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How to make the most sustainable use of your air curtain refrigeration

What is air curtain refrigeration?

An air curtain refrigerator, also known as an open-air merchandiser, is designed to deliver a steady stream of cold forced air running from bottom to the top of a refrigerator’s front surface. The refrigerator does not have a door installed, instead it features an open front with the cold air stream acting as a curtain to keep products inside cold and warm air out.  For retailers, this means customers have a full view of products and allows them to easily reach into the cabinet and choose their favourite food or drink.

Air curtain refrigeration has been in place for decades as a very popular grab-and-go solution for food and drink retailers. Nevertheless, there are concerns about their low level of sustainability, energy costs and environmental impact.

In France this has even led to an official agreement between large food distributors and the Ecology Ministry, pledging that by 2020, 75% of air curtain cabinets will be replaced with units with doors.

As a result of such initiatives and pressure from environmental and consumer groups, it is likely other countries will shadow France’s approach. EU countries may even begin to legislate against the use of air curtain refrigeration as has been done with older, synthetic refrigerants with high global warming potential if released into the atmosphere.

What makes an air curtain refrigerator less sustainable?

Because air curtain refrigerators use cool air to insulate against warmer, ambient temperatures, they are much less efficient than, for example, a glass door refrigerator.

To work properly, air curtain refrigerators constantly have to push cool air through the unit to ensure temperatures are maintained. By doing so they are always working at high capacity, even during off-peak hours or if the unit is fully-stocked. Operators also need to be selective about where their air curtain unit is installed. Installations near entry doors, in high humidity areas, in direct sunlight or near an air conditioning vents are all conditions which negatively-affect the cabinet’s ability to maintain temperature. This, of course, also entails higher energy consumption.

Air curtain units that are installed and maintained properly, along with the use of hydrocarbon or natural refrigerants, can reduce the amount of energy consumed during operation. However, average energy use still tends to be much higher compared to refrigerator designs with doors installed.

What are the alternatives to air curtain refrigeration?

Any solution that puts a solid barrier between cooled products and warmer ambient temperatures will provide more sustainable and efficient cooling than current air curtain designs.

As the majority of air curtain refrigerators are designed with clear product display in mind, allowing customers to easily see and choose products using glass door visual merchandisers are the best alternative. A well-designed glass door refrigerator will allow the unit to reach the required temperature quickly, reduce energy consumption when not in use and still allow for outstanding product visibility and easy access for customers.

Most manufacturers, including True, offer choices of either sliding or outward-opening swing doors. Sliding doors offer more flexibility in retail space where space is limited, especially in areas facing the door opening but can make it tricky for multiple customers to access product out of the unit at the same time. Swing doors are a great option for more accessibility, especially if there is more free space available at the front of units. Swing door refrigerators are also available in a single door version which integrate nicely into smaller outlets or displays.

As a result of our close relationship with retail chains, True has anticipated the changing requirements of the marketplace to develop a number of solutions that use innovative new technologies, maintain product visibility with proper temperatures inside the cabinet to reduce overall operational energy costs. Everyone wins as a result—retailers, their customers and our planet’s environment too.

One example is the development of bi-fold doors. Clear plexi-glass doors combine the space-saving advantage of traditional slide doors with ease of access. This enables customers to see the entire product offering, allowing them to grab what they need, pay and be quickly on their way.

True has also developed display units that run on R290 refrigerant. R290 is a much more sustainable, natural refrigerant than older, more costly synthetic refrigerants which are due to be phased out in the next couple of years. In addition to significant energy savings, on average the cabinet cools down more quickly and the compressor remains cleaner, dust-free which means less frequent preventative maintenance or service calls.

I have an older air curtain refrigerator, what should I do?

If you have older air curtain refrigeration as part of your operations, now is a good time to start considering alternatives and making plans for replacing your unit when its operation becomes less economically-feasible. New designs with natural refrigerants and plexi-glass doors go a long way towards lowering energy costs.

If, however, replacement is unlikely in the near future, make sure your equipment is properly-maintained and follow the manufacturer’s installation and operation guidelines to keep is it operating in peak condition.

Another alternative is phasing out your air curtain refrigeration and replacing with a sustainable glass door, forced air upright. An example is True’s visual merchandisers which are brightly-illuminated, allow full visibility  of product inside and use a fraction of the energy as air curtain units. The upfront investment for new equipment is always a cost, however you will see tremendous savings in energy consumption which accumulate over the lifespan of the refrigerator.

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Remember to dispose of any old refrigeration equipment safely using a professional service company, as coolant gas can be hazardous to the environment if not properly recycled.

How can True help?

As pioneers of commercial refrigeration equipment, True has developed new and innovative display solutions that showcase products and make it easy for customers to make their selections. You can be confident from the start that with True refrigeration, your products will stay fresh, cool and look amazing. Take a look at our display solutions or contact us for more information.

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