Imperial Logistics’ healthcare business invests in its cold chain

Imperial Logistics’ healthcare business invests in its cold chain

By Kevin Walter of Lutz Refrigeration
When Imperial Logistics decided to upgrade its warehousing and distribution facilities at its healthcare warehouse in Centurion, teamwork was crucial to complete both phases on schedule, without any downtime at the facility.

Imperial Logistics’ healthcare business stores medical supplies for southern Africa, with a network of cold storage facilities extending as far as Kenya, Malawi and Nigeria. This particular facility is an operational hub, storing the lion’s share of goods including everything from run-of-the-mill medication, right up to extremely high-value vaccines.
As Imperial Logistics’ healthcare business grew, so did its need for bigger facilities.

The refrigeration part of the project happened in two phases with Phase 1 being a brand new cold room, airlock, loading cold room as well as a freezer. This part of the project commenced in February 2018 with initial demolition of an existing warehouse.

Phase 1 was completed within schedule to be commissioned on 30 April, taking a mere three months from the demolition starting to the commissioning of the new cold rooms.

It is an amazing feat that Abbeydale, as the developer, managed to get all the different stakeholders to come together and finish the project without any major delays on such an ambitious timeline.

Phase 2 kicked off in June 2018, a month after the completion of Phase 1. This phase of the project involved the demolition of an existing 1 500m² cold store (6.5m high), plant and warehouse structure and then the reinstallation of a new warehouse structure plus a series of cold rooms. The new structure was similar to the old one, except that the height was increased from 6.5m to 14.5m high. This phase was completed five months later with commissioning and handover taking place by the end of October 2018.

Thanks to the great teamwork, all timelines were achieved, even though most contractors initially thought it was an insurmountable task.

All photos by: Ilana Koegelenberg

Client brief

Imperial Logistics has a long history in cold chain management and has run facilities like this successfully for many years. As such, Lara Haigh, the managing director of the South African healthcare business, and her team were very knowledgeable and specific about what they wanted.

Of critical importance was ensuring total cold chain integrity, as the value of product in these rooms is quite significant and losses have to be prevented at all costs. Another important consideration was the standards to which the client must adhere for achieving the desired certification, which are extremely stringent. As such, all holding rooms are completely self-sustainable, with standalone systems in place. An added feature to reduce turnaround times on breakdowns was that the large cold rooms all have the same model of compressor in their various condensing units and there is a spare compressor on site at all times.

A basic breakdown of the various room and equipment specs, is as follows:

Phase 1

Cold room 1 (30m x 30m x 14.5m high)
Two complete refrigeration systems with 100% standby capacity to operate between 2°C and 8°C. 185kW cooling at -5°C suction.
Receiving cold room 1 (9m x 5.5m x 7.2m high)
One complete refrigeration system to operate between 2°C and 8°C. 12kW cooling at -5°C suction.
Air lock 1 (13m x 3.4m x 7.5m high)
One complete refrigeration system to operate between 2°C and 8°C. 12 kW cooling at -5°C suction.
Freezer 1 (9m x 5.5m x 5.5m high)
Four complete refrigeration systems to operate between -25°C and -18°C. 44kW cooling at -25°C suction

 Phase 2

Cold room 2 (40m x 30m x 14.5m high)
Three complete refrigeration systems for 100% standby capacity to operate between 2°C and 8°C. 270kW cooling at -5°C suction.
Receiving cold room 1 (15m x 5.5m x 7.2m high)
One complete refrigeration system to operate between 2°C and 8°C. 12kW cooling at -5°C suction.
Air lock 1 (15m x 3.4m x 7.5m high)
One complete refrigeration system to operate between 2°C and 8°C. 12kW cooling at -5°C suction.

 System description

All holding rooms meet the required cooling capacity and there is an entire extra condensing unit and evaporator set to ensure redundancy in case of a breakdown of any of the units. The gas used here is R507 across all systems (freezer and cold room). The total capacity of cooling installed on site is roughly 550kW.

The refrigeration plant is located in a plant room 6m in the air above the airlocks and freezer rooms. The condensing units blow their warm air via steel ducting directly out the side of the plant room through louvres to create a neat façade where no one would even realise what goes on behind those walls. This was critical to create a neat appearance in line with Imperial Logistics’s clean pharmaceutical image.

Zero downtime

All holding rooms were designed with 100% standby capacity due to the value of product stored in these rooms and the critical importance of keeping them within the desired temperature bands. To illustrate just how crucial the product is, Imperial Logistics monitors all rooms with a Carel Plant Visor Pro system which monitors in excess of 10 temperature points in each room.

If the temperature gets within 1°C of its limits (below 3°C or above 7°C), alarms go off and technicians must be on site within the hour to resolve the problem.

However, this becomes a real challenge when doors are open or rooms defrost. To handle this, numerous evaporator coils were installed around the rooms and the distribution of evaporator coils is staggered around the room so that if one system goes down, you still have a well-balanced cooling distribution around the room. The plant is also set to run on a very tight band between 3.5°C and 4.5°C to stay far from its limits at all times.

The level of care taken to ensure that the plant operates within the temperature (by not skimping on redundancy and refrigeration capacity), makes this one of the most robust pharmaceutical cold stores around. This could never have been achieved without absolute critical planning upfront. Each system is monitored by a pre-emptive alarm system that looks at every inch of the plant in fine detail so that the second a fan trips or a plants gas level starts to drop alarms go off and the plant is restored to correct operation immediately. We have repeater alarm boards around the facility to ensure that alarms are noted immediately.

In the eight years leading into this project previous rooms were also run to this temperature specification, proudly never leaving the design temperature band once!


The biggest challenge on this project was the extremely tight deadline. As well as running the Phase 1 cold rooms to these tight specifications while Phase 2 was still under construction directly next door (including demolishing the building butting onto the Phase 1 cold room). All credit must go to Abbeydale for the extremely professional manner in which planning and execution of these operations were carried out.

Another unexpected challenge that materialised during the course of the project was that the main power supply cable to the Phase 1 refrigeration system ran right through the middle of the Phase 2 demolition site. This cable had to be carefully avoided and not damaged as the power it provided was running the entire electrical supply to Phase 1 which was holding many millions of rands worth of stock. The demolition went ahead and the cable survived to tell the tale without any glitches.

Additionally, it must be noted that the total project duration was roughly 18 months with hundreds of technicians and artisans on site at any given time under extreme pressure, but safety was never neglected and no one was hurt.

Sustainability matters

Installing the plant in the cool plant room environment and using oversized condensers ensures that compressors run with the optimal coefficient of performance (COP) for an air-cooled synthetic refrigerant plant by keeping condensing temperatures right down. This was critical as the electrical consumption for a plant of this scale is significant in the overall operation costs.

Another key feature to the efficiency of this plant is the extra capacity installed, which means that the plant operates with a duty cycle of five minutes on, 10 minutes off, reducing kWH usage by not labouring all day long.
A unique and often overlooked sustainable feature of this project was that for Phase 2 of the project, an existing  1 500m² cold room was removed to make way for a new one twice as high as the old one. The original brief was to demolish the room with a ball and chain as the tight timeline did not allow for weeks of careful dismantling to save the panels and plant.

We could not stand by and watch all that polystyrene and steel go from a fully functional cold room to an enormous mess of polystyrene balls on a dump site. After much discussion with the client, it was agreed that if we mobilised a large enough work force with precise execution of dismantling panels straight onto trucks (as there wasn’t enough space to store the goods on site), Imperial would agree to let us reclaim the cold room.

In the end, the cost of demolishing the cold room was saved and instead Imperial received money for its reclaimed cold room. The entire structure now stands in Brits at a factory that makes ice lollies, providing value once again.

Validation process

To sign a cold room off to be ready for the introduction of their clients’ products, Imperial Logistics runs a very stringent commissioning process which they call “validation”. During the validation period, temperatures are logged at the various points around the room and various units are tripped to see how the system would handle it. Fans are also tripped to see the impact of failures to make sure that even if a system goes down, the back-up units can handle the load and cold chain requirements are not failed at any point in the room for even a moment. This process can last up to a week.


In addition to the stringent design specifications, it’s vital not to neglect maintenance after installing these magnificent systems. Imperial Logistics takes this very seriously and signed a service level agreement with Lutz Refrigeration to ensure that the plant is properly looked after with periodic services scheduled every three months.
During these services, gas levels, fans, compressors, electrical connections, etc. are all checked and the results documented. All alarm systems are also put through their paces to make sure that they are functional if required.

Mission accomplished

The client was extremely appreciative of the fact that they didn’t miss a day of operation during the entire construction period. The process of the new rooms coming online as the old rooms were removed ensured a seamless cold chain was maintained and their clients’ products were always looked after.

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