Effect of Covid Pandemic : Booming Demand for Cold Store Warehouses

Manuchehr Mehdizadeh, BSME , Life Member ASHRAE & IIR, Refrigeration Chair-ASHRAE of Houston Chapter 2020-22

“An effective cold chain not only prevents food from rapidly diminishing in value, but in extreme emergencies also provides the needed infrastructure to preserve, store and keep the food supply flowing across the globe..”

In March of 2020 when WHO officially announced the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world was taken off-guard with no plan in site. This is where the cold chain industry rose to the worldwide challenge in handling sudden changes in market demand to manage the burden of food distribution, spoilage and accessibility. An effective cold chain not only prevents food from rapidly diminishing in value, but in extreme emergencies also provides the needed infrastructure to preserve, store and keep the food supply flowing across the globe.

During the current pandemic, developers and refrigeration contractors who focus on cold chain industry concur in the growing demand and interest in cold store warehouses where the business driver is to build, invest, buy or acquire in this sector, despite its exorbitant cost of construction to that of conventional warehouses. Supply and demand including investment and development has always been very tight in this industry, however during the pandemic, overnight demand for cold stores at both new construction as well as massive retrofitted existing age-old facilities are said to have grown by up to 40%.

Increasing demand for cold storages at the last-mile stage of distribution – that is, near where people live, seemed already happening before the pandemic, but accelerated when lockdown orders shut restaurants and food service operations. Therefore, instead of building general cold store at remote locations (often termed as ‘Invisible Industry’) before the pandemic, many cold store warehouses are now being built in population growth centers where food products can readably be refrigerated and stored under the same roof.

This trend in the global cold store construction market has also been fueled by the shift in consumer eating habits from dining out and grocery purchases to eating from their refrigerator’s frozen or fresh perishable and ready to serve food in their own homes. And then theirs’s the growing number of consumers motivated to avoid crowds, who have turned to on-line or e-commerce grocery shopping for faster accessibility to perishable food.

Building a CEBA-approved (formerly known as the International Association for Cold Storage Construction) cold store space can cost up to $150 per square foot depending on specialized construction elements, system feed, regulatory issues, project management and sustainability considerations. In addition, this type of refrigeration need has led to the demand in skilled and knowledgeable professionals who can design/build/operate the build-to-order facilities.

Technological advancement is also playing a major role in how these new facilities are being built to improve the efficiency of food supply storage and its distribution. Examples include IoT sensors that monitor food temperature and communicate the data to cloud-based analytics dashboards. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is then used to correlate data from various sources such as power cost, weather, distribution logistics, cooling capacity and schedules to provide the optimum storage and distribution infrastructures.

There’s also the advancement in tracking and warehousing, tighter temperature control to improve shelf life, and performance tweaks to reduce operating costs that are impacting the operational aspects of the refrigeration systems in the cold storage market. Safety regulations and manufacturer’s quality standards are also impacting this movement where cold storage facility developers are maximizing their output with the use of robotics, PLC systems, intelligent controls, real time monitoring, rapid motorized doors, thermal insulation energy, automated material handling and high-speed conveyor systems.

There’s also been a demand in energy efficient systems operating with low cost inorganic refrigerants like natural hydrocarbon-based refrigerants such as NH3 and CO2 due to their zero GWP & ODP. Last but not least OSHA’s PSM and EPA’s RMP also has an impact by their requirements of using low ammonia charge packaged pre-engineered refrigeration system where less field piping are needed and where ammonia can be contained in the MER (Mechanical Equipment Room).

While reviewing the public cold store facilities – pre-pandemic – for 52 countries IARW International Association of Refrigerated Warehouses (IARW) reported that with an annual global food production rate of 6.5 billion tons, ~600 million cubic meters of refrigerated warehouse space (~ refrigerated storage of 150 million ton food products) has been constructed. For the same period the global population is said to need over 7000 million cubic meters of temperature controlled warehouse (TCW) space (~refrigerated storage of 1750 million ton of food products), in order to be prepared for any unforeseen global catastrophic event such as drought, water shortage or another pandemic that may cause restrictions on global food growth, modern packaging and its distribution method.

It is hoped that the COVID-19 pandemic will be curtailed in the near future and the growth of cold store facilities will continue until supply meets demand thereby leading to faster and more efficient food distribution and storage leaving a positive impact on neighborhoods and boosting local economies.

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