In cooler climates, outdoor air systems can save energy dollars for data centres, retailers, warehouses

My latest Clean Break column:


Tyler Hamilton

Refrigeration and air conditioning, whether to freeze popsicles or prevent computer servers from overheating, may be necessary during the spring and summer.

But during the dead of winter?

Last week I walked into my local corner store to pick up some ice cream for my daughter, who had just had her tonsils removed. It was a cold day, so I moved from sub-zero temperatures outside to the inside warmth of the store to the sub-zero temperature of its freezers.

Isn’t it kind of strange that this is how it’s done? There’s ice on the sidewalk, yet inside there’s a tug of war going on between space heating and refrigeration systems – both using considerable amounts of energy.

Convenience stores are one example, but the same observation applies to The Beer Store, certain types of warehouses and data centres. We’ve got plenty of cold outside for a good chunk of the year, but we unnecessarily expend energy inside to create new cold. It makes no sense, particularly in a northern climate like ours.

As energy prices rise, however, more organizations are rejecting the insanity. This is particularly true when talking about information technology.

“The IT industry as a whole is facing the fact that IT equipment generates too much heat, and that data centre cooling has historically been massively inefficient,” according to a discussion paper from Bell Canada.

A major trend with newly constructed data centres, it mentions, is to use cold external air to cool computer servers. Hewlett-Packard is doing it in the U.K. at one of its data centres on the North Sea coast. Facebook is doing it in northern Sweden. Google is doing it in Ireland.

Some financial services companies have also embraced the idea. Citigroup, for example, uses outside air to cool its data centre in Frankfurt, Germany about 63 per cent of the time it operates.

Even in San Francisco it can be done. Last month the U.S. Department of Energy announced it will integrate outside cooling with its new Berkeley Lab computing centre, which will house supercomputers.

It all makes great sense, but outside of massive data centres the trend isn’t catching on nearly so strong. At least that’s the view of Brian McDonald, who through his Toronto-based company Rapid Refrigeration, is trying to sell outside-air refrigeration systems in Ontario.

He says there’s been plenty of interest, but when it comes down to placing an order companies get, ahem… cold feet. “I have a lot of irons in the fire, but I do find there’s an apprehension to new innovation,” McDonald says. “Maybe it’s the whole fear of change thing.”

McDonald sells systems from a Vermont-based company called Freeaire Refrigeration. One component of the system reduces electricity consumption by turning off compressor fans when they’re not needed, but the second component – called Polar Power – uses temperature and humidity sensors to blend and balance cool outside air with operation of an existing refrigeration unit.

In Ontario, the number of days where outside air can make a major contribution is “anywhere from 95 to 175 days a year,” says McDonald.

Both systems working together can lead to energy savings of between 30 to 80 per cent, he says. This is obviously dependent on climate, but payback for big installations – such as for beer stores with large walk-in freezers—can be less than two years, based on energy savings of up to 50 per cent.

The technology has had some traction in Ontario. The LCBO, for four years now, has had the Freeaire system installed in about three dozen of its stores, and continues to put it into new stores.

McDonald likes to focus on breweries, and has had some success. Mill St. Brewery, for example, recently installed a Freeaire system at its large brewing facility in Scarborough. McDonald says he is also in productive talks with a couple of others, including Creemore Springs Brewery.

Convenience store chains have been a harder sell. Individual stores are smaller, meaning system payback is between three to five years. “They want to see a two-year payback,” McDonald says.

And The Beer Store? It’s apparently interested but cautious, even with the expectation of an average 1.77-year payback, according to McDonald’s calculations.

McDonald says he started selling the product after 20 years in the lighting and electrical industry because he believed in it – it just made so much sense. He’s hoping industry interest will pick up, but admits it’s been a tough slog so far.

“There’s a struggle to be taken seriously,” he says. “It’s frustrating.”

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad LikeTesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.


4 thoughts on “In cooler climates, outdoor air systems can save energy dollars for data centres, retailers, warehouses”

  1. Actually, there was no tug of war between the space heating and the refrigeration systems in that store. They were doing the same thing: making warm air inside the building. The refrigeration system was just a form of electric heating, using rather expensive hardware.

    It is only when the refrigeration waste heat exceeds our heating needs that there is an issue. Then refrigeration is playing against air conditioning, and bringing in cold outside air starts to help.

    BTW: incandescent light bulbs are another example of misunderstanding overall energy budgets. Canadians use light bulbs primarily in winter, when evenings are long and the waste heat simply offsets other heat. When we consider costs of making and disposing of compact fluorescent bulbs it is not clear how green they may be. In a perfect world Canadians would mix and match by using CFLs for May through Sept and incandescents for the rest of the year!

  2. If the Beer Store was a consumer co-operative instead of a private company – they would do everything they can to reduce costs to pass that through to the consumer for cheaper beer.

  3. “Free cooling” has been going on for a long time. When I worked in energy management at Ontario Hydro back in 1991, we were throwing money at it. We were also paying people to replace T12s with T8s. We’re still doing this stuff 20 years later.

  4. issue #1: poor engineering. When any ECM like the “free cooling” Tyler is talking here, brings 80% energy savings it means that the system that has been retrofitted was widly oversized. this is the case, unfortunately, across Ontario. Poor engineering, safety factors on the top of safety factors when it comes to sizing equipments, recycled drawings and concepts, equpment sized by contractors following some rule of thumbs because real engineering is deemed too expensive etc. there is a very long list here of “don’t do’s” that are the norm in Ontario.

    issue#2: price of kwh in ON is too low. In the UK the price of kwh is 50% higher than the average price in ON . in Germany is 70% higher. yet the population density is 300% higher.
    most likely, in short time, the power infrastructure in ON will be “in red” . in Toronto already is. I’m curious who’s gonna pay to replace trivial things like transformers and poles. they have a bad habit of breaking down in a 30 to 50 years time frame. At the same time. Establishing the kwh price for industry and population based on production cost solely is not only bad bussiness practice but it is also wrong.

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