Restaurants, convenience stores, gas stations and other stores all have something in common: refrigeration equipment or cold rooms. These facilities keep food and beverages at the proper temperature, which according to standards and regulations must be below 40o F (4.4o C) for coolers and -4o F (-18o C) for freezers.
Not meeting those requirements due to negligence or equipment failure can be costly. Food can spoil and then be thrown out, perhaps resulting in a complete loss of inventory. The total spoilage expense varies by type of business, with an estimated refrigerated and cold item inventory loss from a three day closure running $22,662 for a convenience store and $40,006 for a quick-service restaurant.
In addition, a store or chain’s brand image can suffer, with customers deciding as a result of bad food or publicity to take their business elsewhere. It can take six months or more to restore customer confidence. Noncompliance with food safety regulations can also lead to expensive penalties and closures.
To help ensure public safety, regulators in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere often demand a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, or HACCP, plan. This legal requirement applies to all levels of the food chain except primary production. Businesses must identify critical control points, develop procedures to address these and document that these procedures are working.
For refrigerators and cold rooms, an HACCP typically means there must be record keeping. So, two, four or more times a day store managers or employees walk around collecting temperature data on freezers, refrigerators and cold rooms. That’s time not spent with customers or on other work – if the temperature check happens at all when and as it is supposed to.
And what happens to the collected temperature readings? Frequently it’s written on a piece of paper, which often is stuffed into a folder. If that happens, the recorded temperature data never makes its way into a digital format that can be shared. Importantly, that data is what’s needed to prove compliance. And it’s those temperature readings that should be checked before an inspection, just to make sure things are as they should be or to prepare an explanation for anything that isn’t.
The need for documentation extends to more than just temperature data. Even if cold rooms are working as they should, poor maintenance and record keeping have resulted in environmental fines that total millions and a requirement that coolant leaks be reduced.
A solution for these refrigeration-related challenges should provide the following benefits, which are must-haves according to HACCP regulations:
- Alerts 24/7 when any temperatures are out of range or in case of a power outage. This minimizes the time to recognize and fix an issue. It also lessens cost by, among other things, allowing food to be transferred before it goes bad.
- Track temperature incidents and remotely monitor accurate temperature trends with automated data logging.
- Generate ready-to-use reports for food safety compliance inspections. There also should be detailed task lists, such as inspecting refrigerant fluids, for example.
In addition to the must-haves, to be truly beneficial a solution should provide insights that enable users to anticipate issues. The advantages of such a capability are:
- Reduce time to repair. This can be done, for instance, by checking the repair history for similar events. Having access to equipment maintenance logs speeds repairs because the same type of breakdown has likely occurred before. So, this detailed knowledge enables technicians to be better prepared by knowing what actions were taken before and what spare parts were used.
- Simplify and improve maintenance by sharing equipment repair and upkeep history. Using data, a solution can help ensure preventative maintenance with automated notifications. Also, remotely reviewing trends revealed in the collected temperature data can help detect issues early. For instance, looking at trend data can play an important role in forecasting when refrigeration equipment will need to be serviced. Such predictive and condition-based maintenance can increase operational efficiency substantially and save significant money.
Advances in cloud and IoT technology have made such solutions cost effective for smaller stores. For instance, there are small wireless IoT temperature sensors that are battery powered. Some of these are suited to installation in refrigerated environments down to -30o C, making them useful in cold rooms and self-contained coolers. As for cloud technology, it allows a more secure storage of the collected sensor data and also makes the data available to all users 24/7 on a mobile device.
With such innovations, it’s easier to comply with food safety regulations and ensure customer safety. At the store level, technology can move data collection and recording off paper, improving efficiency. For operations, such solutions make it possible to have up-to-date information, both for internal purposes and to present when requested.
For an example of such a cloud- and IoT-based approach to refrigeration management, check out our retail solutions based on Eliwell product line of connected controllers and EcoStruxure Facility Expert. Read my previous posts to continuing learn about improving energy monitoring and sustainability in retail stores.