Is Your Refrigeration Automation Up to Par for 2023?

The development of advanced automation controls and technology for industrial refrigeration systems have made critical upgrades possible for owners who want to improve the efficiency, performance, safety and reliability of their systems and overall operations.

However, a refrigeration system running on outdated controls and hardware is like a ticking time bomb and can get quite expensive to repair — not to mention the cost of downtime.

The implications of a “replace it when it breaks” mentality

Facilities that invest in automation will always reap the benefits of a streamlined operation. A typical problem I see in the industrial refrigeration industry is plant owners will sometimes take their control system for granted, neglecting recommended upgrades until it’s too late: “We’ll replace it when it breaks, Brandon.” 

Unlike household refrigerators, the refrigeration systems in processing and distribution facilities are integrated with other production functions, meaning it’s crucial to consider the system lifecycle and devise a preventative maintenance strategy for best performance. If you don’t, then you’re risking downtime in the event of a catastrophic hardware failure, especially at a time when replacement parts may not be readily available in the market due to global supply chain disruptions. 

The problem is further exacerbated if you rely on a legacy system with obsolete components. In these cases, your best option will most likely be to perform a full re-engineering of your refrigeration system, which could translate to months of lost production and revenue. You can mitigate that risk with a robust preventative maintenance program and long-term strategy for upgrading your existing automation controls and hardware.

How can you improve the performance of your refrigeration system?

Like many of us, I dread replacing my old computer because I know it’ll be inconvenient and time-consuming to transfer my information, format folders the way I like them and figure out the nuances of a new model. But if that computer is giving me issues, then I have to prioritize replacing it because I can’t risk not having a computer. Plus, isn’t it a great feeling when your computer boots up in 2 minutes instead of 15?

The same is true for industrial refrigeration systems. Relying on aging equipment — especially with obsolete hardware and components — puts your facility at risk. Upgrading enables you to secure a future without the risk of lengthy downtime for maintenance and repairs. 

Let’s discuss the steps I recommend following for optimal long-term results and minimal disruptions to your operation.

1. Compile your control system documentation

System upgrades must be handled on a case-by-case basis, especially when working with automation components. I advise working with a refrigeration controls services provider who can review your existing equipment and collaborate with you to prepare a long-term upgrade migration path.

Before making that initial phone call, gather as much information as possible about your facility, equipment and systems, including panel drawings and pictures. Having these documents readily available can help a provider more effectively determine the exact components on-site to begin devising a tailored upgrade strategy

Even with the information in hand, your provider will likely require a site visit to conduct a comprehensive review and inspection of the equipment conditions and facility layout before making any recommendations.

2. Risk analysis check

Your service provider will conduct a comprehensive risk analysis assessment to help answer crucial questions, including:

  • What is the lifecycle of the refrigeration equipment and/or system? 
  • Are the necessary replacement parts readily available?
  • What are the financial costs and potential risks if any single component fails? 
  • What kind of downtime can you afford?
  • How much is the facility willing to invest in mitigating these risks? 
  • What features are you currently missing? This can include reporting, historical trending and remote alarming features.
  • Are you missing out on the latest energy-saving control strategies?

3. Identify outdated parts and systems

During the risk analysis assessment, we can determine if the refrigeration system is configured using any outdated automation controls, hardware or other components that could increase the risk of failure or cost of repairs. 

The reality is that while we could order parts regularly and receive them within a reasonable timeframe pre-COVID, in today’s market, the same part might take six to 12 months to procure. I’ll acknowledge that it is possible to get parts faster but expect to pay a premium for the expedited delivery from off-brand sellers. The increased demand for parts has also prompted an uptick in counterfeit products sold online, including Allen-Bradley. The risk to your control systems is multifaceted.

Not to sound like a broken record, but this is important information. I want to make sure it sinks in. While some systems that use obsolete components may not experience any issues for a long time, they can and will be highly problematic in the event of a failure.

In addition, the older a technology is, the harder it becomes to find skilled technicians who can support it. Upgrading to newer and industry-standard brands like Allen Bradley can help improve the quality and amount of support you receive. 

4. Schedule upgrades strategically

Now that you’ve determined your upgrade migration path, it’s time to figure out how the upgrades will take place. 

Resist the temptation to fill in the earliest slot to perform this work. Instead, think strategically about scheduling work to minimize downtime and avoid production halts. Unless you’re installing brand-new equipment, most upgrades can be performed relatively quickly. 

To narrow down a date, look at your maintenance schedule. Is there a week that the plant is already scheduled to be down for maintenance? Try to schedule work for that week to minimize cost. If that’s not in the forecast, ask your refrigeration services partner if they can perform the installation over the weekend.

Another important question to address: Can I complete the installation in phases? In short, I can’t say that’s a good idea. Since automation components are integrated into your entire system, performing upgrades one at a time can cause more issues in the future. A phased approach means running multiple different systems in a facility. This drives up costs because you need to have trained personnel on staff who can run and maintain each individual system.

5. Train personnel

One of the main concerns I hear facility owners voice when discussing automation upgrades is surrounding training. Plant owners and managers hesitate to upset the “status quo” by requiring operators to train on new systems. To which my response is: Doing nothing is not an option.

Once upon a time, there were only 10 pieces of hardware for operators to understand, but now there are infinitely more. Younger generations are more familiar with the newer electronic systems being taught in school. As more technical operators retire, in-depth knowledge of older systems is lost.

While we’re on the subject, please take the plunge and upgrade your facility’s computers. The software used in today’s technology will not run well on older Windows operating systems, and saving a few bucks by waiting another year to trade in your computers puts your facility at a disadvantage. Some facilities can only access their control systems through their computers, making it more imperative to keep them in tip-top shape. Work with your IT department to figure out exactly what needs to be updated.

6. Preventative maintenance programs

Preventative maintenance is a non-negotiable for maintaining a modern facility. Ensure your facility has proper recordkeeping of the existing system and maintenance schedule to ensure compliance with regulatory requirements and extend the lifespan of your investment.

Standardizing parts and systems can simplify the maintenance process and enable facility owners to stock up on replacement parts commonly used across different machines, such as utilities and process equipment. This approach can help radically reduce costs in an emergency and avoid paying premiums for critical parts that, as discussed earlier, may not be available off the shelf in today’s market. When refrigeration technology is not standardized, stocking backup parts becomes more difficult since different systems and equipment require different hardware and components.
Today’s IIoT devices and control systems can also help improve efficiency and detect equipment issues before they become critical. Investing in automation features that support preventative maintenance can yield significant savings over the long term.

Partnering with a service provider to achieve efficiency and future-proofing

Investing in industrial refrigeration automation controls can help improve the efficiency and performance of your overall system, as well as reduce energy consumption and costs. However, integrating the wrong components and systems can create challenges later on as technology advances and older systems are rendered obsolete. 

Consulting with an experienced refrigeration service provider is recommended, as they can help evaluate the condition of your existing industrial refrigeration system. They’ll help determine if it’s outdated and due for a total replacement and re-engineering or if it’s eligible for an upgrade. 

Working with a service provider that is up to date on the latest advancements in refrigeration technology, such as Stellar, can yield the best results since they can recommend the most suitable upgrades for your system.

Want to discuss options for upgrading your industrial refrigeration system to the latest automation technology? Email us at or give us a call at 800.488.2900.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *