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Designing cold chain warehouses

Peter Jones, Managing Director, Prological. Image: Prological.

Prological’s Peter Jones discusses the challenges and opportunities in cold chain warehouse design.

With sustainability on everyone’s minds, warehouse design has come under particular scrutiny for opportunities to economise on energy usage and make operations more environmentally friendly. But with their intense energy usage, cold chain warehouses are of even greater concern than other kinds of facility, says Peter Jones, Managing Director of Prological. 

Peter emphasises the enormous energy demands required to power HVAC systems in these vast buildings, pinpointing this as the primary challenge facing the sector today.

“In our current world environment of carbon reduction, the cold chain is a huge consumer of energy,” Peter says.

This concern has propelled Prological to explore technologies aimed at significantly reducing reliance on grid electricity through on-site power generation and storage, with preliminary modelling indicating a robust return on investment for such initiatives.

But before we get to those – what are the primary elements that go into designing a cold chain warehouse, and what challenges do they present? 

Peter elaborates on three pivotal design elements crucial to cold chain facilities: the imperative for airtight buildings, the logistical intricacies of managing inbound and outbound interfaces, and the sophistication of HVAC systems. 

“The integrity of the building’s seal is paramount; any leakage, while not compromising temperature control, markedly increases electricity consumption,” Peter says.

“The second element addresses the challenge of maintaining this seal while facilitating the movement of goods into and out of the warehouse, often leading to expensive solutions such as integrating vehicle parking inside the facility or employing sealed aprons for external loading areas. Designing these elements into a cold chain facility at an efficient level is critical.” 

The most expensive part of a freezer warehouse, says Peter, is the defrost system in the floor.

“In a freezer, if you don’t have a defrost system in the floor, you end up with a situation similar to the old manual defrost freezers at home. In a 20,000 square metre freezer warehouse, the solution has been to install heating (defrost) systems in the floors of the freezer sections, which operate periodically to prevent moisture on the floor from freezing. There are significant peak loads to turn on, with a very high energy consumption while running.”

According to Peter, Australia finds itself somewhat behind the curve in cold chain warehouse design, particularly when juxtaposed with global counterparts in the United States and Europe.

“The largest cold chain company in Australia now is Americold,” pointing out that while American firms are significantly engaged in carbon reduction efforts, European companies are even more advanced in integrating sustainability into their operations.

This disparity in technological adoption and efficiency improvements, Peter suggests, is not due to a lack of available technologies in Australia but rather a combination of infrequent construction of cold chain facilities and a hesitancy to embrace new solutions.

Cold chain warehouses, as specialised structures designed to maintain specific temperature ranges, are built less frequently than their ambient warehouse counterparts. This, coupled with the significant capital expenditure required, means that opportunities to incorporate the latest advancements and designs are rare and often overlooked in favour of cost-saving measures during the construction phase.

He recalls the last significant wave of cold chain warehouse constructions approximately five years ago in locations like Truganina in Melbourne, and Arndale Park in Sydney, suggesting that the pace of technological advancement has since outstripped these facilities’ capabilities.

The crux of Peter’s concern lies in the reluctance to invest in the latest technology during the design and construction of new facilities. This hesitancy, driven by the high initial costs associated with cold chain warehouses, risks perpetuating a cycle of long-term energy inefficiency.

“The inclination to reduce upfront costs can lead to increased operational expenses over time due to suboptimal energy performance,” he says.

“This scenario underscores a broader issue within the Australian cold chain sector—a need for a paradigm shift towards valuing long-term sustainability and efficiency over short-term capex savings.”

Through Peter’s lens, embracing the latest in cold chain technology and design principles is not just an opportunity for Australian companies to align with international best practices but a necessity to ensure the future viability and environmental responsibility of the cold chain industry.

Retrofitting cold chain? 

With industrial property a scarce commodity in Australia today, what opportunities are there for retrofitting cold chain warehouses? 

Given the complexities involved in designing a cold chain warehouse, opportunities to retrofit are relatively limited, Peter says. 

“The interface between the interior and exterior of the warehouse presents a relatively straightforward area for retrofitting,” he says.

“Components such as doors and loading docks, which are prone to wear and tear, offer tangible opportunities for improvement by incorporating more efficient, modern materials and mechanisms.”

HVAC systems, integral to maintaining the cold chain’s temperature requirements, also represent a key area for upgrades. As these systems reach the end of their lifecycle, replacing them with the latest technology can markedly improve energy efficiency.

Peter underscores the importance of seizing these moments of equipment redundancy to introduce advancements that could reduce the overall energy consumption of the facility.

However, the prospect of integrating on-site power generation and storage, such as solar panels, into older warehouses is considerably more complex. The challenge lies in the structural limitations of these buildings, which were not originally designed to bear the additional load of solar arrays.

“The roof is not designed to carry that static load, let alone the dynamic load,” Peter explains, pointing out the engineering hurdles of retrofitting such systems onto existing structures. The dynamic load introduced by solar panels, in particular, can significantly increase the wind load on the roof, complicating – even prohibiting – the retrofitting option. 

Despite these obstacles, Peter advocates for a forward-thinking approach to warehouse design and retrofitting, emphasising the importance of aiming to surpass current best practices.

This philosophy not only ensures that new facilities are built to the highest standards of efficiency and sustainability but also encourages a continuous improvement cycle within the global cold chain infrastructure.

By prioritising the adoption of cutting-edge technologies and designs, the industry can make strides towards reducing its environmental impact while enhancing operational efficiency. 

A fundamental challenge confronting the sector is the separation between those who bear the cost of energy consumption and those who design and construct the buildings, Peter says.

“Often, the operational realities of energy efficiency are not a priority for those who lease these facilities. This disconnect underscores the need for a more integrated approach to warehouse design, where operational efficiency and sustainability are core considerations from the outset.”

Moving forward, Peter identifies several key areas for development. The adoption of the most efficient HVAC systems, such as heat pumps for refrigeration and in-floor heating for defrosting, is crucial. Additionally, innovative design solutions for the interface between the warehouse interior and exterior can significantly reduce energy loss. 

Take floor defrosting, for example:

“The opportunity exists to turn this around, such as using solar arrays on the roof, where the ambient temperature under the solar array is about double whatever the ambient temperature of the day is.

“Systems are now available to capture that heat and store it in a thermal change product, or via several other new technologies, which in turn, is then used for the floor’s defrost system. This transitions one of the most expensive inputs of a cold chain warehouse to operate into an almost free process, as the energy now employed would otherwise have been wasted.”

A particularly exciting opportunity lies in the realm of energy generation and storage. For cold chain facilities, which have high electricity demands, the investment in on-site power generation and storage systems, even with today’s battery costs, is justified and beneficial. As battery technology advances and costs decrease, Peter anticipates a future where energy storage becomes viable for a wider range of facilities by the end of the decade.

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