Andrew Gaved visits a consultancy applying its learnings from retail refrigeration to a holistic view of low-carbon buildings.
When Brian Churchyard announced he was leaving Asda after 15 years and joining a new net zero consultancy it came as a bolt from the blue for many. The departure of one of the most influential voices in the retail refrigeration industry – a leading advocate for making decisions based on ‘evidence not emotion’ and widely admired for refusing to simply follow the crowd into new technology – caused shockwaves in a close-knit industry.
But the new consultancy was Omega Solutions, formed by James Bailey, Brian’s collaborator on many of those previous data-driven projects, and the move offered Brian a new opportunity to look at things from a new perspective: “We have known each other for a very, very long time, so it is not really like I would be working with somebody I didn’t know. So I thought, well let’s give it a go – packaging up all that experience as an end user for the last 15 years along with James’ technical acumen and his own experience of running a successful consultancy, it all made a lot of sense. You can talk yourself in and out of something a hundred times over, but sometimes you’ve just got to go out and see what happens.”
They actually started thinking that they’d be two different consultancy companies that would work together. But it soon became clear that they could combine James’s, technical reporting, calculations, evaluations and the like, with Brian’s experience from the retailer perspective. “I can think as a consultant that I know what the end user wants,” adds James, “But do I really know what they want? Because I haven’t been in that environment doing 50, 60, 70 hours a week under all that pressure…”
The two men acknowledge that Omega has become something of ‘supergroup’, which, along with a third partner, engineering expert Nabil Cook, allows each to offer their own distinctive skillset – although they baulk at my suggestion that they are now a Refrigeration Avengers.
It is clear that, as someone who has often encouraged knowledge-sharing amongst retailers, as part of Omega, Brian is now really able to offer his wisdom, free of any commercial baggage, perceived or otherwise:
“I stand by what I’ve always said around being data-led on the information,” he says, “So when we do have these conversations with prospective clients like Co-op or Costco, we can have that honest conversation around the outputs of the data and then the decisions and choices belong to the client.”
He says that with certain retailers, it has allowed Omega to clearly demonstrate the performances of one technology versus another, clarifying misinformation that they might have been fed along the way: “What they have now is better clarity on what the differences are between the technologies. How they choose that technology is then totally up to them … What is really interesting about the work we are doing at the moment is that it’s not just around the cooling anymore because there is such a focus now on not just reclaiming heat but generating heat,” he continues.
“Heat recovery is a case in point: The reality of delivering heat is that when you need the heat the most, you have the least… with a commercial fridge system for instance it can be very expensive and difficult to control. So we are saying ‘this is what the result will be if you try and make it work – does it do what you need it to do?. And that’s the importance of being independent for us – not being aligned or affiliated with other suppliers or contractors…we are ‘industry agnostic.”
Importantly, when it comes to cooling, Brian Churchyard is not just industry agnostic, but refrigerant agnostic. It is a point that James is keen to emphasise: “There’s still a perception, which Brian absolutely loves, that he doesn’t ‘like’ natural refrigerants. However, having turned over a lot of stones over the last number of months for clients, I’m quite confident that – for space heating purposes, at least – the natural refrigerant propane is going to be the best choice as a refrigerant because of its efficiency and low charge requirement.”
Brian picks up the theme: “How long have we been saying that it’s about horses for courses and making the right refrigerant choice for the application? But the refrigeration industry seems determined to have us pick just one. It shouldn’t have to, it’s more complicated than that. Not one-word answers.”
The difference between the cooling industry and the heating industry is something that he is very conscious off – starting with the fact that heating people are simply less obsessed with refrigerant types: “What they’re looking at is large scale manufacturing process in a highly competitive environment. This is driven by best energy, lowest cost systems, reliability – all the things we want the refrigeration sector to become.
The heating manufacturers have the mentality of ‘What are my competitors doing?…And ultimately ‘What does value look like?’ Whereas we’re very much stuck in the commercial refrigeration world, where we are still end-user-driven in terms of technology. And that’s why you get this conversation around ‘what is my refrigerant of choice this week?’…I think refrigeration is a bit of a paranoid industry at the moment…Narrowing down technology options is not good for innovation because you just start limiting yourself more and more. Choice is important.”
James adds his perspective on the heating fraternity: “I won’t bang on about one company particularly, but Vaillant used their critical mass to move the goalposts – not even 12 months ago at the Chillventa show, manufacturers were only tentatively showing their propane systems, yet now we’ve got it commercialised.”
One of the distinctive elements of the Omega approach is that it also has a strong focus on training and skills. People development is a passion of James’s and so the Omega approach encompasses not just conventional refrigeration training but also the wider technical sustainability and management training as well, he says: “I thought ‘There are going to be hundreds if not thousands departing in the next five to 10 years through retirement. How do we plug that gap with university leavers who can learn on the job to become good engineers? And how do we plug the gap when all of a sudden we might need a design engineer, a design manager or a project manager – or a sales manager?”
But Brian also emphasises that technically speaking there is a skills issue in our midst too – namely heat pumps: “My big problem is that there’s nothing that’s really governing or restricting anybody changing skills from, for example, being an electrician or being a gas boiler installer. Yes, they’re dealing with natural gases, which are flammable, but propane for instance behaves completely differently. Some of these natural refrigerants may be kinder to the environment but are actually a lot more dangerous to handle. And so you need the next level of engineer.
“Not only do you need a next level of engineering acumen, you need to have an end user that understands the risks associated to it. And I don’t believe from day one, that the end users that have been investing in the technology have been given the full insight to what the associated risks are – or the risks associated with, for example, reducing cost and corner cutting. Where will it end up years down the line in terms of asset replacement, service maintenance, all that kind of thing?”
The challenge, he notes, is that what is really needed is experience, as well as skills: “I’ll give you a four day course from how a heat pump works but it doesn’t necessarily tell you what it is you need to do to optimise it in the building. And that’s one of the big concerns I have is that when you are looking at the type of technology such as propane and CO2: they are flammable refrigerants or high pressure refrigerants, the engineers are not necessarily going to have the experience. I think danger is the heating boys just think they don’t have to worry about it – you get some of these people saying ‘It’s a monobloc, you just fit and forget’- Far from it! It’s still got propane in it or it’s still got refrigerant in it.”
Brian is also exercised by those who point to the fact that gas is also flammable as a reason to be reassured over transferring skills: “One is designed to burn, while the other one has been compressed to change phase and the system is exposed to the stresses and strains of different ambient conditions as it expands and contracts. It is a very different thing to sending something down a gas line that’s going to be burned.”
But they point out, many in the gas industry are currently saying they are too busy with boiler maintenance to start installing heat pumps. So it will need to be the fridge industry that fills the gap – particularly as commercial refrigeration is reducing in scale as fewer new stores are being built by the big retailers. “We need the representative bodies to tell them they need to take this opportunity,” says James, “but again the discussion is they need to be incentivised more to install.”
Brian is also getting the opportunity to apply the holistic thinking to the world of academia, having been appointed an honorary professor at London South Bank University as part of its Heating and Cooling Research Group.
“We are looking at how you set yourself up for a future within a warmer environment – looking across every different area you can imagine across heating and cooling…When you talk about cooling or refrigeration, what you’re actually talking about is transferring heat. We talk about heating of the building – it is getting all that focus on it in terms of the transition from gas to heat pumps. But when we talk about cooling, it’s almost spoken about is this a different thing?
“But it’s not. It’s exactly the same thing as we know…One of the things that the University is struggling with is getting cooling as a technology onto the government’s radar. The government is just not really recognising how big the opportunity is. And I think it comes down to, because it’s quite difficult, it’s highly technical and it’s quite a difficult thing to sell in.”
The exciting thing for the Omega team is that the current price landscape moves the conversation beyond refrigeration technology into the world of holistic solutions: “I was doing some work for a retailer, not just looking at refrigeration initiatives, but at heating and wider sustainability,” says Brian, “We were looking at payback periods and at the potential emission savings. And it was quite incredible – when we went from 15 pence a kilowatt hour up to nearly 30 pence a kilowatt hour, we saw paybacks for the technology reducing from six or seven years down to under three and four years.”
So there is significant scope for improvement, he adds: “It’s now going to be how we’re going to heat these stores; how we’re going to generate our own power; how we’re going to accommodate for those people who have already made the switch to EVs – because their sites are power constrained. They’re at the very maximum for the infrastructure…”
But this very constraint is what prompts the need for creativity in the solution: “Rather than putting more and more infrastructure capacity on the grid, how do you find ways to be more efficient with all that you’ve already got? If you’ve got a dozen people plugging their cars in as well, you’ll be tripping the main breaker. But then does something like putting doors on all the refrigerators give you more headroom?…”
And this is where the team’s input can really make a difference, he believes: “Rather than just jumping on a known technology bandwagon or a known set of preferred OEMs and suppliers, we are actually thinking holistically and wider. We’re looking at things really as a building perspective as a whole, rather than just thinking about the refrigeration system.”
And concludes James, this holistic approach sums up the Omega ethos: “It’s not just refrigeration, it’s heating and cooling systems; it’s the power going into a building; it’s the internet of things; it’s AI…We are supporting customers really to get their legacy buildings work for them. How do they work with what they’ve got?’ That’s where we can help.”
- The InstallerSHOW 2024 will be expanding its coverage of cooling issues. More details will be announced shortly.