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The final link in the cold chain: often taken for granted, the walk-in cooler has changed with the times both technologically and in its function within the supermarket. (Equipment & Design).

Supermarket executives don't often think about their store's walk-in refrigeration until something goes wrong with it. Then, suddenly, the malfunctioning chilled box becomes the epicenter of the store manager's or company engineer's entire world. Fix it, or a huge amount of inventory is at risk.

Fortunately, walk-in coolers and freezers are among the most reliable mechanical devices in the supermarket and don't break down very often. However, the threat of being even temporarily without large-scale refrigeration facilities does underscore the importance of these units to the supermarket. In its most simple configuration, a walk-in cooler is little more than a room constructed of walls or panels filled with a foam refrigerant and an airtight door. In recent years, the form and function of this simple little cold room has changed in ways that have made it an even more integral part of the store.

Traditionally, the supermarket would have one large walk-in cooler hidden at the back of the store that was used to store the milk and other dairy products. This unit would also contain produce, deli, bakery and even seafood products. Anything that needed cold storage would likely end up in the central walk-in cooler. In addition, another cooler might be located near the meat backroom and a walk-in freezer would hold excess frozen food. Now, stores are more likely to have a storage configuration that breaks up the extra inventory and places it nearer its final display or usage departments.

"With the problem of labor becoming more acute, the last thing a retailer wants is an employee having to go clear across the store to retrieve chilled products, often leaving the department unmanned in the process," says Edward Albertson, president of Los Angeles-based Resource Partners Inc. "Especially with backroom space being as tight as it is becoming in today's supermarkets, the ability to locate walk-in coolers near the deli, produce, dairy or meat sections makes both the store layout and the labor utilization all the more efficient."

As perishable sections become more of a focus at supermarkets, the need for walk-in refrigeration will undoubtedly continue to increase. Produce departments have come to rely on packaged salads and pre-cut products. Having the ingredients necessary to produce prepared foods or baked goods closer to the kitchen, deli or bakery means that the personnel in those production departments will be able to do more with their allotted man-hours. Furthermore, prepared products made in the deli can be kept there until they are needed to refill the case. Chances are, if an employee has to go across the store to get product to refill the case, it will not be refreshed as often.

Part of the rationale for incorporating department-dedicated coolers around the store is that the walk-in refrigeration unit is not necessarily just for storage anymore. More operators have been utilizing walk-ins as merchandising units.

"A lot of retailers are putting glass doors on the walk-ins and using them for display," says Todd Ellinger, director of marketing for Fort Wayne, Ind.-based Polar King International Inc. "We're seeing this a lot in the dairy section, where stores are using glass-door units and gravity racks to merchandise milk and other dairy products. They will use the front of the walk-in as a merchandising case, and use the back for storage."

According to Ellinger, supermarkets are not the only retail outlets to make use of these glass-door walk-ins as display units. Convenience stores are actually leading the way as innovators of walk-in merchandising. Warehouse clubs, such as Costco, have also made extensive use of walk-in coolers and freezers as display/storage cases in their dairy and frozen food sections.

Aside from the dairy case, walk-in coolers have become specialized marketing sites in some stores. Whether used as a "beer cave" or a "land of cheese," walk-ins have been transformed into chilled, specialized merchandising shops within the larger supermarket. "These sections are a fun way to transform a cheese department or a seafood section into something special that draws traffic," says Albertson.


Even though there is a movement to put smaller units in various places throughout the store, this trend doesn't mean that the concept of the large, central storage walk-in cooler is dead. On the contrary, central walk-ins are getting larger, even as smaller secondary units are being scattered around the store.

"One of the things that we've noticed is that the size or the capacity of the walk-in has increased," says Ellinger. "Retailers are looking to increase the overall dimension of the walk-in. The physical size of the building is often a constraint, but what many retailers are looking for are walk-ins with more height. They want to he able to go up to 14 feet, so that they can stack two pallets on top of each other in the walk-in."

The need for the high walk-ins reflects the reality that space inside the store is limited by both the size of the store and cost restraints, Instead of increasing the walk-in cooler's square footage, it is more effective to use more of the volume capacity by growing the cooler up instead of out. Of course, this vertical growth also presupposes an accompanying growth in square footage, because the cooler must now be wide enough to allow for the easy use of lift trucks inside it to raise those pallets up to the second tier.

Polar King offers a unique approach to the problem of using valuable store square footage for coolers. The company puts its coolers outside of the store, attached to a back or side wall, with a door cut into the wall to allow access into the cooler from inside the store. This design benefits the store in at least two ways. The cooler can now be as wide as necessary in terms of square footage, without taking the space away from the production, storage or sales area of the store. The beauty of the concept is that parking lot footage is usually a lot less expensive than space inside the building.

Another benefit of the outside walk-in is that it can bring walk-in storage and glass-door merchandising to any area of the store that is adjacent to an outside wall, even if there is no back-room space in that area, Want to put a milk or freezer case halfway clown the left side of the supermarket? Just cut a hole in the wall and place the cooler directly outside the store.

Polar King has recently begun using a new type of architectural fiberglass in the construction of the units that it offers as another option for retailers. The company can match the unit's walls with a finish that will blend into the outside of the building, whether it be a brick, tile, stucco or concrete finish.

A disadvantage of Polar King's exterior coolers is that they do not accommodate the double-stacked pallets. Polar King's coolers are made with custom-sized walls, not panel sections. The coolers are shipped as whole units. This process saves assembly time and expense at the store, but also limits the height of the cooler because of the inability to move a 14-foot cooler over the road.

Another pre-assembled walk-in unit that is designed for outside use is the Express line by Parsons, Tenn.-based Kolpak, a division of the Manitowoc Co. The advantage of pre-assembled coolers is that they can be slipped right off the truck onto some kind of platform or foundation, hooked up to a power source and immediately begin working.


By far the biggest changes in walk-in coolers and freezers have been in the blowing agents used to fill the panels and walls with refrigerant. As the world has gotten more environmentally conscious during the past decade, walk-in manufacturers, along with suppliers of other types of refrigeration and air conditioning, have had to modify the refrigerants they use. Until recently, the most popular refrigerant for walk-in coolers has been R141. As a result of an international agreement on refrigerant use, known as the Montreal Protocol, all production of R141 ceased on January 1. While walk-in manufacturers can continue to use up any R141 they have stockpiled, no new R141 is available. This situation means that most manufacturers have to begin the process of changing refrigerants, even though many already started switching to other refrigerants over the last few years.

"The biggest change in walk-ins is that people have switched their foams," says Dennis Parle, national sales manager for Plymouth, Minn.-based CrownTonka Walk-Ins. "They've had to go from R141s to the R22s or R134s for their blowing agents. We [CrownTonka] didn't have to change because we've been on an R22 system from the beginning. We did have to change the mixture to a new generation of R22. We have already completed all our testing, so we're way ahead of the curve on this.

"The R22 that we now have is really a drop in for the R134. The use of R22 is good until 2010 under the Montreal Protocol. When we get to 2010, R134 should be much cheaper than it is today, so we'll all be able to use that. It's available right now, but it's very expensive [because it is only currently available in small supply]."

A big consideration with switching foams is researching the testing and credentials that the manufacturers received before fully adopting the new blowing agents into their products, says Pane. This screening process is particularly problematic when one takes into account all the state and local fire codes. Many local codes require a UL or FM4880 certification. Even products that already have the FM4880 certification need to be re-certified when they change foams. CrownTonka's panels have the FM4880 certification.

"There's two ways to do the tests," says Parle. "There's the core test that the foam people conduct and there's the assembled test. Under the new rulings that are being adopted by states under the International Building Code for foam/plastic, if the manufacturer has the FM4880 certification, the retailer doesn't have to put sprinklers in the walk-in, unless something particularly flammable is being stored there. In the past, anything over 400 square feet had to have sprinklers. So, there's a potential savings for the supermarkets."

Another stumbling block for manufacturers when it comes to changing foams is that they also must redo all the structural tests. The walk-in walls or panels have to be tested again for strength, stress, wind shear, snow loads and other hazards.

Traditionally, CrownTonka has produced wood-framed panels for its walk-ins, which continue to be the core of its business. However, the company has begun producing a high-density rail panel, from which it constructs an all-foam box. Pane says the company is responding to requests from environmentally minded retailers. The new high-density rail panels are more durable than the soft-nosed box with no framing. The new panels are now being produced in all three of CrownTonka's plants.
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Author:Litwak, David
Publication:Grocery Headquarters
Date:Jul 1, 2003
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