Title:
Retail in-cabinet refrigeration and storage unit
Kind Code:
A1


Abstract:
A cooling apparatus in the form of a refrigeration and storage apparatus employs a cooling unit, such as a thermoelectric module. Forced cool air is circulated in a storage compartment containing retail merchandise. An air duct extends from an intake on one side of a door on the front of storage compartment to the rear of the apparatus where air passes by hot side sink and air is then exhausted on a opposite side of the door. The refrigeration and storage apparatus can be mounted in a cabinet or on a shelf and can be surrounded by other item without obstruction of the air duct intake and exhaust and without heating adjacent items.



Inventors:
Welker, Brian Hart (Pfafftown, NC, US)
Isaacs, Gregory Scott (Mt. Airy, NC, US)
Application Number:
11/980148
Publication Date:
01/01/2009
Filing Date:
10/30/2007
Assignee:
IMAGEWORKS DISPLAY AND MARKETING GROUP
Primary Class:
Other Classes:
62/3.6
International Classes:
A47F3/04; F25B21/02
View Patent Images:
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Primary Examiner:
COMINGS, DANIEL C
Attorney, Agent or Firm:
Robert W. Pitts (Winston-Salem, NC, US)
Claims:
We claim:

1. A retail in-cabinet refrigeration and storage apparatus for use in storing sales items at a lower than normal temperature comprises: a storage compartment with a door opening on the front of the storage compartment so that sales items stored therein can be withdrawn or replenished though an opening at the front of the storage compartment; a thermoelectric cooling unit located at the rear of the storage compartment to cool sales items in the storage compartment; and a duct comprising an intake on one side of the door at the front of the in-cabinet refrigeration and storage apparatus and a exhaust on an opposite side of the door at the front of the in-cabinet refrigeration and storage apparatus, the duct being thermally separated from the storage compartment; whereby the intake and exhaust of air to maintain the temperature of the thermoelectric cooling unit will not be obstructed when the in-cabinet refrigeration and storage apparatus is positioned on a shelf of a cabinet near other items.

2. The retail in-cabinet refrigeration and storage apparatus of claim 1 wherein a fan in the storage compartment circulates cooler air in the storage compartment.

3. The retail in-cabinet refrigeration and storage apparatus of claim 1 wherein the door is hinged from below so that the door when open does not obstruct either intake into or exhaust from the air circulation duct.

4. The retail in-cabinet refrigeration and storage apparatus of claim 3 wherein a pusher track is positioned in the storage compartment between the door and the thermoelectric cooling unit.

5. The retail in-cabinet refrigeration and storage apparatus of claim 1 wherein a hot side sink on the thermoelectric cooling unit extends into the duct.

6. The retail in-cabinet refrigeration and storage apparatus of claim 1 wherein a blower unit on the exterior of the storage compartment circulates air through the air circulation duct.

7. The retail in-cabinet refrigeration and storage apparatus of claim 6 wherein the blower unit is located at the rear of the apparatus.

8. The retail in-cabinet refrigeration and storage apparatus of claim 1 wherein the door is transparent so that items in the storage compartment can be viewed by prospective customers.

9. The retail in-cabinet refrigeration and storage apparatus of claim 1 wherein an upper surface and a lower surface are both flat so multiple retail in-cabinet refrigeration and storage apparatuses can be stacked.

10. The retail in-cabinet refrigeration and storage apparatus of claim 1 including an air circulation fan located in the storage compartment.

11. An apparatus for storing and displaying merchandise comprising: a storage compartment having a front and rear with a door through which merchandise can be removed from the front of the apparatus; a thermoelectric cooling unit located at the rear of the storage compartment, the thermoelectric cooling unit including a thermoelectric cooling element with a cold side sink mounted on a front surface of the thermoelectric cooling element and a hot side sink mounted on a rear surface of the thermoelectric cooling element; a barrier wall extending between the hot side sink and the cold side sink; an air circulation fan located in the storage compartment adjacent the cold side sink to circulate air within the storage compartment; and a duct on the exterior of the storage compartment for exhausting hot air passing over the hot side sink out the front of the apparatus.

12. The apparatus of claim 12 wherein the hot side sink extends into the duct.

13. The apparatus of claim 12 wherein a blower is located behind the storage compartment adjacent to the hot side sink to blow air past the hot side sink.

14. The apparatus of claim 12 wherein the duct extends from one side of the door on the front of the apparatus, around behind the rear of the apparatus and out on an opposite side of the door on the front of the apparatus.

15. The apparatus of claim 14 wherein the duct extends between top and bottom surfaces of the apparatus.

16. The apparatus of claim 11 wherein the thermoelectric cooling unit and the barrier wall are located between front and rear housings, with the air circulating fan being mounted on the front housing and with a rear portion of the duct extending between the barrier wall and the rear housing.

17. The apparatus of claim 16 wherein the cold side sink and the air circulating fan are offset relative to a center of the storage compartment, with the front housing including an inclined surface adjacent to the air circulating fan so that air may be circulated between opposite sides of the storage compartment and between the front and back of the storage compartment.

18. An apparatus for refrigerating and displaying merchandise comprising: an insulated storage compartment; a thermoelectric cooling comprising a thermoelectric element and a cold side sink and a hot side sink mounted in a housing attachable to the rear of the insulated storage compartment with the cold side sink open to the interior of the insulated storage compartment, and with the hot side sink being located outside of the insulated storage compartment; and a duct extending on opposite sides of the storage compartment from a front surface of the apparatus, with the duct extending through the housing at the rear of the apparatus so that the hot side sink is located within the duct.

19. The apparatus of claim 18 wherein a blower unit is located in the portion of the duct extending through the cooling unit housing, the blower unit drawing air into one side of the duct at the front of the apparatus and out of an opposite side of the duct at the front of the apparatus.

20. The apparatus of claim 19 further comprising an air circulating fan positioned adjacent the cold side sink to circulate air within the storage compartment.

Description:

CROSS REFERENCE TO PRIOR CO-PENDING APPLICATIONS

This application claims the benefit of prior co-pending U.S. Provisional Patent Application 60/937,716 filed Jun. 30, 2007 entitled Retail In-Cabinet Refrigeration and Storage Unit.

BACKGROUND OF THE INVENTION

1. Field of the Invention

This invention is related to a retail refrigeration and storage unit for storing merchandise that should be cooled or heated. This invention is also related to a display unit that can employ a thermoelectric or Peltier cooling unit. This invention is also related to a retail refrigeration and storage unit which can be positioned in a cabinet in which related or competitive merchandise, that may not require refrigeration, may be displayed.

2. Description of the Prior Art

Retail merchandise that must be or should be cooled or chilled in an establishment, such as a grocery or convenience store, is normally placed in a conventional refrigeration unit. These typical refrigeration units are typically large units that may be open so that prospective customers can easily remove merchandise, or if necessary can have glass doors where items, such as frozen foods, must be kept at a lower temperature. These large units, are however, intended for storing a wide variety of competitive items. Representative examples of such refrigerated merchandisers are shown in U.S. Pat. No. 5,499,513 and U.S. Pat. No. 5,584,192. Such refrigeration units are normally intended for use in storing food and beverages, and are normally not suitable for storing nonfood items. This lack of storage space is one factor preventing the effective retail distribution of items, which if refrigerated or heated, could offer improvements to the prospective purchaser.

There are situations in which a smaller cooler that can be dedicated to the storage and display of a single item or a single family of merchandise is desirable. For example, a small, dedicated cooler that could be mounted on a counter would provide a means for attracting the attention of a shopper or prospective purchaser. One such version of a merchandising cooler with a small footprint is suggested by US Patent Application Publication 2005/0109040 A1. This device employs a thermoelectric array for either heating or cooling an insulated container. One advantage of the thermoelectric array is its relatively small size. However, one apparent disadvantage of this device is the relatively small area of windows or doors that would allow inspection of the product or merchandise in the insulated container. Furthermore there is no suggestion of means for drawing a prospective purchaser's attention to the product. Of course, it would be possible to make the majority of the insulated container transparent, assuming that the loss of thermal efficiency would be compatible with the desired application. However, even such a totally transparent, insulated storage container would only make the product or merchandise visible. It would still rely primarily on the appearance of the product to draw the attention of the prospective purchaser.

Thermoelectric cooling elements are used for applications other than point of sale refrigeration units. For example, U.S. Pat. No. 6,769,260 discloses the use of a thermoelectric cooling element for storing cosmetics. A thermoelectric unit can also employed in a humidifier as disclosed in U.S. Pat. No. 5,007,242.

SUMMARY OF THE INVENTION

The instant invention is intended for use in a cabinet or shelf alongside other items in a retail establishment, such as a supermarket, a convenience store or a restaurant. This retail in-cabinet refrigeration and storage apparatus can be placed in a section where other items need not be cooled, and it can be positioned on an existing shelf or counter. For example, this retail in-cabinet refrigeration and storage apparatus can be placed with competitive items to draw the attention of prospective customers. It can also be placed near related items, which would attract a prospective customer with the same interests. However, this retail in-cabinet refrigeration and storage apparatus is intended to be used with products that either must be maintained at a lower temperature than nearby items, or it can be used where lower temperature storage could offer some advantage or attract a prospective customer's attention. However, this retail in-cabinet refrigeration and storage apparatus cannot be allowed to overheat and air must be circulated around a hot side sink on a thermoelectric cooling unit. In this invention, air is circulated into and out of the refrigeration and storage apparatus through the front so that hot air will be exhausted through the front and will not affect surrounding product. The retail in-cabinet refrigeration and storage apparatus must employ an intake and exhaust that will not be susceptible to obstruction by nearby items or structures.

A retail in-cabinet refrigeration and storage apparatus according to this invention is used for storing retail sales items at a lower than normal temperature. A storage compartment has a door opening on the front of the storage compartment so that retail items stored therein can be withdrawn or replenished though an opening at the front of the storage compartment. A thermoelectric cooling unit is located at the rear of the storage compartment to cool air and retail items in the storage compartment. A duct includes an intake on one side of the door at the front of the in-cabinet refrigeration and storage apparatus and a exhaust on an opposite side of the door at the front of the in-cabinet refrigeration and storage apparatus. The duct is thermally separated from the storage compartment. The intake and exhaust of air, maintaining the temperature of the thermoelectric cooling unit, will not be obstructed when the in-cabinet refrigeration and storage apparatus is positioned on a shelf of in a cabinet near other items. Items on the sides and on the top and bottom of this unit will not be affected by the air flow or the heat transferred by this moving air.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS

FIG. 1 is a three dimensional view of a retail in-cabinet refrigeration and storage apparatus according to this invention.

FIG. 2 is a top view of the retail in-cabinet refrigeration and storage apparatus according to this invention.

FIG. 3 is a front view of the apparatus depicted in FIGS. 1 and 2.

FIG. 4 is a side view of the apparatus of FIGS. 1-3.

FIG. 5 is an exploded view showing the individual components of the retail in-cabinet refrigeration and storage apparatus according to this invention.

FIG. 6 is a cut away view showing the interior storage compartment of the retail in-cabinet refrigeration and storage apparatus shown in FIGS. 1-5.

FIG. 7 is a three dimensional view of a cooling unit comprising a thermoelectric cooling unit used in the embodiment of FIGS. 1-6.

FIG. 8 is an exploded view showing the individual components of the thermoelectric cooling unit.

FIG. 9 is a view of a thermoelectric cooling element with cold and hot side sinks contacting opposite sides of the thermoelectric cooling element.

DETAILED DESCRIPTION OF THE PREFERRED EMBODIMENT

Although not limited to reliance upon thermoelectric or TE modules for temperature control, these devices provide an effective method of pumping heat for use in this invention, and a brief discussion of these modules is appropriate prior to discussion of a first embodiment of this invention. Thermoelectric modules are the basis of efficient solid state heat pumps or heat exchangers for both heating and cooling. Thermoelectric modules are based on the Peltier effect, which recognizes that current passed through two dissimilar electrical conductors will cause heat to be either emitted or absorbed at the junction of the two conductors. A typical thermoelectric module consists of bismuth telluride semiconductor P/N doped pellets with pairs of P/N pellets electrically in series, but thermally in parallel. Thermoelectric modules of this type function as heat pumps and are especially suited for units of small size in which the temperature differential between the exterior and the refrigerated interior is on the order of 30-50° F. for example.

These devices can be used for cooling or for heating depending upon the direction of current flow through the semiconductor junction. Thermoelectric modules can also be employed for power generation, although this application is not relevant to the instant invention. A discussion of thermoelectric modules and the Peltier Effect can be found in “Thermoelectric Materials: Principles, Structure, Properties, and Applications”, Encyclopedia of Materials: Science and Technology, © 2002 Elsevier Science Ltd., incorporated herein by reference. A thermoelectric cooling unit is preferred for use in this application for a number of reasons, such as the absence of moving parts reducing maintenance, and the absence of coolants that must be replenished. Other components of cooling unit will be subsequently discussed in further detail. It should be understood, that while thermoelectric modules are especially suited for use in small coolers of the type described herein, this invention is not limited to the use of thermoelectric or solid state cooling units.

The principal application of a thermoelectric module relevant to a first embodiment of this invention is its use for cooling the contents of a storage compartment. It should be understood that alternative embodiments in which heat is delivered to the contents of the storage compartment are also possible in addition to the point of sale cooler or retail refrigeration and storage apparatus 50, comprising a representative and preferred embodiment of the invention, described herein.

The storage compartment 52 of this in-cabinet refrigeration and storage apparatus 50 provides space for storage of individual retail items 54 in one or more merchandise pusher tracks 3, which is suitable for holding multiple rows of sales items 54. As shown in FIG. 5, pusher track 3 has grooves for holding three rows of sales items. Spring loaded pusher paddles 4 advance the sales items toward the front position in track 3. The storage compartment 52 will be bounded on four sides by insulating foam panels including a top foam panel 12, a bottom foam panel 13, a right side panel 20 and a left side panel 23, which are individually depicted in FIG. 5. A door 2 is located on the front of the storage compartment 52, and individual items 54 from any of the three rows can be removed through door 2. The door 2 can be transparent so that prospective customers can examiner merchandise with the refrigeration and storage apparatus 50 is located either on an accessible shelf or on a counter in a convenience store or other retail outlet. The pusher track 3 can also be replenished through door 2. A refrigeration unit in the form of a thermoelectric cooler assembly 7 is positioned at the back of the storage compartment 52 so that the temperature in the storage compartment can be maintained at a level suitable for the sales items 54 stored therein without interfering with access to merchandise stored within the unit.

The storage compartment 52 is accessible through a door 2, which extends over most of the front. The door 2 is hinged to a front panel 1 by a hinge pin 15 located on the bottom of front panel 1 so that the top of door 2 rotates downward when grasped by a handle located at the top of the door 2. A gasket 5 extends around the edge of the door 2, and when the door 2 is closed, the gasket 5 will engage front panel 1 to close off the opening in the front panel 1. A rare earth magnet 6 will retain the door 2 in a closed position. When the in-cabinet refrigeration and storage apparatus 50 is placed on a shelf or in a cabinet, the door 2 may be the only face that is visible, so information stickers 19 can be placed on the exterior of the door 2. The door 2 may also be transparent so that prospective customers can view merchandise in the storage compartment 52.

As shown in FIG. 6, an exterior top panel 8 and an exterior bottom panel 9 are positioned in contact with the upper insulating foam panel 12 and the lower insulating foam panel 13 respectively. Side panels 10 and 11 do not lie against the side insulating foam panels 10 and 23 respectively. As shown in FIG. 5, the exterior panel 11 includes a central rib extending inwardly from the plane of panel 11. This rib maintains a space between the exterior panel 11 and the insulating foam panel 23. A duct will then be established between the panel 11 and the adjacent foam panel 23. Although not visible in FIG. 5 a similar duct is established between insulating foam panel 20 and the exterior panel 10 and the spacing between the two panels 10 and 20 is maintained in the same manner as for panels 11 and 23. As seen in FIG. 6 this spacing will form a slot 60 open on the front face of in-cabinet refrigeration and storage apparatus. FIGS. 1 and 3 show that a similar slot 70 is formed on the opposite side of the front face of the in-cabinet refrigeration and storage apparatus 50 on opposite sides of door 2.

FIG. 2 shows how this spacing defines ducts 62 and 72 on opposite sides of the storage compartment 52. Ducts 62 and 72 as well as storage compartment 52 are beneath the top panel 8 or extensions thereof. The duct 62 will comprise an exhaust duct and panel 11 can be referred to as an exhaust panel. Duct 72 will comprise an intake duct and panel 10 on the opposite side will comprise an intake panel. Air can then be drawn in the opening 70 past the thermoelectric cooling apparatus 7 at the rear of the storage compartment 52 and then out through the exhaust slot or opening 60. Both intake and exhaust thus take place on the front of the in-cabinet refrigeration and storage apparatus 50. When the in-cabinet refrigeration and storage apparatus 50 is placed on a shelf of a cabinet between other items and where there is the possibility of obstructions either above or below, then the intake of cool air though slot 70 and the exhaust hot air there slot 60 on the opposite side of door 2 will tend to maintain a continuous flow of air to prevent over heating of the thermoelectric cooling unit 7 located at the rear of the in-cabinet refrigeration and storage apparatus 50 and behind the storage compartment 52. Wicks 16 and 17 will prevent discharge of fluids resulting from the refrigeration of items stored in storage compartment 52. Strip magnets 21 can be located on the bottom of the assembly to hold it in place and attached thereto by double sided foam tape 25. Self adhesive bumpers 22 may also raise the bottom of the unit above a shelf leaving a gap so that exterior air can be drawn into the storage compartment 52 if necessary.

The thermoelectric cooling unit 7 is located at the rear of the storage compartment 52, and thermoelectric cooling unit 7 maintains this compartment and the items 54 stored therein at a desired temperature below the normal exterior temperature. Details of the thermoelectric cooling unit 7 of the type used herein are shown in FIGS. 7-9. This cooling unit 7 is located at the rear of the storage compartment 52 and communicates with both ducts 62 and 72. A thermoelectric cooling element 100 is positioned between a cold side sink 80 and a hot side sink 90. An interior barrier 102 separates the cold side sink 80 from the hot side sink 90, and the thermoelectric cooling unit resides in an opening in the barrier 102 with opposite sides in contact with the cold side sink 80 and the hot side sink 90. The cold side sink 80 is located in the storage compartment 52, and the barrier 102 also separates the cooled storage compartment 52 from the duct system in which the hot side sink 90 is located.

The thermoelectric cooling element 100, the heat sinks 80 and 90 and the barrier wall 102 are surrounded by a housing formed by a front housing wall 104 that is secured to a rear housing wall 106 by conventional fasteners, such as screws. The front housing wall 104 has an opening 112 through which the fins 82 of the cold side sink 80 extend. A circulating fan 110 is attached to the wall 104 above the cold side sink 80 to circulate air in the storage compartment 52 over the fins 82 to keep the air in the storage compartment appropriately cooled. An inclined surface 114 on front wall 104 extends beyond the opening 112 and beyond the circulating fan 110 so that air drawn into close proximity with the cold side sink fins 82 by the circulating fan 110 will be returned back to the cooled storage compartment 52. Since the fan 110 is offset from the center of the storage compartment 52 a steady circulation will be maintained around the storage compartment 52.

A blower unit 120 is located between the barrier wall 102 and the rear housing wall 106. This blower unit 120 is located within a shroud 122, which includes inclined vents 124. The blower unit 120 is in communication with the ducts 62 and 72 so that blower unit can draw air through the intake slot 70 and duct 72, and through inclined vents 124 past the hot side heat sink 90. After air drawn from one side of the front of the refrigeration and storage unit 50 passes over the hot side sink 90, the heated air then passes through the exhaust duct 62 and the slot 60 and is exhausted on the front of the unit 50 on the opposite side of the door 2. Thus air is taken in and exhausted on the front of the unit 50, where there will be no interference with adjacent items on that same shelf, and it is not necessary to be sure that the top and bottom of the unit are free from obstruction. Thus a continuous flow of air can be maintained without damaging the thermoelectric cooling unit or merchandise near the refrigeration and storage unit 50. Since the top and bottom surfaces of the apparatus 50 are relatively flat, multiple refrigeration and storage units 50 can also be stacked, one of top of another, without obstructing cooling air flow or damaging neighboring merchandise.