Sensors & Sensibility

Retailers turn to sensors and controls to help conserve resources.

Linda Abu-Shalback Zid, Senior Editor

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We no longer give it a second thought. At airports or office buildings, we wash our hands by placing them under the faucet—and without a touch, the water spouts out. Place those same hands under a soap dispenser, and you’re sudsing in no time. Then it’s off to the hand dryer, where the hot air also starts and stops based on your hand placement.

The sensors and controls that drive that technology are going beyond hygiene and entering the c-store channel in many forms. For the capital investment, retailers can conserve resources, cut their utility spend and receive a reasonable ROI.

“If you look at projects that are accepted in the industry, usually less than two years is acceptable,” says Mark Dunson, president of St. Louis-based Emerson’s retail solutions business. “So almost all our customer projects related to energy savings fall between one and two years.” 

Light Up the Night

Isidore Kharasch, president of Bannockburn, Ill.-based Green Hospitality Certified, says costs for speccing green technology during the building of a new c-store actually can be negligible, but retrofitting can be a bit more costly. He consulted on the green retrofit of a CITGO station in Deerfield, Ill., which included installing a motion sensor tied to the bathroom lighting.

“We went to Home Depot and got the equipment for less than $30,” he says, but the cost to have an electrician install it was “at least that much. This is why it makes sense if you’re building from scratch to put something in; it doesn’t really cost you any more then.”

Dan Duncan, vice president of facilities for Belleville, Ill.-based FKG Oil Co. dba Motomart, says in his company’s case, being a 24-hour facility means additional energy usage, which is why it also turned to light sensors for the outdoors. While many of the stores have sensors tied to the amount of light that’s outside, the company is using GPS system sensors in areas with outside interference, such as neighbors with bright lights. The GPS systems “know” the normal sunrise and sunset for the year cycle in each location and turn on and off accordingly.

 It’s difficult to determine how much energy the company has saved with the sensors, he says, because they’ve been in place for several years. But while he says a properly trained manager can do that particular job as well as sensors, “When they forget, and you go to a store and it’s a bright and sunny day, and you’ve got the lights on because somebody forgot to turn them off, yes, we’ve spent extra money.”

Retailers can also turn to lighting sensors in cold cases, lighting them up only when customers are nearby, as Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc. did in early 2008. “They were concerned that it might harm sales because a dark display case might not attract attention,” said Scot Case, who worked on the project and is vice president of Reading, Pa.-based Terrachoice Environmental Marketing Inc., at the time. “What they have found is that the light coming on creates interest, and it might actually be driving sales.” 

Some Like It Cold

When it comes to refrigeration, c-stores can use sensors to gauge and control pressure and temperature, anti-sweat door heaters and food temperature.

“Because product temperature is being measured and the refrigeration comes on less frequently for longer intervals, the equipment runs more efficiently.”

The cold vault remains one of the channel’s top utility costs— and opportunities. New Albany, Miss.-based Master- Bilt uses sensors to examine pressure and temperature and determine how to best operate a refrigeration system. The system can even take advantage of cooler weather to adjust the electronically controlled expansion valve, and thus operate more efficiently.

It also does self-diagnostics and takes steps to address certain problems. “When an evaporator temperature gets too low, what it’s going to do is shut the system off and go through full defrost, let everything clear off and then restart the system and try to clear that alarm condition,” says Kenny Owen, vice president of engineering for Master- Bilt. If it can’t fix the problem, then it sends alarms out via e-mail or telephone for someone to repair it.

Owen says Master-Bilt’s system can cost $500 to $600 more than a standard refrigeration system but can deliver as much as 28% energy savings. ROI depends on how much energy a store typically uses. A half-horsepower system doesn’t use a lot of energy to begin with, and could take three to four years to recoup the additional cost. A larger 6- horsepower system, with a $3,000 or $4,000 annual energy bill, could see a return within one year.

Master-Bilt also has a Glass Sentry anti-sweat heater controller, which monitors the temperatures of refrigeration glass doors. Usually, heaters on the doors operate 24/7. “By adding these controllers on there, those heaters are only needed sometimes 10% to 20% of the time, so it turns those heaters off when they’re not needed,” Owen says. The $300 controller often sees payback within six months. “A 10-door lineup might use $1,500 worth of electricity in a year; you might save 80% of that.”

The eCube, marketed by Dairy Technomics Inc., Lebanon, N.J., helps retailers use an existing thermostat in a refrigerator as a sensor to keep food at the proper temperature and further save energy. “You take what you have already and make it run more efficiently,” explains Karol Szot, a partner with Dairy Technomics.

Being tested at Quick Chek and Wawa, eCube is made of a patented, high-molecular weight aliphatic hydrocarbon compound that has the same thermal properties as food and beverages. Product temperature is less volatile than air temperature, which can vary widely as a cooler door is opened and closed.

“Because product temperature is being measured and the refrigeration comes on less frequently for longer intervals, the equipment runs more efficiently,” Szot says. Fewer stops and starts mean a reduction in refrigeration maintenance as well. The eCube, with prices ranging from $299 to $449, can mean an average refrigeration energy savings of 20%, with ROI often seen within one year, he says.

Some Like It Hot

Controlling ovens, water heaters and heating in c-stores are becoming popular ways to conserve resources.

“It really comes down to: How many products do I need to cook to cover that $10 a day?”

Some retailers are turning to technology to really “heat up” their conservation efforts. Ovens from Carrolton, Texas-based TurboChef Technologies seek to help c-store retailers conserve resources in a number of ways. They rely on an internal filtration system rather than requiring a hood system, which can take up valuable space and cost $2,000 a linear foot to install. They can also replicate different cooking modes, such as a fryer or convection oven, eliminating the need for additional equipment.

The ovens also use microwave and impinged airflow to use less energy by cooking 10 to 15 times faster than a conventional oven. And with precise controls that can be preprogrammed with exactly what is being cooked, it can make for more consistent cooking—by reducing waste and eliminate training, says Dave Shave, vice president of global sales and marketing for TurboChef.

Payback typically takes less than a year, he says, but he also explains payback another way: “Most people amortize items over three years. And if you put the cost of installation, the cost of ownership, the cost of electrical and the cost of the goods, really less than $10 a day is a really solid number.

“It really comes down to: How many products do I need to cook to cover that $10 a day? We found with some clients it was a couple of pieces of pizza a day to cover us, and the rest is profit.”

Dave Welch, owner of the aforementioned Deerfield CITGO, turns to sensor and control technology to conserve energy in heating up water. A thermostat on his hot-water tank is set up to shut off at night. “It’s just a little c-store, so it doesn’t take much to get it up to normal in the morning—about an hour,” he says.

He also has installed a thermostat with unoccupied and occupied settings to run his store’s heater to shut off at 9:30 p.m. and stay at 55 degrees all night, then kick up to 69 degrees at 5:30 a.m. He says the thermostat, at $450, was probably his most expensive purchase, but the investment was worthwhile: “There’s no need for anything to be running when it doesn’t have to.”

Some Like It Just Right

Technology can bring it all together to ensure more efficiency.

“Regardless of who is working in the store, it’s maintained.”

Dunson says that Emerson is seeing c-stores turning to more comprehensive technology, which controls lighting, airconditioning, heating, refrigeration and other energy-consuming devices.

 With such technology, it’s important to first develop a policy for usage, then enforce the policy with an automated control system, he says. “So if you decide when you want your lights to come on and off, if you decide what temperature you’d like it to be in the store for heating and cooling and for refrigeration, those strategies help define how the control system operates the store regardless of who is working in the store,” he says.

Checks and balances can be put in place if an employee were to try to override the thermostat to make it cooler. “That’s where a lot of the energy leakage would come from,” he says. Emerson’s ProAct software would monitor system-triggered alarms and communicate between the control system and either the retailer’s own call center or Emerson’s. “It may be a viable reason for changing the temperature, or it may not, but we can help the customers in resolving that,” Dunson says.

The monthly service fee can vary, depending on what’s needed, but it often falls below $100. “We would typically engage with the customer, understand the requirements and implement the service in a few stores to define the processes that work for that particular retailer and to prove the savings that are available,” he says. “And then the service is based on getting an appropriate return on investment for the savings that have been demonstrated.”

As for the energy savings, “Typically, all this starts with the control systems, so you have 10% to 17% energy savings by putting the control systems in,” says Matt Lauck, director of strategic sales for Emerson’s retail solutions business. “But then once you add the software and services on top of that, we tend to see another 4% through better management of those systems and practices.

Water Ways

The employee or customer who accidentally leaves the sink on is no longer a problem with water sensors.

“It’s only one sink, but let’s multiply this by 180,000 gasoline stations in the United States and we’re really talking savings.”

Kharasch says that saving on water was of particular importance to Welch at his Deerfield CITGO. In addition to placing rain barrels to collect water for cleaning and gardening, he installed a sensored sink in the washroom. Because the sink was retrofitted, it cost about $400 to install. “Had we designed that in right from the beginning, it would have cost us maybe $100 or so more than just putting in a standard sink,” he says.

While Welch’s small facility might be saving only 10% in water usage for all his efforts combined, Kharasch says, “For Dave, it’s all about, ‘Look, I’m one guy, it’s only one sink; but let’s multiply this by 180,000 gasoline stations in the United States and we’re really talking savings.’ ”

A toilet sensor didn’t make sense for Welch’s operation as a retrofit, Kharasch says, but it does make more sense for a new build or a planned replacement. “That would certainly be something on our priority list of installation, because it’s not much more expensive at that time,” he says.

Embracing Intangibles

There’s more to the benefits of sensors and controls than meets the eye.

“Now with sensors, we have control of all these different things.”

Prior to Welch’s green efforts, the store’s bathroom light might stay on all day or water might be left running for hours at a time. “But now with sensors, we have control of all these different things,” Kharasch says.

There have also been some intangible benefits. Welch says he’s received positive feedback for his green efforts.

“A lot of people have been interested in doing it themselves, which is a great step. It’s been a nice project, and it’s helped business out a little bit,” he says. People have come from nearby towns to see the store after reading about it through the publicity it generated.

Dunson of Emerson points out another intangible. “By efficiently controlling the store, you can have a better customer experience,” he says, because it can mean a better environment in the store, as well as more controlled product quality. It is important, Duncan of Motomarts points out, to keep customer comfort a priority. One example can be seen with the stores’ sensored hand dryers, which save on paper usage. Although he says the company would continue to spec those going forward, he says, “I will tell you honestly, there are a lot of customers who prefer paper. So we still provide paper, but we are using less of it.”

He cautions, “We’ve got to be careful. You can cut something back like your lighting levels and save money, but if it’s a dark-looking facility, that’s not good for our customer for security. We still make sure we have a bright, well-lit facility.

“It’s all pretty straightforward if you truly want to go through the process and say you want to have a green building. We don’t have a need to get into that competition; our business is treating our customers well and not proving to people we’re green. It’s all dollar-driven—if it weren’t saving us money in the long term, we’d probably reconsider it.”

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