An Interview with Turner Piping & Refrigeration

Turner Piping & Refrigeration, headquartered in Rutland, was founded in 1911 as an electrical company (Turner Electric) and shifted to refrigeration in 1935. Owned by Kurt Matzke, the company now focuses on commercial and industrial refrigeration and serves Vermont and surrounding states. Its clients include supermarkets, wineries, ice cream processing plants, breweries, meat processing plants, and ice rinks.

Ali White, energy consultant at Efficiency Vermont, notes, “The folks at Turner Piping & Refrigeration have provided invaluable industry knowledge that has informed the design of our upcoming refrigerant leak repair program. Their expertise in leak identification and remediation in commercial and industrial refrigeration systems and their willingness to share that knowledge have helped Efficiency Vermont develop programs that are customer-centric, effective, and easy for contractors to participate in.”

We spoke with Sam Major, one of two lead technicians at the company.

How long have you been working at Turner?

I’ve been with the company for five years.

What’s a typical day like for you?

We are responsible for the refrigeration systems for a lot of the chain supermarkets in Vermont. In the morning, I pull up all the stores on my computer so I can check all the temperatures remotely. I dispatch techs to any service calls that have come in.

I’m also the construction foreman. In spring and fall, we do a lot of installations, for example, a change-out of a frozen food case or a beer case. In summer and winter, we’re usually doing maintenance at these grocery stores. We do just about anything that involves refrigeration in factories, supermarkets, and orchards.

Orchards?

Sure, the large-scale orchards are pulling more apples out than you can fathom. They have coolers for their apples, their pies, apple wine, hard cider. These are massive coolers you could fit a house in.

Your website notes that refrigeration accounts for more than half of a supermarket’s expenses every month. Is that just electricity, or are there other costs?

Electricity is the majority—the rack systems are huge energy users—plus the cost of refrigerants. In the supermarkets, many systems were built in the 1980s and 1990s. The refrigerants were 50 cents a pound back then; now they are $10–$20 a pound. Other costs include many pieces and parts, compressors, condensers, valves, and miles of pipe.

Another cost is losing product if refrigeration doesn’t work. EMS [energy management systems] controls have alarms on them. They send us an alarm if something is getting too warm. We need to respond within an hour or two. If there’s a serious problem, that’s potentially a lot of loss for the store.

Is the supermarket also monitoring the system?

No, not necessarily the employees themselves. It’s part of our contract to be monitoring it all the time. If we find a problem, we call the store and we send a technician. Sometimes there’s an employee at the store who knows enough about it that we can say, “Hey John, turn off this valve for us” so when we get there we can check things.

Tell us about your leak remediation program.

A little background: The Environmental Protection Agency established a GWP, or global warming potential, value. The higher the score, the bigger the risk to the environment. The GWP of traditional refrigerants (CFCs and HFCs) can be in the thousands or tens of thousands. But entirely phasing out the old refrigerants would require replacing lots of very expensive equipment. So instead the EPA came up with refrigerant management requirements. Supermarkets and other facilities now have to report what their leaks are and repair them if they exceed a certain level.

Traditional refrigerants have no smell, and they’re nontoxic, so no one gets sick. Say we started off with a new supermarket client with a high leak rate. We would come in with portable leak detectors, and it could take three or four days in a supermarket to check everything. The detectors are so sensitive, they can detect 60 different refrigerants, and as little as one part per million of refrigerant in the air. (We use Bacharach products; they pioneered leak detection at this sensitivity.) We go around, locate the leaks, and fix them. Then we install a constant monitoring system.

Leaks also have an energy aspect. All refrigerant works on pressure: At a certain pressure, that refrigerant is a certain temperature. If, because of leaks, you don’t have enough refrigerant running in your system, more energy is used by the compressor and so on. When the system is sealed, you have a full pressure charge and you use the compressor much less; thus the amp draw is kept down.

Our remediation program helps supermarkets be in compliance with these newer EPA rules, and save money on refrigerants, and save energy as well.

What causes leaks?

Leaks happen for different reasons. Sometimes copper pipes just crack. Vibration can cause cracks. There’s other pieces and parts that are brazed on to the pipes. There’s vibration going on with pressure moving in the pipes, and that can cause things to become loose. Some new systems are all molded for that reason. But then if something goes wrong you can’t repair them; you have to trash the whole thing.

You mentioned copper pipes. Is that still the standard?

Copper is standard in all refrigeration involving HFCs [hydrofluorocarbons] and your standard refrigerants, but the refrigeration industry is moving away from these.

Ammonia, CO2, and propane are the three “natural refrigerants” everyone is moving to now. They do use welded black pipe that is thicker. That’s because different refrigerants operate at different PSIs.

Are natural refrigerants safer?

Safer for the ozone, but they can be more dangerous for the technicians working on the system. Ammonia is toxic. CO2 operates at high pressures. And propane is flammable! But just like anything else, if you know what you’re doing and you’re careful, you will be OK.

How much of your work is education of your clients?

We educate the end-users on proper maintenance schedules for their equipment but don’t necessarily educate them about the refrigeration cycle. Understanding the systems is our responsibility. But we educate the people we have on staff.

How so?

In Vermont, there’s not much specific refrigeration education or training. There’s training for plumbing, electrical, and a little HVAC, and if you combine all three trades at once—that’s refrigeration. We have to do a lot more apprenticeships than some other kinds of companies do. Sometimes we wish we could hire journeymen. On the other hand, we like to train people ourselves in our best practices.

Can you give an example of a best practice?

On the installation side, when we’re making these braze joints (most people would call them “welds”), oxygen is oxidizing and can get soot in the pipe. So while we are brazing, we purge with nitrogen to displace oxygen in the pipes preventing any oxidization. So soot won’t clog up the compressors, or the valves, or the sensors later on. If we teach our guys to use nitrogen every time, it’ll become second nature to them.

Turner Piping has helped Efficiency Vermont as a leader in the field. How does being a member of the Efficiency Excellence Network help Turner?

We are just starting to get new customers through the EEN. It’s helpful that new stores know they can trust us because Efficiency Vermont has been giving us the seal of approval, saying, “These folks are using the best practices.” We are a little costlier than others, and this tells customers we are worth the extra cost. Efficiency Vermont being behind us has helped.

Where do you think Turner is going in the future?

The industry keeps changing. It was mechanical, now it’s computer controls. It is transforming from using 404A refrigerants to using natural refrigerants. But in terms of the kinds of work—we are doing everything we want to do right now.

Interested in becoming a part of Efficiency Vermont’s Efficiency Excellence Network?

Making Vermont more energy efficient is a collaborative effort and would not be possible without a strong network of independent contractors. In 2014, Efficiency Vermont created the Efficiency Excellence Network in order to better support and encourage Vermont contractors to provide energy-efficient solutions in the field. There are currently over 600 members in the Efficiency Excellent Network, including Turner Piping & Refrigeration of Rutland, Vermont.

Learn more.

Sign Up for The Link, our trade ally newsletter