Cool considerations for cold storage design/build plans

July 7, 2017

There is an abundance of construction company options available, but when a produce processor is ready to have a new cold storage or refrigerated facility designed and built, it’s important that they don’t just jump in to the first one they talk with.

Ginny Bode, marketing director of the Fisher Construction Group, Burlington, Washington, said a processor should talk to others in the industry and ask for recommendations from those in trade organizations.

“Do online research as well,” she said. “Find companies that have completed projects that are like yours, not necessarily storing the same food as you produce, but companies that have successfully solved the issues you face.”

Brian Hill, president of Palcon Systems, Gurnee, Illinois, said that a good place to start looking for advice for contractors is from other companies similar to yours.

“I’d also suggest vetting some of the design/build contractors at trade shows, such as United Fresh,” he said. “Whatever you do, make sure to hire a company that has worked in your industry.”

Rob Adams, a partner with Tippmann Innovation, Fort Wayne, Indiana, said that a big consideration for a refrigerated facility is the integrity of the thermal envelope, which needs to be one of the most vital components of a build. This is sometimes lost on novice builders.

“One of the things processors should be asking is how much experience someone has building food facilities, and how many they have done in the last five to 10 years,” he said. “If they are a general contractor or commercial contractor that works on other things, they may not have the right experience to get the job done.”

A prefabricated piping system is a key component in a cold storage facility.

The Perfect Space

Having a sound business plan and knowing what you expect out of the facility for the next five, 10 and 20 years is a savvy beginning. Questions to consider include, “What do your growth plans require?” “Can you pay off the cost of a new facility through more storage and less trucking of product?” and “How much product will you store?”

“A key question to figuring out the size of the facility you need is understanding how you will store your product and how you will need to access it,” Bode said. “Is it on pallets, in bins, etc.? It is best to build the freezer for the storage needed, rather than fit the storage to the freezer.”

Hill said the flow of people and processes are critical when determining what you need in a facility.

“The proper separation of rooms such as raw storage to high care to packaging are equally as important,” he said. “Make sure your plan includes room to expand all these areas, and don’t forget about a maintenance department and waste removal.”

Food safety is a key issue for any food processor operating in today’s environment. Factors that need to be considered in the design include how food will be processed, packaged and shipped in a way that will maintain its quality and safety.

Location is another factor that must be considered. Bode said a facility is best if near transportation lines that can save the company time and money, and there should be space for future expansion possibilities.

Tippmann Innovation has a checklist of around 30 different questions that it goes over with its clients so they understand all the particulars of the job and the company they are working for. This includes the number of people who will be working there, the way it’s cleaned, the refrigeration in use and other layers of processing.

“It’s not just about maintaining 40° F in a building. There’s a lot more than meets the eye,” Adams said.

Budgeting concerns

The design/build process is the best way to keep a project in budget. In the design/build project approach, a company’s entire team should be brought together to assess the needs, and develop a budget and schedule that is realistic for what it wants to accomplish.

“Many people think, ‘I’ll get bids and take the low bidder.’ But that type of process can lead to higher costs when items are missed by you or someone you are working with or lower quality materials to stay within their bid,” Bode said. “When you work with a designer/builder, you invest in the feasibility portion of your project before you invest in the complete design of the building. That way, you know if you have a budget that works for your business, and you don’t proceed with your project without a firm budget.”

Palletized racking with Crown lifts adds to the efficiency of a cold storage/refrigeration facility.

A good tip is to be as thorough as possible in identifying your design and performance criteria before proceeding with bid proposals from sub-contractors.

“Be specific in your room finishes, i.e. coatings on floors, types of walls, drains, curbing, lighting, etc. and room temperatures,” Hill said. “There is a big difference between holding a room at 34 ̊ F versus 40 ̊ F. Any additions after the fact will cost you much more than if it was included in the original proposal. If you don’t have an in-house team capable of determining the design and performance criteria, you should seek outside assistance.”

By having a realistic and firm budget in place before you build, problems and challenges will be kept at a minimum.

“You will benefit from the team’s collective experience in dealing with projects similar to yours,” Bode said. “They will help you think through the details of your process and requirements, giving you a realistic picture of the costs long before the first shovel of dirt is turned.”

Another key factor in building within a budget is sticking with a schedule. Adams said processors should look to work with a company that has an excellent track record for building within budget and staying on schedule. When schedules slip, you potentially could miss harvest dates or pay overtime to meet harvest deadlines.

Energy Savings Elements

One of the best energy-saving elements that contractors are utilizing today is LED lighting – simple automated features such as variable frequency drives on fans and automatic lighting sensors.

“Automated mechanical systems, which include lighting and refrigeration monitoring, provide an excellent return on investment because they provide 24/7 system monitoring and can make corrections remotely, adding to the efficiency,” Bode said. “Automated refrigeration systems also provide safety monitoring.”

Bode also stresses the value of sharing the refrigeration system between processing and cold storage.

“Many processors use some sort of refrigeration or freezing system for processing,” she said. “A freezer’s system is much more robust, and with not much augmentation it can be ‘shared’ for processing.”

Adams said that there are a lot of electronic opportunities to help keep the energy savings happening – be it with compressors and refrigeration systems.

Merchandise Warehouse in Indianapolis is 100,000 square feet with 14,000 pallet positions.

Hill also said to beef up roof and wall insulation, install rapid open/close doors in refrigerated areas and proper dock door seals, and use destratification fans in large warehouse areas and automatic light sensors.

Additionally, high-speed doors can minimize the loss of cold air out of the freezer, vertical dock leveler doors on the dock will protect the product cold chain and preserve the cold dock environment, and metal walls are easier for cleaning.

“Identify what is most important to the success of your business,” Hill said. “You can always purchase an additional piece of equipment or upgrade office furniture in the future, but it is difficult if not impossible to add floor drains or a trash room after the facility is built.”

— Keith Loria, contributing writer