Purchasing custom equipment can be a great way for operators to get exactly what they need. If the design of a custom piece isn’t well thought-out, though, an operator could end up with an expensive, underperforming unit that’s difficult to repair and/or replace.

Surprisingly, many of the problems with custom equipment arise when the designers forget the unit must work in a professional kitchen, with and around other pieces of foodservice equipment.

What’s important is not to overlook the many basic logistical issues. According to Glenn Clark Jr., president of Lancaster, Pa.-based Clark Service Group, custom-made units are sometimes designed without first considering utilities. An electric unit designed without regard to the size of the electrical panel that feeds it won’t work for long, he says. Similarly, gas-fired pieces need to draw from a gas line big enough to feed not only the custom item but all the other gas equipment in the kitchen.

“They need to make sure they understand the specifications from the manufacturer. What's this piece going to take? What size condenser do I need for all these loads?” Clark says.

In addition, operators and manufacturers need to consider how a piece of custom equipment will impact, or be impacted by, nearby units. A custom refrigeration unit with an air intake vent right next to a bank of fryers simply won’t work as well or as long as hoped, for instance, while a large custom oven may not fit under an existing hood.

To avoid such issues, operators must work with their partners — dealers, manufacturers, kitchen designers, installers, general contractors — to identify and address potential trouble spots. “Are they going to have an issue with make-up air? Are they going to have an issue with exhaust? Are they going to have to make changes to their fire system? All these things have to be considered,” says Clark.

Designs of custom-made kitchen equipment must also take maintenance and repair into account, Clark says. If an access panel isn’t conveniently located, it will take service technicians longer to work on that piece of equipment. That means the foodservice operator will have to pay for more man hours, and also means longer down times and disruptions to normal kitchen operations. This issue, notes Clark, can be a particular problem for equipment with ornate coverings or shells, as often found in display kitchens.

Beyond these questions of basic design, consider the unit’s installation requirements, Clark says. It’s far too easy to design a large piece of cooking equipment that looks great but is nearly impossible to get in the kitchen without knocking down a wall. Even if the unit can fit in the kitchen, can the building handle the weight of the custom piece? This represents an important consideration with such equipment as large, stone deck, hearth-style pizza ovens.

Another installation-based challenge involves refrigeration, Clark says. A growing trend in design is the use of large rooftop refrigeration systems that cool multiple refrigeration units in the building. While those work great on paper, the specified size and length of refrigeration lines can easily come up short. When installation begins, unexpected issues force installers and contractors to change plans on the fly. A structural element that hasn’t been accounted for, for example, can lengthen a refrigeration run so far that the unit simply won’t maintain its temperature.

To avoid this sort of issue, the operator should set up a site visit to give installers, designers and contractors a chance to identify and work around any potential problems, says Clark. “Sometimes the manufacturer has to be involved, sometimes the installation team has to be involved. The general contractor certainly. The dealer has to get involved because they're the ones that are selling the equipment,” Clark says.

“It's a team effort, it has to be.”