The Impact of Wireless Connectivity in Design
One of the industries set to benefit from the IoT revolution is commercial refrigeration.
Information technology has had a globalizing impact. We can communicate constantly, send data and information across international boundaries in an instant. We have the ability to instantly exchange goods and services with anyone and transport technological innovations to solve social and economic problems.
At the heart of the next stage in our technological evolution is the Internet of Things (IoT), a term which encompasses a wide-ranging ecosystem of everyday physical objects connected to the Internet. Fueling the IoT revolution, in part, is a combination of ubiquitous connectivity and sensors that allow almost anything to be connected. The IoT presents benefits to nearly every industry, especially for those organizations prepared to make the most of real time data made possible through these networked systems.
IoT technologies allow users to have real time sensing and wireless transmission of data to web-based applications, Internet-connected platforms and mobile devices. This allows for more precise monitoring and control of the systems that we rely upon on a daily basis. Restaurants, pharmaceutical companies, transportation organizations, storage warehouses as well as supermarkets and convenience stores all require the monitoring and reporting of environmental conditions. One of the industries set to benefit from the IoT revolution is commercial refrigeration.
Every year, about 48 million people, roughly one in six in the United States, get sick from eating contaminated food. Foodborne illness can be caused by a failure to properly cool food as well as foods being allowed to remain at bacteria incubation temperatures. Temperature control is essential, but has traditionally been done with simple thermometers and gauges, which only visually present current food temperatures at the equipment level. The problem is that an employee needs to record the temperatures on an ongoing basis, with tracking done primarily in a manual fashion, making it vulnerable to human error.
Whether due to power outages or equipment failures, temperatures that go out of range need to be identified and communicated immediate to facilities staff who are responsible for food safety. When developing refrigeration products for food retailers, it’s important to keep their drivers in mind:
- Increasing sales of perishables by keeping them at the right temperature while looking fresh and appealing
- Minimizing the possibility of food spoilage due to case temperature excursions
- Reducing food safety risks by keeping potentially hazardous products at the proper temperatures
- Increasing store personnel productivity by eliminating manual logging of temperature data
- Reducing service and maintenance costs by preventing unnecessary trips to the store by service contractors
- Reducing energy costs by providing information used to maintain display cases at the required set point.
The Role of Self-Powered, Wireless Technology
Retrofitting wired sensors is cumbersome, labor intensive and expensive. Furthermore, batteries can become a big issue in wireless sensors. Accurate battery life is difficult to assess and guarantee within the refrigeration environment. Exposure to low temperatures, humidity and condensation can affect battery life. The process and cost of replacing batteries in a supermarket is cumbersome and labor intensive.
Wireless, energy harvesting technology is low energy and has been optimized to utilize ever-present sources of harvestable energy to transmit and receive radio signals between wireless switches, sensors and controllers. Instead of batteries, miniaturized energy converters generate power for the wirelessly communicating devices. These features make energy harvesting wireless technology the ideal communication standard to easily and reliably interconnect thousands of individual devices in a system. When it comes to automating the processes for smart appliances reliant on accurate temperature monitoring, wireless, self-powered sensors play a critical role. Automatically triggered alarms and notifications provided through a secure point-to-point, wireless platform allows store personnel the ability to respond and resolve refrigeration problems in a timely and effective manner.
Wirelessly communicating sensing technology, referred to as “smart case controllers” have the ability to monitor a multitude of environmental conditions within a store environment. This includes the food cases themselves, measuring incoming refrigerant temperatures, outgoing exhaust temperatures, as well as temperatures inside the cooler itself. Humidity sensing is also an important factor. Refrigerated display cases are normally rated for a store environment of 24 degrees Celsius and a relative humidity of 55%. If the store can maintain a lower relative humidity, significant quantities of compressor energy, defrost energy and anti-condensation heater energy can be saved. Pressure sensing is also an important component, with pressure sensors residing at two primary locations in refrigeration systems. The first point is on the output side of the evaporator and the second point being on the discharge side of the compressor. In chillers, pressure sensors are used to control the pumps that distribute chilled water.
Smart case controllers can also come equipped with lighting control capabilities. LED lighting has become a good alternative for illuminating display cases. LEDs perform well in cold temperatures and LEDs are also easy to dim and can be dimmed more efficiently than fluorescents. LEDs can also be used more easily with motion sensors. Utilizing a wireless motion sensor in areas of display cases can help reduce the hours of lighting usage.
What About Energy Savings?
While real time monitoring and control is a vital advancement with respect to reducing food spoilage and reducing foodborne illness, the topic of reducing energy consumption is also a key factor. According to the US Environmental Agency, the retail industry spends $13 billion every year on energy. In grocery stores specifically, refrigeration accounts for 57% of electricity usage, followed by lighting at 23%. Because grocery stores’ profit margins are so thin, every dollar in energy savings is equivalent to increasing sales by $59. Most refrigerator and freezer sensing is monitoring the air temperature in the vicinity of the food and not necessarily on it.
Many grocery stores and food retailers have moved to adopt operating 24 hours a day. While great for consumers, this means that lighting and space conditioning is running overnight, even though traffic within the store could be sporadic. Utilizing occupancy sensors to dim or turn lights off in aisles can save significant energy. In certain stores, improving daylighting can help stores effectively utilize natural light instead of relying on artificial lighting only. Lighting control strategies alone can help save food retailers between 30 and 40 percent in energy savings.
Data, Data, Data
The collection of valuable data is only half the battle when it comes to optimizing refrigeration products for the food retail business. Of equal importance is the real time delivery of information including temperatures, humidity levels, pressure indicators, light levels and occupancy detection. This information can be wirelessly transmitted to an on-site or remote computer, or to any Internet-connected device, providing instantaneous alerts and reports for trend analysis, historical data files and documentation of corrective actions.
Facilities staff at grocery stores, for instance, can see real time temperature data and trending data in order to determine how long temperatures were out of range inside of the case coolers. This event not only helps to prevent foodborne illness and food spoilage, but can help maintenance staff to identify possible equipment issues and resolve them before the case itself fails completely.
Data driven by the interconnectedness of devices ultimately allows for better decision making, faster response times and the ability to communicate to the consumer. Both retailers and consumers are demanding easier access to information on how and where they food was manufactured, where ingredients came from and where the item ends up. This transparency could also include data on the safe transport and storage of perishable foods. The use of information technology and the advent of IoT gives manufacturers, producers, sellers and consumers the ability to accurately monitor goods from field to fork.
With the adoption of modern monitoring and information systems, businesses can both collect and manage enormous stores of data. More importantly, companies can utilize the data not only to meet traceability, compliance and consumer satisfaction, but also to drive real competitive advantages, profitability and growth. It’s this technology that will ensure the success of businesses in the refrigeration and food retailing industry and their ability to compete for years to come.