What Refrigerated Warehouses Need to Know About Ammonia Utilization in California

Source: CalARP Resource Compliance

California has long been an epicenter of food manufacturing in the United States. With more refrigerated warehouses looking to become sustainable in the 2020s, California is primed to be a major market where cold storage facilities transition to natural refrigerants.  

However, “The Golden State” has unique regulations that refrigerated warehouses must follow when updating their systems. Most critically, there are strict regulations on ammonia, which traditionally has been the preferred refrigerant because of its efficiency, low cost and safety when the system is properly designed.  

Cold storage facilities in California must understand all state regulations, and the potential solutions available, as a crucial first step. 

Refrigerated warehouses must comply with CalARP in California

What is the CalARP program? 

The California Accidental Release Prevention (CalARP) requires businesses with regulated substances above a certain threshold to implement a Risk Management Plan (RMP). The CalArp RMP requirements are very similar to the Federal OSHA Process Safety Management (PSM) requirements but are required at the state level and typically at much smaller quantities.

What are the compliance requirements? 

The relevant part of the CalARP program for refrigerated warehouses is the requirement applicable to a business’s ammonia charge, which is the amount of ammonia used to operate a refrigeration system. When your warehouse’s ammonia charge exceeds the mandated threshold quantity, you must meet additional compliance measures.    

Nationally, facilities with more than 10,000 pounds of ammonia must comply with OSHA rule 29 CFR. In California though, the threshold quantity is only 500 pounds — which is 20 times lower than the national standard. 

If your warehouse exceeds this 500-lb. threshold for anhydrous ammonia, then you are required to set up a full compliance program. This involves a lot of extra time, resources and documentation — which most warehouse owners want to avoid. But it’s extremely difficult for facilities with tons of refrigeration to use ammonia as the primary refrigerant and still stay under the threshold.  

With that said, there are several alternatives that make it possible to design a more conscious system with no ammonia or a lower ammonia charge.  

Possible alternatives for system design

  • Secondary Refrigerant Systems. A secondary refrigerant system uses ammonia and a secondary refrigerant, such as glycol, with a heat exchanger in the middle. This allows facilities to reap the benefits of ammonia’s excellent thermodynamic properties while minimizing the charge and risk. One option with a low-charge system is to design the process so that ammonia is confined to the machine room, increasing safety throughout the rest of the plant.  
  • COsystems. When it comes to natural refrigerants, the other leading option is CO2. While it may seem counterintuitive, CO2 is a surprisingly green refrigerant. For reference, a car generally emits five tons of CO2 in a year’s time. A CO2-charged refrigerator emits 300 grams over 10 years. CO2 is more challenging to work with than ammonia because it operates at a higher pressure, but it doesn’t have the same strict regulations. 
  • Low-charge systems.  A DX (direction expansion) system uses the pressure differential provided by refrigerant compressors to move room-temperature, high-pressure liquid from the central refrigeration room to evaporators. The refrigerant is fed to the evaporator at a rate that allows it to enter a gas state. The result is far lower levels of liquid and a lower concentration of ammonia in your refrigeration system. 

How Stellar can help California refrigerated warehouses

With more than 35 years of experience in refrigeration, Stellar can design, engineer and install all the refrigerated systems listed above, and we consistently work with California-based clients to implement innovative, green solutions. 

While some facilities can utilize alternatives like CO2 or DX systems, ammonia refrigeration still may be the best solution — even with the regulations. The good news is that your team will not need to invest nearly as much time and resources into the CalARP program with Stellar as your partner. 

Our refrigeration expertise extends to compliance programs as well. We have a full division in process safety management (PSM) that creates documentation very similar to what is required for the CalARP program. Therefore, Stellar can help you set up a full compliance program. This mostly involves creating and sharing key documents with governing officials, from quarterly evaluations and MIA audits to procedures on how you operate and calculations on how much refrigeration is in your facility. 

When you work with Stellar, we continually keep your compliance programs up to date and your documents accurate. Our team serves as an ongoing partner to help ensure the safety and regulatory compliance of your facility.  

Considering going green with your refrigerated warehouse? Have more questions about California’s regulations? Comment below or email me at foodforthought@stellar.net


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