The basic design of refrigeration systems has not changed drastically over the past several decades. Engineers and other experts have developed time-tested, reliable solutions, and are therefore reluctant to incorporate untested new technology. While general design principles have remained in place, however, manufacturing advancements and updates to government regulations are ongoing and impact system design. Manufacturing advancements have allowed for greater efficiency and quieter operation at more affordable prices, and updated electronics technology has allowed for greater system control. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations have led to the adoption of newer, more environmentally friendly refrigerants. These areas of refrigeration system design are still evolving, and are the defining characteristics of cutting-edge systems.
Updated electronics technology improves control
System electronics are one of the aspects of refrigeration system design that has changed most drastically in recent years. As computer and electronics technology has advanced, the refrigeration system can be controlled more precisely and the system owner can easily monitor system operation from their computer or even from remote locations using the Internet.
In particular, variable speed technology has caught on in the field of refrigeration technology throughout the past decade, with engineers designing systems in which the speed of compressors, fans, and pumps can be varied. In doing so, system performance is matched directly to the customer’s needs in order to maximize efficiency. Programmable logic controllers (PLCs) can be used to control all of these various components. PLCs utilize sensor data to monitor operating conditions and use customizable programming to make decisions about how to self-adjust the system for peak performance.
With these and other technological updates, refrigeration systems, like many other industrial and commercial systems, are becoming “smarter.” In the process, they are improving in terms of ease of use, efficiency, and effectiveness for their specific application.
EPA refrigerant regulations drive design changes
In addition to updated electronics, refrigerants used within refrigeration systems have undergone major changes in the past several decades. These changes have largely come about because of updated EPA regulations. As regulations have required manufacturers to phase out some refrigerants and introduce others, engineers have needed to completely redesign refrigeration systems to keep up, since each refrigerant has unique characteristics that affect the system design.
Across the industry, product lines have been redesigned to adapt to new refrigerants: compressors, condensers, evaporators, and more have been overhauled in order to keep pace with the more environmentally friendly refrigerant alternatives required by the EPA. In some cases, entirely new products have been developed, where former product design was incompatible with current refrigerants. In both cases, redesigns require a great deal of input from all departments within a manufacturing
firm, from engineering and sales to IT and quality control and more.
The changes also affect manufacturing processes, of course. As new products are introduced into the manufacturing workflow, that workflow must adapt, which is often a time-consuming process. Additionally, the demand for quality control increases with the introduction of new products. Manufacturers must ensure that new products and manufacturing processes adhere to all relevant codes, they must routinely test for required pressure and capacity ratings, and they must select or design accessories that are compatible with new products.
While new refrigerants are ultimately highly beneficial, as they are more environmentally friendly than their outdated counterparts, they have introduced a great deal of complication into the design and manufacture of refrigeration systems. Refrigerant choice is not set in stone: manufacturers are developing new refrigerant formulations to keep up with customer demand and changing regulations. Manufacturers must try to stay ahead of the curve to balance the time investment necessary for each new refrigerant and the products that can handle it with the likelihood that the given refrigerant will remain useful for enough time to be worth that investment. Leading refrigeration system manufacturers are continually searching for the next, best refrigerant option.
Customer feedback driving design
Both system electronics and refrigerant design continue to evolve, and as they do, even more efficient, environmentally friendly, and user-friendly systems are introduced into the market. In addition, industry-leading refrigeration system manufacturers are working to expand their product offerings to fit more applications, deliver new product options for improved serviceability, and further increase system reliability.
Customer demand is driving refrigeration system design in new directions. Customers continually request higher efficiency to reduce the high energy costs of operation, as well as designs that improve sound reduction and monitoring capabilities. At the current leading edge of these concerns, manufacturers are collecting customer feedback about their specific applications and designing systems to meet their needs. Century Refrigeration is also reducing the sound levels in the company’s standard systems to the level of former low-sound options.
Finally, as described above, manufacturers across the industry are implementing improved monitoring using cutting-edge electronics, including Internet-connected systems that allow customers to check their refrigeration system from any location remotely. The goal of all these advances in electronics and manufacturing processes is to continue to make systems more appropriate for customer’s unique application, while reducing or maintaining the initial cost of the equipment.
Looking toward the future
Finally, in the realm of refrigerants, there is an ongoing industry debate regarding whether the future of refrigeration technology lies with synthetic refrigerants or with natural refrigerants such as propane, CO2, and ammonia. While industry opinions are split on the matter, current trends indicate that ammonia will likely continue to be used in very large equipment and synthetics will likely dominate the realm of smaller refrigeration systems.
In any case, no matter the refrigerants being used or the design changes being implemented, it is clear that the refrigeration industry is marching forward into the future. As this occurs, engineers are adapting refrigeration technology to customer demands for efficiency, low sound, serviceability, and easy maintenance and monitoring, all while improving the equipment’s environmental friendliness.
Today, major areas of growth in refrigeration technology are the formulation of new refrigerants and introduction of increasingly advanced computerized control technology.
In the future, other aspects of refrigeration system design may also change in order to meet customer needs.
John Jackson, Director of Product Design at Century Refrigeration (a division of RAE Corp.) in Pryor, Okla., is a refrigeration expert with over a decade of industry experience. With a degree in Mechanical Engineering Technology, he has worked for RAE Corp. throughout his career. www.raecorp.com
This article appeared in the March/April 2016 issue of Controlled Environments.