000 on capex but then lose R3 000 a year on operation inefficiencies. “Unless you are planning to replace your fridges every year, there must be consideration of the whole deal, long term,” adds Hills.
Efficiency also translates by the changeover to the ‘green elements’ of refrigeration, including the type of refrigerant used (is it a hydrocarbon (natural refrigerants) or hydrofluorocarbon?), and the type of insulation material also links to overall efficiency. The insulation materials could come with different properties, for example water- or chemical-based, and offer different temperature tolerances based on the requirements.
David Kotsiros, managing director at Frigrite Africa says, “The world is obviously looking at greener products that include refrigerants like CO2 and R290 within self-contained units, so although component-efficiency is under the spotlight, the green aspects are also very important. Now, a challenge in South Africa in this regard is that there are not many companies that are able to do CO2 installations. Although this refrigerant has been around for some time in Europe, there is a serious push for it in South Africa, and the rest of the world is quickly getting on par. On the R290 side (Propane), as a good natural gas, it is also a flammable gas, so a lot of companies are hesitant and don’t particularly want to work with it. Our company has fortunately been working with R290 for more than a year, so we have been able to implement the use of this refrigerant in our products, and have also seen what trends and challenges have emerged with it.”
Doors and tops are currently king
For both cabinets and islands a major new element in efficiency, and where a lot of work is being implemented, is of course the addition of doors or tops – a new trend in many food retail stores over recent months.
“The irony, for me personally, with cabinet doors is that in past years the markets drove industry designs specifically in upright cabinets to negate the need for doors, and now trends are moving back to doors being a major part of the solution. Naturally, this option has its positives and negatives. Doors and tops tend to be a bit restrictive to the customer and also relies on customer behaviour – such as if customers close the doors properly after retrieving their goods – to maintain efficiency. Time will tell if companies continue to find value in this solution, of if they will seek other alternatives if maintenance or replacements become an issue, but currently the positives far outweigh the negatives,” adds Kotsiros.
Closure of cabinets and islands can be achieved through multiple ways from PVC sheeting or strip curtains, to various types of plastic such as polypropylene or acrylic, and glass – all depending on the application and temperature span required. Some materials are lightweight, while others have been developed to reflect harmful rays, and still others are able to be installed without any frames and are crack and shatter resistant.
The addition of doors or tops to cabinets and islands has revealed up to a 40% saving in energy consumption to-date. If you talk to a bigger retailer you will find that up to 50% of their costs are allocated to electricity consumption, and further, a major part of that figure is allocated to refrigeration.
“Generally, retailers rely on very small margins to remain competitive, so if their refrigeration setup and maintenance is not up to scratch, it’s basically eating away at their profits. Saving even 1% on their refrigeration costs is a significant solution in their world,” notes Hills.
Customers are typically offered the option of including doors or not, and further considerations are the cost savings in electricity consumption versus the cost of the doors themselves, the installation costs and future maintenance costs. “All in all, these decisions around payback or ROI are always a tough subject to get into, but at the end of the day each client’s needs must be evaluated independently to ensure the most cost-effective solution is on the table. It’s the same situation when you consider solar electricity and the upfront capital outlay and maintenance, and then considering what your saving is against what you would have paid with a conventional electricity connection,” adds Kotsiros.