Buyer Beware: Understanding the Maintenance Implications of Energy-Efficient Foodservice Equipment

Buying energy-efficient foodservice equipment is not enough to realize the savings these items promise or to lessen the impact an operation has on the environment. Proper maintenance and usage go hand-in-hand with realizing these goals.

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When it comes time to purchase a piece of foodservice equipment, 87 percent of foodservice operators say that energy efficiency will be a factor in their decision, according to the Foodservice Equipment and Supplies 2013 Forecast Study. While well intentioned, the fact remains that specifying and purchasing energy-efficient equipment is not enough. To realize their full "green" potential, foodservice operators need to commit to proper use and maintenance of these items.

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As such, during the specification process, operators need to understand the full scope of their commitment when buying energy-efficient foodservice equipment, which often comes with a price tag that's larger than its less efficient competitors. Planned or preventative maintenance is one way to help ensure that the equipment performs at peak efficiency but there are other steps operators should take and, equally important, avoid.

Todd Bell of the Food Service Technology Center (FSTC) specializes in field surveys for the San Ramon, Calif.-based agency. In fact, during his tenure with the FSTC, Bell has audited more than 2,000 kitchens, ranging from the smallest coffee shop to large institutional and hotel kitchens. In a given year, he conducts nearly 100 site surveys through FSTC's CPUC-funded Energy Efficiency for Commercial Food Service program, analyzing all aspects of a kitchen, from the cooking equipment to the lighting refrigeration and HVAC, water heating and sanitation systems.

That said, he's seen his share of the common mistakes operators make when it comes to operating equipment. On a more positive note, these mistakes translate into opportunities to maximize savings. The more consultants empower their clients on the best ways to work with their appliances, the more they can lower their operating costs.

"Follow through is so important, especially with energy-efficient equipment," Bell said during a presentation at FSTC's 25th anniversary event in August.

Here are some common mistakes — or opportunities — for operators to get the most out of their energy-efficient equipment, as outlined by Bell during his presentation. Consultants should also look for these opportunities when following up with previous customers or when working on remodeling projects.

Insulate all cabinets and enclosed spaces. Bell has seen steam literally coming out the sides of a steamer due to lack of insulation. This maintenance faux pas can take years off the service life of a hot-holding cabinet or steamer. For schools and other non-commercial institutions that often hold on to equipment for decades, this can severely limit energy efficiency potential.

Use strip or air curtains, but make sure the walk-in door stays closed. Bell showed a photo during his presentation of a door to a walk-in cooler literally being propped open all day by a stopper. Training staff on the value and purpose of a strip curtain is really important, he noted. Sometimes it's about knowing why an appliance, accessory or add-on is where it is, rather than just accepting it as is.

Properly organize the equipment under the hood. At first glance, this may sound like a no-brainer but you'd be surprised at what actually happens in the field. In another of Bell's photos, a steamer, microwave and other pieces of cooking equipment sat just outside the realm of the hood, while a line of pots and pans sat directly underneath. Another series of photos showed equipment ending up further and further outside of the hood after staff moved these items for cleanings. Again, realizing the energy efficiency potential of equipment items such as the hood — one of the most energy intensive items in a commercial kitchen — means educating the operator and staff so they understand the uses and purpose of different items. "The handoff between installer and operator is so important," Bell says.

Use compact fluorescents in the walk-in freezer. This is the easiest place to save countless dollars on energy, Bell pointed out. Older model incandescent light bulbs can also create additional unwanted heat, especially in a cooler or freezer. And don't forget to help operators replace all T12 linear florescent lamps according to new DOE guidelines.

Check the rooftop condensers regularly. In another photo, Bell could be seen literally digging out plastic shopping bags, likely from the grocery store next door, from a remote condenser. Calls that the top-of-the-line, energy-efficient HVAC unit wasn't working to its potential led to the rooftop investigation.

Use aerators but turn the faucets off. Many kitchens now have aerators and low-flow pre-rinse spray values to help reduce water use, but if the operator leaves the water running all day that could negate any savings. In fact, Bell said, he still sees operators running water over frozen product in an attempt to defrost it. Running water over fresh produce during cleaning rather than submerging product in iced water baths is another example of this miss.

Make sure evaporator coils aren't iced over. Dirty, iced over coils mean lost energy and cost-saving opportunities — they are signs the refrigerator is working that much harder. Clean condenser fins and coils at least once a month. Even better, give them a quick brush off on a weekly basis.

Monitor energy and water use on a monthly basis. Collecting and charting energy and water bills over the course of several months is an easy DIY energy audit many operators neglect to do. Nowadays, many utility companies and other independent firms offer this charting service at minimal cost to customers. Spikes in energy and water bills on a chart can often serve as the first sign of a leak or malfunctioning appliance before these abnormalities gets really out of hand.

While operators can work with dealers or service agents to develop preventative maintenance programs, there is an opportunity for consultants to help train the operator to operate and manage their appliances — especially energy-efficient ones — in the proper way, according to Bell. Empowering the operator in this way not only helps save them money it essentially helps the environment from the ground up, not just the top down.

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