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Opinion: Smart technology can optimise energy efficiency
FoodBev Media

FoodBev Media

22 March 2023

Opinion: Smart technology can optimise energy efficiency


As the food and beverage sector relies on a number of energy-intensive processes, there are huge opportunities for businesses to transform their energy use. Shaun Evers, managing director of Stonegate Instruments, tells FoodBev how gas detection technology can help. There are many types of food and beverage facilities and while they may all be different, they have one thing in common – functional and efficient heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are a fundamental operational requirement. These systems are not only necessary to maintain employee health and comfort levels but are also essential to ensure air quality and the elimination of airborne pathogens, allergens, and other potentially harmful components. Unfortunately, HVAC systems are also one of the largest consumers of electricity, accounting for up to 40% of a facility’s energy usage. According to the Carbon Trust, most businesses can reduce their energy consumption by up to 15% by implementing a combination of energy-saving solutions. Although the food and drink sector relies on a lot of energy-intensive processes, there are several technologies available that have great potential for reducing consumption. One which applies specifically to HVAC systems is the installation of gas sensors, a smart technology which is invaluable in the quest to optimise energy efficiency. Harmful effects of gas leaks HVAC systems come with an inherent risk – they use R32 coolants which, despite their high efficacy and low Global Warming Potential, are composed of hazardous hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). Most systems leak refrigerant gases; according to the Carbon Trust, the average leakage rate in UK systems is around 20% per year. In a typical system, this loss would mean a reduction in efficiency of around 11%, as well as a direct increase in energy costs, an elevated carbon footprint and higher operating costs. In fact, it has been found that a small continuous leak in a 300kW system, left unrepaired for three months, could use an extra 10kW in electricity once the leak becomes critical. Considering the rapid rise in energy prices, this can quickly add up to several thousand pounds. Additionally, if coolant leaks from a system, it can rapidly evaporate into a lethal gas which can cause breathing difficulties, coughing, nausea and vomiting, skin and eye irritation and headaches. In severe cases, it can even result in asphyxiation. Gas leaks also raise a red flag for environmental issues. HFCs have a global warming potential over 3,000 times that of CO2 and as it gets released into the atmosphere, it causes ozone depletion and contributes to global warming. As such, an understanding of fluorinated gas (F-Gas) regulations is vital for anyone working with HVAC systems, especially considering that the refrigeration, air-conditioning and heat pump sector is the largest source of F-gas emissions due to refrigerant leakage.

Smart solutions to the rescue As refrigerant gas is both odourless and colourless – it is estimated that 60% of gas escapes before anyone notices – it can make detecting a leak challenging. While there are several things that can be done in the case of a suspected leak, nothing can replace the accuracy and efficiency of using specially designed technology for this task. Whether a leak results from mechanical damage, equipment failure or poor maintenance, a gas detection system can help prevent a minor incident from becoming a crisis. In fact, designers and manufacturers of electronic equipment for the refrigeration and HVAC industries have worked diligently over the past few years to improve the effectiveness of refrigerant, toxic and combustible gas sensors, with modern sensors boasting greater intelligence and capabilities to combat risks posed by toxic and non-toxic gases. Thanks to rapidly evolving technology, the latest generation of sensors and systems are smart, self-contained single fixed gas sensors which are particularly suited to detecting R32 gases associated with HVAC units. Many of these sensors have a proven return on investment of just two years, and that is without taking into consideration the cost of repairs to an existing faulty system. Sensor equipment with signalling alarms, LED lights that indicate the presence and status of each sensor, as well as audio/visual alarms to alert staff, are also available. These systems help ensure that leaks are quickly identified and repaired at the first opportunity. These technologies don’t just help with gas leaks, but also with the detrimental effects of poor temperature control. Smart thermometers and temperature displays enable the monitoring and optimisation of refrigeration systems so that they function at the optimal temperature for the specific items they store. Should any temperature anomalies occur, the system will alert staff so that spoilage can be prevented, with open-door alarms offering similar benefits. While the food and drink industry faces unprecedented rises in energy and raw material prices, it is also faced with the ongoing challenge to decarbonise its operations. Gas detection technology can help by not only protecting people and facilities from the dangers posed by exposure to refrigerant gases, but also by preventing damage to the environment and ensuring the efficient operation of equipment, directly translating into reduced energy and operating costs.

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