Beyond Refrigeration Energy Efficiency: Trends in Insulation Sustainability
At its core, insulation is all about energy management and efficiency.
Every industry is wrestling with sustainability and how best to ensure the products being produced are leaving the smallest footprint on the Earth while still meeting customer needs. The refrigeration market is no exception, so industry players must work collaboratively to ensure the right mix of initiatives are being used.
Part of the challenge is that regulatory organizations, manufacturers, suppliers and then consumers define sustainability in different ways. For some in the refrigeration market, the focus is energy efficiency; for others, it’s environmental impact; while some think most about the content makeup and disposal to ensure recyclability.
Nonetheless, what is important is that the refrigeration industry is walking in the same direction—just taking different paths to the final destination. My team and I are conscious of the fact that the refrigerator is an electricity guzzler. It can use as much as 30 percent of total household electricity, according to polyurethane.org, so its energy efficiency is crucial to reduce costs. And according to U.S. Cooler, the operating costs of a commercial walk-in cooler and freezer can be as high as $435 per month.
Members of the industry are continuing to dedicate time helping prevent further environmental damage and finding ways for insulation solutions—both commercial and residential—to protect our environment and do so in a cost effective and easy way for customers.
At its core, insulation is all about energy management and efficiency. Proper insulation in a refrigerator ensures that outside elements do not affect the cooling potential of the unit and that the cool air circulating inside doesn’t seep out and reduces efficiency. Without high performing insulation, the refrigerator’s compressor works on overdrive to supply enough energy to chill both the fridge and freezer, skyrocketing a homeowner or business’ energy bill.
Polyurethane foam is today’s top choice for insulating material because it has excellent properties but doesn’t require much space to do its job.
Benefits of Polyurethane Foam Insulation
Rigid polyurethane foam is the most commonly used insulation material for refrigerators and freezers around the world.
It is one of the best options because it provides the best value. It offers significant insulation capabilities, contributing to the overall energy efficiency, yet in a cost effective manner. Plus, the rigid polyurethane foam is easy to process in a production facility. Essentially, the material flows well allowing for increased automation and minimal manual labor at the plants. Together, these benefits make the perfect solution for manufacturers.
But more so, the end customers, both in the commercial and domestic space, are continually demanding increased space and storage capacity in their refrigerators. Other options such as cellulose and fiber glass are significantly thicker and therefore not viable options. By using polyurethane, today’s manufacturers can meet the Federal Standards for Energy Efficiency while increasing the amount of storage space in the system.
Insulating the Entire “Cold Chain”
It’s not just the fridges in our homes or grocery stores that we’re talking about. There is an entire “cold chain” required to keep the food and the food industry serving up what today’s consumers want. It’s an entire “farm to table” approach.
When the food leaves the farm, it’s transported in a refrigerated truck, which uses polyurethane insulation. After arriving at the grocery story, polyurethane insulation keeps the food fresh in walk-in coolers. Next, it travels home where the food that nourishes our family and friends is in their own polyurethane insulated refrigerator. And if you take the food to a tailgate or family gathering in a cooler, that is also insulated with—you guessed it—polyurethane insulation.
In fact, according to polyurethane.org, without polyurethane insulated refrigeration, approximately 50 percent of the world’s food would rot, affecting not only daily life for many of us but also the food industry. This is partly due to the fact that polyurethane foam is the best solution on the market today but as it stands, without sufficient insulation, the refrigerator cannot do its job.
Energy Star Ratings Drive Sales
Many refrigeration manufacturers strive to go above and beyond the Federal Standards for Energy Efficiency. This was partly driven by the U.S. Environmental Protect Agency’s ENERGY STAR rating.
Launched in 1992, the program was created to help businesses and individuals save money and protect the environment through the use of superior energy efficient products. The ENERGY STAR visual displays the technical information and tools on each product so consumers and organizations can fully understand the energy efficient benefits inherent in any product.
And, the program was a success. The EPA built up a lot of momentum through its marketing efforts and the rating has become widely renowned and sought out by the end consumer—those who are seeking to cut their energy bills.
According to energystar.gov, ENERGY STAR certified refrigerators are about 9 to 10 percent more energy efficient than those that meet the federal minimum standards. But energy efficiency is just one component of sustainability.
Reducing the Footprint of Refrigeration
Environmental impact of the material is another angle that refrigeration manufacturers must consider. This takes into consideration not only the way the insulating materials are produced but also how they are applied.
As part of the Clean Air Act, the EPA outlined the Significant New Alternatives Policy, which mandates that if there is a more environmentally friendly option available, material substitutions must be made. A key component of this is the hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) blowing agent phase out scheduled for 2020. This is impacting the refrigeration industry, as suppliers and manufacturers collaborate to determine areas of opportunity and next steps.
It’s about being a step ahead of what the market needs. The manufacturers are looking at how to meet the environmental regulations without sacrificing the performance of the insulation.
Companies have started to offer polyurethane foam formulations that are free of HFCs in addition to having zero ozone depletion potential and ultra-low global warming potential and manufacturers are experimenting with their available options.
Industry Tools Available
As insulation sustainability becomes an even greater priority, it’s important that measurement of these initiatives become a key part of the equation. The manufacturer needs to understand what the end benefit will be to the customer as well as the environment and what the potential cost trade off will be, depending on their material choice.
There are some eco-efficiency analysis tools to help with this process. They evaluate the manufacturers’ opportunity at hand, measure a variety of potential solutions and determine the most eco-efficient solution based on the cost, environmental impact of production, energy usage needed, useful life of the product, and disposal of the material.
It’s a true cradle to grave approach.
Insulation is a key component in the refrigeration industry; it keeps our food fresh, which helps sustain us. However, insulation can play a role in making our planet healthier, too. Insulation suppliers have provided significant improvements in a refrigerator’s energy efficiency, and the entire cold chain. As we look to the future, we’re going to tackle the environmental impact and our carbon footprints.