Good, Thoughtful Hosts #102: Responsible Refrigeration with Nick Doherty

Probably haven’t thought much about what makes your AC or your refrigerator work, have you? Well, if those systems spring a leak — it’s very bad news. On this episode of Good, Thoughtful Hosts, we explore what exactly a refrigerant is, how it can be harmful to the environment if it escapes into the atmosphere, and what some eco-friendly options may be.

About Our Guest
Nick Doherty is a mechanical engineer who specifies in refrigeration engineering and serves as co-director of Cushing Terrell’s Refrigeration service sector. He’s a graduate of Montana State University and a lifelong resident of Missoula, MT. His expertise spans virtually all market types but is especially applicable in retail settings.

Nick Doherty

Episode #102 Transcript | Listen on SoundCloud

Sarah Steimer
I live about 100 yards from my favorite corner store here in Chicago. And I’ve spent countless minutes staring into the glass refrigerator cases trying to decide on a beer. What I have not ever thought about while standing there is how these coolers work and how they can actually have a very big impact on the environment. I’m Sarah Steimer and on this episode of Good, Thoughtful Hosts, we’re discussing something kind of unsexy: refrigerant management. But this stuff does matter. In 2017, a team of experts came together to define the 100 most effective solutions for addressing climate change. They listed the total weight of global warming gases that each solution was expected either to remove or prevent from 2020 to 2050. Then the solutions were ranked according to those amounts. The top solution was refrigerant management.

Producer 01:17
Today’s special guests:

Nick Doherty 01:19
My name is Nick Doherty. I work for Cushing Terrell, I’ve been here for 17 years. I’m a mechanical engineer who specifies in refrigeration engineering. I’m in charge of the refrigeration group and an associate principal.

Sarah Steimer 01:37
So let’s just start super, super basic. What is a refrigerant? Tell me more about that?

Nick Doherty 01:45
To put it plainly, refrigerants are chemicals that are used to reduce temperatures by absorbing heat from the environment that surrounds them, when placed in systems designed for the function. So refrigerants can cool things if put into an application built to do so.

Sarah Steimer 02:03
Great. So where am I going to find this? Where am I going to find it in the home or maybe in the world in general?

Nick Doherty 02:09
It turns out refrigerants are everywhere. refrigerants are found in equipment both inside and out of your house, like you mentioned from your air conditioner in your car to deep freezers in your garage and mobile AC units in your home — to then coolers and freezers and big storage facilities. You drive by display cabinets, you walk by grocery stores, they’re selling the various drinks, and the comfort air systems in the hospitals and hotels that keep patients cool, comfortable, warm, and so forth. So refrigerants are contained in equipment everywhere around you.

Sarah Steimer 02:42
Got it. So in addition to the fact that I’m going to be thanking… everything I’ve ever thought about for the fact that I will have you know, the option to access this week, in particular in Chicago, we’re gonna get a heatwave. So I’ll be thrilled to have that in my AC, of course, I have a refrigerator. But in addition to it affecting me, how does it actually affect the environment?

Nick Doherty 03:04
Well, other than when a piece of equipment is operational and the refrigerant is in the system, it impacts the environment because of the use of power, right. But if we just focus on the refrigerant itself, if it stays inside the system, or whatever, that AC unit, whether it’s in your car or your home, it’s safe, it’s safe, as long as it remains there. So how do they impact the environment once they get out, though, is basically… refrigerants, when they get released into the atmosphere, break down in sunlight, releasing chemicals that more or less just — they destroy the Earth’s protective ozone layer, and ultimately, they are contributing to warming up of our atmosphere. So it’s when the refrigerants get out. Not so much when they’re in, you know, when they’re in — enjoy it! Just know that there’s the offset of power that you’re also dealing with, but we’ll talk about it another time.

Sarah Steimer 03:51
Yeah. So I mean, like you said, as long as it’s controlled, I’m so thankful that they exist. But, you know, in the little bit of background that I read, you know, there was a lot about this, that of course, it is really bad for the atmosphere when released. But is there anyone that’s sort of regulating this? Or Is anyone keeping track of what’s happening if anything is released into the atmosphere?

Nick Doherty 04:13
Yeah, absolutely. U.S. states along with EPA, they’re working together under the Clean Air Act toward solving multiple air pollution problems, not just for refrigerants, but for this conversation for the refrigerants, they’ve created guidelines for the proper tracking and management of refrigerants.

Sarah Steimer 04:28
Okay, so what does refrigerant management mean? Because obviously it’s more than just like us changing the temperature dial. What — tell me more about refrigerant management.

Nick Doherty 04:36
Exactly. So you’re thinking more of the end-user, how they’re using it to their benefit. Refrigerant management in this case is, is understanding and having awareness of the amount of refrigeration that you even have in your systems and that ultimately, you’re going to be responsible for keeping that refrigerant in your equipment by performing preventative maintenance and/or addressing repairs as soon as they present themselves in order to contain leaks. It also includes tracking of recycled refrigeration and properly disposing of refrigerants that have reached their end of life. So it’s basically a full cycle, knowing how much you have keeping the refrigerant, keeping it in your system, maintaining your systems and continuing to use it for those beneficial purposes that we just joked about

So okay, so you know, trying to maintain that — that makes sense and everything. But if logic stands with anything else in this world, then there’s probably still greener solutions out there, there’s probably even something else that can happen. So what are those greener options, in addition to just managing what already exists?

Nick Doherty 05:36
Yeah, well, one of the easiest things that we can do right now, and it’s available, is just to select equipment capable of running on natural refrigerants such as carbon dioxide, propane, ammonia. Those are readily available for some industries, such as refrigeration. And that’s what, that’s what I do. Other industries are still catching up. But the pace is, is speeding.

Sarah Steimer 05:58
So in addition to some of those new options, and there’s new systems where you can actually use these greener elements and everything. What do we do with the fact that there’s already a ton of systems out there? They’re already grocery stores, they’re already refrigerators and everything. What do we do about that?

Nick Doherty 06:13
As mentioned earlier, like I said, with existing systems, just managing and keeping the refrigerant in your system is a great start, right, that’s our baseline, you know we’re working toward right now is just making sure we have a complete understanding of that, then we want to take it even further by remodeling and replacing equipment that reduces the total refrigeration required. So even if I have a quote unquote, bad refrigerant, reducing the amount of bad refrigerant I need without having to change out my entire system is still a positive thing. You can even add natural cooling systems to an existing non-natural system, that would be maybe a glycol cooling loop, maybe a chilled co2 loop. But that cooling that loop requires would be done by the non-natural system. But again, centralizing and making a much smaller need for refrigerant. That’s bad, right? And increasing and doing more cooling with good, whatever you can do to reduce the overall refrigerant charge of environmentally harmful refrigerants is a step toward solving the problem.

Sarah Steimer 07:12
Okay, so I have to assume that, I mean, as much as I enjoyed that pitch, personally, I’m going to assume that there are some people out there who love a classic and maybe give you a little bit of pushback. So how are you going to change their minds?

Nick Doherty 07:25
The push back, first and foremost, cost is the number one obstacle. For example, if I’m going to change out an entire existing grocery store to a natural refrigerant, I have to change out the cases, the coils, the condensers, the racks, everything, the piping, everything gets changed out. So there’s, there’s a huge cost to it. But there’s also a cost of holding on to HFCs in your system. You know, I’ve been around for 17 years, and I have stores that I have retrofitted or changed refrigerant out at least two to three times, which means every single time that’s your whole system opened up, it’s pumped down, you’re having changed gaskets, oils, you’re just… the cost of retrofitting, and then also your cases and valves as well and the time applied to it. So there’s a cost both ways. Whereas if I’m going to pitch the new system, because I know it won’t have to be retrofitted in the future, it’ll have to be maintained.

Sarah Steimer 08:19
This makes sense to me, because it’s one of those things, it’s one of the most aggravating things as just a shopper in general, it’s like when you do put a little bit more money upfront, and you wind up going, oh, man, this is actually the better way to go. And this, this stands the test of time. But please, please continue, continue on that argument.

Nick Doherty 08:34
Something to elaborate on even further would be like technical competency of the maintenance providers. That’s another big argument we hear all the time. Well, I’m in you know, I’m in Montana, who could possibly service me and you know, the end-user wants to know, if a problem occurs or maintenance is needed, there are trained service providers capable of working on their systems, and that could be at 2 a.m. But again, that has been known and is discussed is, you know, is on roundtable topics all the time. And there’s so many people out there doing and progressing their field to be able to work on the system. Which is great. So it’s so really, it’s just the proof is showing of the articles, having you know, end-users have conversations with the contracting service providers that yes, we do have these certifications Yes, we can do this. Lastly would be you know, availability of parts. In some instances, the natural refrigerant and some of those locations can be an issue, but with planning and research and design, you can come up with new ideas to tackle those obstacles.

Sarah Steimer 09:36
Okay, so speaking of research, I had mentioned to you previously that you know, I’m very green to this topic in general, I had no idea that there was such an environmental impact when refrigerants are released into the atmosphere. But I didn’t really know anything about refrigerants, refrigerant management period. So I read a bunch of articles and one of the ones I read, the author wrote that, “The problem of cooling, like most ecological problems, is systemic.” So how can companies, engineers, other people, other stakeholders, try to kind of move the needle here, if policy itself isn’t really changing as quickly as maybe we would like to see

Nick Doherty 10:15
Right away, you must believe that there’s a problem and address the issue head-on. You must consistently be discussing these issues and making it part of our everyday conversation to normalize it. In order to support and drive change forward. Conferences, you know, phone calls, lunch and learns, whatever, whatever you’re doing, you’re bringing it up, trying to find a space that this can live in, companies can implement sustainable or green initiative programs that include milestone dates to hold themselves accountable. And to commit to, you know, the set goals by making it public, getting it out in front of everybody. Saying, “This is this is what we’re going to do, it’s a big step,” — I really have to hand it to those end users that are willing to commit to something so large, you know, it’s by these companies driving these initiatives that will force equipment suppliers to change, installation or maintenance groups to grow and to become more knowledgeable of the new equipment. It’ll also drive the demand for replacement parts being readily available. And it is forcing the supporting supply chain to develop and change at the end of the day.

Sarah Steimer 11:23
So conversations like this is more or less what you’re saying is kind of — keep those rolling. And actually, you know, walking the walk, talking to talk, all of that. So we talked about how some of these bigger stakeholders can make a big impact. But what about like me, what can I do? What can a consumer do when it comes to refrigerant management?

Nick Doherty 11:43
Well, you know, consumers, too, can play their part, through the devices they buy. You know, at one point, every single aerosol hairspray can, big hair, had harmful refrigerants inside. So you can just be more aware of what it is that’s contained in the items that you’re purchasing, and how they impact the environment. Even to the, down to the point of like, how to properly use them, and what to do with refrigerant-filled equipment once they finished with them, such as your refrigerator. If you’re done, you know, you don’t just throw your refrigerator away, you first get the charge taken out before throwing the refrigerator away. Everybody has a part. And it all means something.

Sarah Steimer 12:19
And that’s it. That’s something that I didn’t even know because truthfully, I was sort of like, okay, my refrigerator dies: “Goodbye, refrigerator.” I didn’t realize that there was any sort of like, oh, taking something out of the fridge other than like, the spoiled food at that point. But this, I mean, this is great information to have. So those are most of my questions for you today. Is there anything else that you wanted to mention, whether it relates to you know, those bigger stakeholders, the business owners, the engineers, et cetera, supply chain folk, or just individuals that we should all be thinking about, or at least talking about? Things like this?

Nick Doherty 12:55
You know, subscribing to the problem. And being solution-minded is really the message I would want to send out to everybody is, we’re not going to fix this unless we’re all part of the solution. So keep, keep talking about it, keep learning, keep educating yourself, read an article that you wouldn’t have normally read, you know, expand your knowledge of refrigeration, and someday hopefully, we will be achieving what we set out to do.

Sarah Steimer 13:24
Great. So I think we’ll all be thinking a little bit differently when we, you know, go to the corner store and reach into the cooler for something and you know, what’s, what’s kind of happening behind the scenes a little bit, which is always interesting. But it’s also great to know what impact the items around us have, the mechanisms around us have. So Nick, thank you so much for taking a little bit of time with me today.

Oh, thank you so much. I appreciate the conversation.

Producer 13:56
Music for good thoughtful hosts was written produced and performed by Sam Clapp. Our moderator is Sarah Steimer. Editing by Travis Estvold and a special thanks to our content development team, Amanda Herzberg and Marni Moore. For more information about the podcast, visit Thanks for listening.

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