Refrigeration shouldn’t be ignored in energy drives, says CoilPod

We certainly aren’t alone in not having heard of CoilPod, but CEO Richard Fennelly reached out, following our article on New York’s Climate Mobilization Act last week – an initiative to slash the energy usage of the largest buildings in the city, which could pave the way for major smart grid investments. Fennelly said that he isn’t happy with how New York’s Climate Mobilization Act handled HVACR cooling equipment, saying that while HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning) is mentioned, the text should have mandated the addition of Refrigeration to the mix.

CoilPod is a company that sells a coil dust containment bag, which is essentially a hood that you place over the condenser coils at the back of your cooling appliance. The bag allows you to insert a wet or dry vacuum cleaner into it, and then blow out the dust and debris on the coils in a controlled manner – which allows the cleaning to be done regularly, as you don’t have to shut down a kitchen to avoid contamination or exposure, for instance.

So, on the face of it, a specialized $150 vacuuming hood doesn’t sound particularly interesting, until you see some of the figures that are being thrown around in the cooling industry. It is also nearly completely antithetical to what Riot usually writes about, in that it lacks an internet connection entirely, and isn’t throwing out data that could be crunched in a cloud application. However, if the numbers are accurate, then the likes of the Climate Mobilization Act could be missing the wood for the trees.

There will be other comparable functions in many other industries, where an IoT opportunity might be outperformed by something much more banal. Worker safety could be such an example, where better training or the hiring of an additional supervisor could outperform a bleeding-edge wearable and machine-vision platform, but we believe there will be a plethora of such functions across the main areas that Riot focuses on. Getting a bit of perspective is very handy.

The data the CoilPod bases its assertions on comes from a few areas. The first is a UK Carbon Trust project, which found that refrigerated display cabinets use around 5,800 GWh of electricity a year, which is more than a third of all electricity used for refrigeration in the food chain. This usage adds up to a £500mn costs per year, and the Carbon Trust estimated that a 21% saving could be made just through proper cleaning and maintenance – near enough a £100mn saving, if businesses started making use of companies like CoilPod.

The other main source that Fennelly pointed us to was a brief from the Kigali Cooling Efficiency Program (K-CEP), a collaborative project that is working with the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which aims to help developing countries transition to energy-efficient, climate-friendly, and affordable cooling systems. K-CEP is aiming for an 80% reduction in hydroflourocarbons (HFCs) over the next 30 years, equivalent to avoiding 0.4°C of global warming by 2100 apparently.

The Carbon Trust, the International Institute of Refrigeration (IIR), and the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), have worked with K-CEP on a ‘knowledge brief,’ which says that cooling accounts for around 7% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and around 17.2% of global electricity consumption.

K-CEP says that optimization, monitoring, and maintenance of cooling equipment could reduce total cooling greenhouse gas emissions by 13%, and could reduce electricity usage by 20% too. These become especially important if the projections for growth in air conditioners are accurate, which K-CEP says are expected to grow from 900mn units in 2015 to 2.5bn in 2050, as developing economies grow.

CoilPod itself has data that it gathered from a partnership between the Food Service Technology Center and the City of San Francisco Environment Department. Examining installed equipment, it was found that a six-year-old double-door merchandiser was using $1,325 in electricity per year, and only $700 after it was cleaned properly – an 89.3% saving. There were similar findings for a double door refrigerator (83.8%), a single door freezer (88.9%), and double-a glass-door refrigerator (100.5%).

CoilPod noted that these were very badly clogged units, and likely the worst-case scenario for wastage. To this end, when an additional six appliances were studied in a follow-up investigation (a total of ten appliances), the report found that coil cleaning provided an average of 17% energy savings. So, while the above percentages are certainly attention grabbing, the global average is a likely much closer to the 17% range than the high-eighties.

Nonetheless, that’s still a huge potential saving if implemented at scale, from something as mundane as cleaning behind these cooling appliances. To this end, CoilPod believes 80% of owners never perform coil cleaning, with the other 20% doing it too infrequently. Ideally, this is a monthly task, and the return-on-investment appears to be very quick to achieve.

Fennelly said that he doesn’t understand why the cooling part of HVACR has been overlooked to such an extent, noting that these units all have a shared Achilles’ heel – that the airflow needed over the coils to cool inherently introduces dirt. He adds that when these appliances were initially designed, no one realized that debris-laden air would cause such fouling over time.

Fennelly and CoilPod are in talks with some IoT companies, and in the various supply chain, retail, and food service industry markets, there’s a lot of opportunity to partner with a company that wants to provide sensor-based analytics for energy efficiency savings. For companies like CoilPod, it would be quite a trump-card to show that simply hoovering off the dust on a routine basis can provide better outcomes than the fanciest machine-learning analytics packages.

Given that there are an estimated 27mn commercial fridges in the US, and 165mn residential ones, which waste an estimated 1,250 KWh and 28 KWh per unit respectively each year, that’s 33,750,000,000 KWh and 46,200,000,000 KWh wasted each year – a total of 79,950,000,000 KWh, or 79.9 TWh. In 2016, the US used 4,090 TWh of electricity, meaning that this is nearly a 2% reduction in total electricity unit if you could clean up every dusty fridge. Add in the dirty air conditioning coils, and we might be up to around 5% – again, just from cleaning.

The IoT companies come into play by helping to identify these energy hogs. Fennelly believes that they might be the missing link that can jump-start the drive for predictive maintenance in the sector, as their sensor data and analytics platforms should be able to diagnose the big gaps between live performance and what is expected from the appliance’s data sheets.

Fennelly concludes that while refrigeration coils are hidden from view, and energy efficiency types don’t yet know about the significant waste that these coils account for, it will continue to be a missed opportunity. Given that cooling accounts for around 17% of global electricity demand, better cleaning and servicing might reduce global demand by 3.4% – cutting emissions by 550mn metric tons of carbon a year.