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Industrial food sector tips: Food and beverage energy efficiencies

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Energy sustainability not only saves money; it promotes food quality

Food production is a tricky industry: cooking must be hot enough, frozen items must stay frozen, and refrigerated product can't get too warm or too cold.

It all requires plenty of energy, and creates significant room for energy savings. But saving money is only one reason to tackle energy-efficiency projects in your food production or storage facility, says one specialist.

"Almost every project that I've done has been with the dual justification of saving money through saving energy, and also improving quality or improving operations in some way," says Kristen Spanza, food and beverage sector lead for Stantec's industrial buildings and facilities practice area.

"Your business isn't saving energy. Your business is making food, and making it well, and keeping the quality superior. So the question is how energy sustainability can promote that and contribute to that. And it's amazing; there are tons of things you can do."

Kristen Spanza, food and beverage sector lead, Stantec.

Spanza's career as a food sector industrial engineer has led her into dozens of food production facilities, warehouses, and distribution centres across North America.

Along the way, she has collected significant savvy about energy efficiency in the food and beverage sector. We're pleased to share Spanza's tips in a two-part series featured in our Current email newsletter.

1. Turn it off or turn it down

"This is one that everyone needs to look at," says Spanza. "It means, if you have variable frequency drives [VFDs], use them. If you don't, look at installing them for your fans and belts, as they provide huge savings."

VFDs ensure that equipment runs only at the pace required, rather than full speed all the time.

Similarly, Spanza suggests using refrigeration control software to ramp your system down at night, and up again during peak loads.

Occupancy sensors for areas of the facility that are not in constant use can also offer surprising savings.

"You definitely get some payback from upgrading your lighting," she says. "But the biggest payback is often from the fact that lights are simply switched off when not needed.

"Some facilities are able to just put in sensors and not change their investment in their existing lighting, and they immediately get 30% savings. The idea is to make it automatic."

2. Shut the door (or don't open it at all)

A cooler door left open is an immediate drain on energy. Spanza says the most effective fix she found was one that couldn't be ignored.

"We had a job where people left the cooler door open all the time, so we put a whiny-sounding alarm on it," she says. "If you opened the door for a few seconds it wasn't too bad, but if you left the door ajar for a few minutes, sure enough someone would soon walk by and close the door.

"That was the only thing we found that really worked; training employees didn't work, putting up signs didn't work, even auto-closers didn't work because people would just prop them open. You need that little whiny noise."

Spanza says older buildings often have many doors and openings onto chilled areas, such as loading dock and warehouse spaces. She recommends examining the layout to use as few doors as possible, keeping the others closed to keep energy usage down.

3. Enclose the loading dock

"In B.C., because of the mild winter, older buildings often tend to receive product on a covered dock but not an enclosed dock," says Spanza. "We found that if you rebuild the canopy into an enclosed dock space, the energy savings in the whole facility go up quite a bit, because you're not losing that energy through the loading doors."

Spanza also recommends replacing strip curtains with doors, upgrading to insulated doors, and adding sealing around doorways so they shut effectively.

4. Remove heat before product comes in

"People don't always think about the fact that they're bringing warm goods into a chilled space, and they're expecting their room refrigeration system to take care of cooling their product down to the food safe level," says Spanza.

Fresh-picked produce is an example of a heavy added load for cooling equipment. "You're actually paying to cool that mass," she says. "The thing to do is to work with your suppliers to get your produce properly pre-chilled before it comes in."

5. Don't warm what you plan to cool

"Likewise, many manufacturers have to store a lot of packaging — totes and cardboard and crates and packaging items, or even dry ingredients," says Spanza. "They put these items into a dry warehouse which, in the wintertime, they're actually heating.

So they spend money to keep that packaging — which can be quite a lot of mass — at room temperature. Then they package their food product and they need to chill it down to 4 degrees Celsius. That's a big drain on the refrigeration budget."

Spanza suggests lowering the temperature in the dry warehouse space and providing radiant ambient heat only in the areas where people are working. "It's just a question of turning down the thermostat and not heating something up, only to chill it later on."

Next month: Four more energy-saving tips for the food and beverage sector.