True Manufacturing in O’Fallon spearheads a green revolution in refrigeration

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Eleven years ago, the research and development team at True Manufacturing had an idea that could lead to both a better refrigerator and a cooler planet.

Based in O’Fallon, True is the nation’s largest manufacturer of commercial refrigerators. The privately owned company has more than 4 million square feet of production space in Missouri and ships to more than 100 countries.

In the mid-2000s, some of True’s largest customers began asking for more environmentally friendly refrigerators. The refrigerators available at the time were beginning to gain a negative reputation among environmentalists because of their high energy usage and for relying on refrigerants — some dubbed “super pollutants” — that are believed to contribute substantially to global warming.

Kitchen Scene 4__2aIn Europe, some refrigeration companies had solved this problem by switching to natural refrigerants that were much safer for the environment. The idea inside True was to develop its own version of this technology and introduce it to the United States.

“It was environmentally driven to look at ways to improve our carbon footprint,” said John Friend, True’s manager of research and development.

True was already known for having an environmentally conscious mind-set. Engineers there had spent years working to make True a greener company through energy conservation, solar technology and recycling.

But bringing new refrigerants to market in the United States would be a much bigger challenge. The company would have to redesign its products, revamp its manufacturing lines and retrain thousands of employees and independent service technicians around the world.

While it would be a huge undertaking, the company felt it had a chance to both solidify its position as a leader in green refrigeration and make a positive impact on the environment.

“It was very exciting,” Friend said. “These are once-in-a-lifetime chances for us.”

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The big change True was contemplating might sound like a non sequitur at first — the company was going to attempt to swap out traditional refrigerants for propane.

While American consumers are very familiar with using propane to heat things, including our homes and our barbecue grills, most of us have never heard of using propane to keep things cold.

However, propane is actually a very efficient refrigerant that’s believed to have a negligible impact on global warming.

When comparing refrigerants, industry leaders look to a rating called “global warming potential,” which measures how much heat different gases trap in the Earth’s atmosphere.

The common refrigerants R-404A and tetrafluoroethane (R-134a) have relatively high global warming ratings of 3922 and 1430, respectively.

Propane, on the other hand, scores a 3 on the scale.

“We saw this was an opportunity to lower our impact, lower our global warming potential and lower energy costs for our customers,” said Friend.

Using propane in a refrigerator doesn’t fundamentally change how the refrigerator operates. But since propane is flammable, it does require a host of alterations inside the machine to ensure that the propane is handled safely and that all the components are spark-free.

Moving to propane would also require a complete revamp of the company’s production process — encompassing even small details like giving production workers static-free mats to stand on while they built the new refrigerators.

But while the company’s engineers worked to address these issues, True had to confront another major hurdle: Propane wasn’t even a legal refrigerant in the United States.

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There’s a common misconception about using propane in refrigerators.

“Everybody thinks, ‘Oh my gosh, is my refrigerator is going to explode?’” said Friend.

In reality, there’s no chance of that happening. True’s standard-sized refrigerators contain less than 2 ounces of propane, which is less than half the amount of propane contained in a can of spray paint or air freshener.

The company shared these facts as it worked with regulators to gain approval for propane’s use as a refrigerant in the United States.

DSC_2153These talks started in 2007 when True began collaborating with scientists at Underwriters Laboratory, a national safety organization.

“This was brand-new for them as well,” Friend said. “They did not have a standard that addressed flammable refrigerants.”

By 2009, True had received permission to build refrigerators using propane in Missouri and sell them oversees.

To sell domestically, True still needed a blessing from the Environmental Protection Agency.

That came in 2011, enabling True, and all other manufacturers, to begin selling propane-based refrigerators in the United States the next year.

“It was True Manufacturing’s submittal that started that process to have it approved as a refrigerant to be used in the United States,” Friend said.

But it didn’t end there.

True’s work with propane was noticed by several high-ranking government officials, including Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and John Podesta, a former White House chief of staff who at the time was serving as the administration’s counselor to the president on global warming and the environment.

In 2014, Podesta invited True Manufacturing owner Steve Trulaske and Engineering Manager Charlie Hon to the White House alongside representatives of more than 20 other companies that had committed to switching to environmentally friendly refrigerators. The meeting focused on finding ways to speed up market-wide adoption of the technology spearheaded by True.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime event and a day we will never forget,” said Hon.

Less than a year later, the EPA released a new rule requiring all commercial refrigerator manufacturers to phase out traditional refrigerants.

There’s little doubt that True’s efforts helped inspire the government to push the industry forward.

“The industry was in an upheaval. We were the one company forging forward saying all this was possible — and maybe not everyone was on board with that at the beginning,” said Friend. “But we were clear with our message that everything was in place to be able to do this and that this is the right thing to do for our environment.”

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By the end of this year, all of True’s glass-door refrigerators will be converted to propane. The rest of the company’s products will complete the transition during 2018, in time to comply with the new EPA-mandated phase-out.

True Office Operations Manager Kelly Kelly said there’s growing customer demand for the new units, which are also quieter and use much less energy.

“It gives our customers a great story as well,” said Kelly. “We have customers who buy multiple pieces of equipment or a whole kitchen. Some order thousands of pieces at a time. The savings add up fast.”

In addition to growing sales, the company feels pride in how its efforts are helping combat global warming.

“This was probably the most significant way we could impact the environment,” said Melinda Willison, an office and human resources manager at True.

Looking ahead, Friend said the company’s research and development teams are pursuing more ideas — all of them secret for the time being — to further evolve refrigeration technology.

He said he’s fortunate to work at a company that doesn’t mind forging its own path.

“We have certainly blazed a trail,” Friend said. “It puts us right on the path we need for continued growth.”

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