Refrigeration Equipment: Trends & Technology

Teknotherm control cabinets
Teknotherm control cabinets installed on the North Star, a fishing vessel operated by the North Star Fishing Co. Photo courtesy of Teknotherm U.S.

When it comes to bringing the freshest catch to market, refrigeration serves a vital role in that process, and the West Coast companies that do it well know it takes experience and an eye toward innovation to get the job done.

Fishermen’s News reached out to some of the West Coast leaders in the refrigeration industry to talk about what’s trending in the industry, the latest in cold storage technology and where they see refrigeration heading in the coming years.

Trends in Seafood

The need to chill products faster than ever is on the rise as the demand for seafood grows, experts say.

“The trend that we see is to start preserving the catch at an earlier stage,” said Lars Matthiesen, president of Highland Refrigeration. “That means immediately after catch, the fish will be submerged in 30-degree slurry ice.”

This is also the case for hake off Vancouver Island, delivery to shore-based plants for processing, which slurry ice has made feasible. Also, process water used on the machines in the plants is based on slurry ice, completing the cold chain until the fish is in the freezers.

There’s also been growing interest in using nearly every part of fish for product, including fish stomachs and livers, Matthiesen said.

“There will be very little waste of fish anymore,” he said. “All these things that are of value, and on fisheries where they are catching one fish at a time, such as longlining, they can recoup or recover some of the costs with byproducts and get more value out of the catch that way.”

Highland recently delivered several systems to the Gulf of Mexico for chilling menhaden, a fish that’s caught exclusively for the production of fish meal and is in high demand.

“It’s an oily, bony fish that makes good fish meal if it is kept fresh,” he said. “That’s why we see a trend to go to bigger refrigeration systems on catcher boats.”

Highland Refrigeration has successfully installed RSW systems, along with environmentally friendly CO2, called R-744. Propane, R-290, is the most efficient refrigeration, and is gaining use in Canada and around the world. With proper installations, it will eliminate the explosion risk.

Quality fish meal, which is also fed to farmed fish, means less waste and less impact on the environment, Matthiesen said.

“Because if the fish can digest 95% of the good fish meal versus 85% on lower quality, there’s less waste and less pollution” he said.

“Pollock is another type of product that is gaining traction around the world,” Matthiesen added.

“Nowadays, pollock with their good flavor, high protein content, low fat and so on is just a very nice thing in the diet,” he said. “This is a typical trend in the fishing industry. It’s mainly boats from 100 feet and up and for processors.”

Teknotherm Refrigeration CEO Osman Colak said he sees an increasing demand for salmon, hake, pollock, crab, squid and scallops where some species are bulk frozen, and some are individually frozen by the company’s IQF (Individual Quick Freezing) units.

Teknotherm offers RSW (Refrigerated Sea Water) systems, “which allow the catch to be kept just over the freezing temperature and brought to shore as fresh as possible,” Colak explained.

There also has been growing interest in using nearly every part of fish for product, including fish stomachs and livers, Matthiesen said.

“There will be very little wasted on fish anymore,” he explained. “All these things that are of value, and on fisheries where they are catching one fish at a time, such as long lining, they can recoup or recover with some of the costs with byproducts and get more value out of the catch that way.”

Wally MacDonald, owner of Alaska-based Fleet Refrigeration, has also noticed a trend among fishermen and women, often family groups, who have taken to marketing their own product rather than selling to large processors. 

“Refrigerating the catch immediately after capture is a pretty straightforward way to add value to the catch, and has been increasingly required by processors,” he said. “Small ‘mom-and-pop’ operations add more value by dressing, vacuum sealing and freezing the catch in portions, for direct sales to end users, to be shipped to niche markets or to be stored and sold at venues in the off-season.”

This usually involves processing the catch between openings, he said. Larger operations such as public cold storages and specialty processors such as smokers are often part of the process of blast freezing, storage, and shipment of product – all of which requires reliable refrigeration systems, MacDonald said. 

Systems also need to be efficient to keep overhead costs, particularly for power consumption, low enough to ensure profitability, MacDonald said. 

“This is where two factors are key: adequate insulation of the refrigerated space and optimum use of power by using properly sized and designed equipment,” he said. “Refrigeration equipment manufacturers have introduced proprietary control systems which closely monitor operations and will, for instance, only initiate defrost cycles when necessary, resulting in significantly lower power consumption.”

Teknotherm compressor units
Teknotherm compressor units installed on the brand-new North Star fishing vessel built by Eastern Shipbuilding Group for North Star Fishing Co. Photo courtesy of Teknotherm U.S.


Like many sectors, digital technology has also impacted the refrigeration industry, allowing the transition from mechanical analog control systems to systems that can be controlled with a precision that MacDonald of Fleet Refrigeration said he’d never dreamed possible.

“Using electronic sensors controlling step-motor devices and variable frequency drive motors was the stuff of science fiction when I got into the trade,” said MacDonald, who began his career in marine refrigeration in 1988 primarily installing and servicing refrigerated seawater systems using halocarbon refrigerants.

The use of technology has been essential to Teknotherm. Colak spoke of the challenging conditions in Alaska and the Bering Sea region, where the majority of the seafood on the West Coast is sourced.

“The biggest challenge of fishing in these isolated areas is operating at a remote location where there is limited access to workforce,” he remarked.

So Teknotherm developed its own line of automation in 2004. By 2008, the company had already established a UL-Listed electrical shop that meets specific, defined safety requirements and was capable of building control panels for all of its projects.

PLCs (programmable logic controllers) have become mainstream for Teknotherm’s control panels over the years, allowing the company to maximize performance and provide documented temperatures for the product.

The latest trend is remote control and Wi-Fi connection. Teknotherm is able to offer a VPN connection to its latest systems.

“With the ability for a technician to log in remotely, this will allow saving on trips to troubleshoot systems as well as to cut down on unwanted shutdowns,” Colak said.

Teknotherm automation has been installed on American Seafood Company catcher processors, and the Glacier Fish Company fleet, and on many smaller catcher boats on the West Coast. Last year, Teknotherm completed installation and commissioning of a fully automated refrigeration system for a fish processing plant in Russia, which Teknothem monitors remotely.

“We picked Ammonia and CO2 as natural refrigerants for operating this cascade solution and installed an advanced automation and controls system for the crew to easily operate the facility,” Colak said. “This technology allows us to collect daily data and monitor the system remotely in order to service the facility even from thousands of miles away. This project was just the initial phase of the huge facility, and we are recently working on the second phase for the expansion.”

From Artificial to Sustainable

The most significant change within the refrigeration industry is the current trend of moving away from ozone-depleting and high global warming potential refrigerants under the EPA’s Significant New Alternative Policy.

Between this policy and a similar one underway in Europe, using refrigerants like R404A and R507A for new cold storage installations will be phased out by 2023, Colak said.

Refrigerants like R448A/R449A are being developed as replacements for direct expansion systems but the temperature glide makes them unsuitable for flooded systems, Colak said.

“While this phase-out shouldn’t be any cause for immediate concern by fishermen, it is worth noting that prices will only continue to rise over the next decade as manufacturing is phased out and remaining stock is used,” he said.

This transition has led customers to look into and install ammonia RSW systems, Colak said.

“Though ammonia has had a poor reputation as a ‘smelly and toxic’ refrigerant, it is our most efficient refrigerant, is inexpensive, and most importantly, is environmentally friendly,” he said.

Like ammonia, CO2 is a natural refrigerant that is making a resurgence when it comes to low-temperature systems, below -40°C/°F.

While its high operating pressure and requirement for more complex controls has traditionally been a hindrance, equipment manufacturers such as Danfoss, Colmac Coil, Bitzer and Mayekawa have made great strides in recent years to support, expand and develop their CO2 equipment lines, Colak said, adding that these refinements in compressors, evaporators and controls have contributed to safer systems that are easier to install, operate and maintain.

“Grocery stores and supermarkets have already seen a transition from freons to CO2,” Colak said. “It is only a matter of time until the same transition takes place within the fishing industry.”