The Year We Were Hot for Supercold Freezers

The pandemic has given many of us a new appreciation for things we took for granted before Covid-19: time with friends and family, a night out at a restaurant, travel … and yes, even indoor air quality. 

Despite my being a columnist covering the industrial sector, I didn’t spend much time thinking about ventilation pre-pandemic, nor was I overly preoccupied with the existence of technology that can produce temperatures as low as -70 degrees Celsius — colder than the average temperature on Mars, but also the conditions needed to keep Pfizer Inc.’s Covid-19 vaccine stable. Now I think about both of those things all the time. And so do investors: It’s not a coincidence that two of the top 10 industrial stocks this year — Carrier Global Corp. and Trane Technologies Plc — make air conditioners and freezers.

The Year We Were Hot for Supercold Freezers

The pandemic has created something of a moment for ventilation and refrigeration. And yet, while the industry has invested in certain innovations and reconfigurations to adapt to the coronavirus, the underlying technology has existed for years, whirring away quietly in the background of our lives. Really, it’s our awareness of these companies’ capabilities that’s changed. 

“Indoor air quality isn’t a new concept,” Chris Nelson, president of Carrier’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning division, said in an interview. “It has become — I don't know if I would say more important, because obviously it was important from the get-go — but it's becoming very prevalent.” Knowing what we now know about airborne viruses and the importance of ventilation, humidity control and filtration in controlling the spread of disease, it’s hard to imagine society will just forget and move on, he said. Nelson compared increased attention around the importance of indoor-air quality to the reassessment of security measures following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “Hopefully it's the last airborne virus,” he said. “But likely not.”

Carrier estimates that demand for indoor-air quality improvements could generate $10 billion in new revenue opportunities across the industry, including $165 million of projects the company is already discussing with customers. Some 90% of a person’s life is spent indoors, and people are also realizing the impact air quality can have on allergies, asthma and even cognitive capabilities, Nelson said. Honeywell International Inc. has flagged a more than $600 million sales pipeline for its “healthy buildings” products, while Johnson Controls International Plc CEO George Oliver has said his company is looking at potential projects in this vein worth “a couple of hundred million” dollars for just next year.

While Trane has always sold advanced technology that uses chemical reactions to clean the air, its typical customers were hospitals or labs. Purifying air with such next-level measures was a harder sell pre-pandemic because the air-quality benefits weren’t the kind of thing you could physically see, Dave Regnery, Trane’s president and chief operating officer, said in an interview. Now, customer inquiries are coming from all directions, he said. For example, Trane teamed up with biodefense company Synexis to develop a system that purifies the air but also coats and cleans the surfaces in the room. It’s marketing this to K-12 schools. Carrier is selling its portable OptiClean product — which both scrubs the air and creates negative pressure that prevents air from spreading from one area to the next — to retailers, hotels, factories and more, Nelson said. Meanwhile, Johnson Controls is holding conversations with universities about designing pandemic-proof dormitories where each room can be transformed into a pressurized isolation chamber with the flip of a switch, Tyler Smith, executive director of the company’s healthy buildings program, said in an interview. “New buildings will be built differently because of what we learned” in the pandemic, he said.

The Year We Were Hot for Supercold Freezers

Executives from Carrier, Johnson Controls and Trane all expect the increased interest in indoor air quality to ultimately translate into some kind of standardized climate-control ratings system that indicates where buildings fall on the spectrum of things like ventilation, humidity control, filtration and energy efficiency. This could be akin to or even an expansion of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design’s (LEED) ranking of green buildings or the Well system of assessing a facility’s impact on health and well-being; basically, a calling card of sorts that advertises how clean the air is in that particular office space or indoor arena. Once there’s a standard, progress can be measured and problems can be rectified through digital solutions that turn buildings into treasure troves of data, which can then be analyzed and mined for recommendations on how to improve performance. “There will certainly be more standardization of what constitutes a ‘good’ building,” Mike Ellis, chief digital and customer officer at Johnson Controls, said in an interview. “The pandemic is a catalyst to think about real estate in a different way.”  The company recently launched its OpenBlue software platform, which uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to not only map out trouble spots but teach buildings to make their own improvements.

Whether there will be as much of a need for ultracold freezers after the pandemic is less clear, but the focus on vaccine distribution has brought some astonishing figures to light. About a quarter of shots degrade before they reach their final destination, and a third of food intended for human consumption is wasted, David Appel, president of refrigeration at Carrier, said in an interview. “If food waste was a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases,” he said. “Today’s reality is shining a big bright light on the need for a stronger, more connected cold chain. We know that vaccine distribution at the best of times can be challenging. We know because that's what we've been doing for years.”

To meet the expected surge in demand for cold storage amid the massive Covid-19 vaccine rollout now underway, Carrier introduced mobile freezer pods enabled with temperature monitoring technology that can serve as temporary containers and extend the life of dry ice. The largest version of these containers can hold up to a million doses of a vaccine; Carrier has 300 of them ready to be deployed, another 300 on order and could ramp up production to 2,000 a month if needed, Appel said. These pods could be a vital stop-gap solution for countries such as India that are behind the curve on investments in cold-chain infrastructure, he said.

Trane’s Thermo King refrigeration unit reworked a niche product for flash-freezing sushi-grade fish so it can be used to distribute vaccines instead. Known as the SuperFreezer, this system can get as cold as -70 degrees Celsius — cold enough to preserve the taste, texture and freshness of fish used in sashimi and cold enough to store the coronavirus vaccines developed by Pfizer and BioNTech SE without dry ice, if needed. That may be important for rural areas with less access to dry ice, or if the spike in demand creates a shortage. Trane’s SuperFreezer has about 60 times the capacity of typical freezer farms and the temperature can be adjusted to meet the requirements of Moderna Inc.’s coronavirus vaccine as well, Regnery said. 

And that’s the funny thing about this pandemic. You never know how essential things like air scrubbers and sushi freezers are until you really need them. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Brooke Sutherland is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals and industrial companies. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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