The concept of making foodservice operations and the equipment they use more environmentally friendly is one that everyone can support. It’s when trying to determine how to approach such noble goals that things can get complicated. Such is the case with House Bill 19-231, which will come up for discussion on April 23 in the Colorado State House of Representatives.

If approved, the bill will require all commercial dishwashers, fryers and steam cookers to meet or exceed Energy Star and WaterSense standards by Jan. 1, 2021. Hot food holding cabinets would need to meet the California Title 20 Appliance Efficiency requirements. While most agree with the intentions of the bill, it could significantly impact foodservice operators and the supply chain that supports them.

For example, mandating that foodservice operators use only Energy Star-rated equipment could limit their available choices and raise the price of their available options. “Energy Star was designed to promote the top quartile of a product category. By mandating Energy Star, you are eliminating the other 75 percent of the market,” said David Zabrowski, vice president for Frontier Energy’s Food Service Technology Center. “There are more costly components that go into Energy Star-rated equipment. The market share of Energy Star-rated equipment is relatively low across the board due to that increased cost. That needs to be a consideration when asking people to buy only Energy Star-rated equipment.”

Productivity represents another reason that some Energy Star-rated equipment is not viable for certain operators. “There is occasionally a tradeoff in terms of productivity or functionality,” Zabrowski said. One example would be steam cookers. “There’s a significant change in productivity between boiler-type steamers and boiler-less steamers and in cook-to-order applications, the Energy Star steamer may not have a high enough productivity for the task.”

Energy Star Strong

Despite these challenges, Energy Star remains a highly visible beacon of conservation for the foodservice equipment industry. And neither NAFEM nor Frontier Energy’s Food Service Technology Center want to see that reputation tarnished. “We are trying to keep the Energy Star program strong,” said Charlie Souhrada, vice president, regulatory and technical affairs for the North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers. “The bill is well intended and has some good use within the consumer sector. In the commercial sector, this can limit the number of choices operators have, and that can impact their ability to survive.”

That said, it’s important for stakeholders to understand that the relationship consumers and foodservice operators have with Energy Star-rated products can differ. “Consumer products are very low cost and we buy them all the time. The commercial foodservice products are very expensive and have a long life,” Zabrowski said.

One way legislation like this could potentially hurt Energy Star is by altering the unique nature of the program. Establishing the Energy Star standards for the commercial foodservice equipment categories the program addresses is the result of a long-running collaborative effort between the Environmental Protection Agency, NAFEM and Frontier Energy’s Food Service Technology Center (FSTC). “It’s a blend between the government and the private sector. And that’s pretty unusual,” Souhrada said. “Energy Star, by statute, is a voluntary program and the bill begins to test the meaning of voluntary.”

Indeed, it’s the voluntary nature of the program that makes Energy Star’s relationship with commercial foodservice equipment manufacturers so unique. And mandates like this could jeopardize that relationship moving forward. “As soon as you take a voluntary program mandatory, industry will be much less inclined to participate in future programs,” Zabrowski said. “The success of the Energy Star program is based on being a voluntary and not a mandatory initiative.”

As a result, legislation like this could eventually reduce the number of product categories Energy Star addresses in the commercial kitchen industry. “By mandating that all equipment sold meets an Energy Star standard, the Environmental Protection Agency no longer has a justification to maintain that standard. So, the category may go away,” Zabrowski said. “And for some product categories, like dishwashers, there’s not much farther they can go in terms of efficiency. It would be like trying to get blood from a stone.”

This approach, however, is not limited to Colorado. Other states are starting to consider similar bills, Souhrada noted. They include Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts., Rhode Island, Washington and, possibly, Maine. And that should make all the industry stakeholders stop and take notice.

“There is a real lack of publicly available information about energy consumption and equipment performance,” Zabrowski says. “Energy Star’s data focuses on only Energy Star products. Now the Colorado State House of Representatives wants the industry to move to Energy Star performance levels without the proper baseline information. What should happen first is collection of data necessary to determine proper baseline efficiencies for an equipment category.”

Steadfast Support

One positive aspect of the bill, according to Zabrowski is that it follows an approach similar to one established by the California Energy Commission that removes the lower performers from the market. “Energy Star is a big leap because it’s supposed to address the upper quartile,” Zabrowski said. “The more reasonable approach is to legislate out the lower quartile and continue to use Energy Star as an educational tool that changes behavior and leads to voluntary market transformation.”

This brings up an important point about the evolution and purpose of the Energy Star program. “Recognized by more than 90 percent of Americans, the Energy Star label is a strong brand identifier that was created to educate and guide consumers to energy-efficient equipment. It is used as a measure of best practice and is integral to programs like the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) program,” said Richard Young, director of education for Frontier Energy’s FSTC. “Utilities use Energy Star as a benchmark for customer incentives and manufacturers use Energy Star to showcase their market leadership and justify their research and development initiatives relative to energy efficiency. If Energy Star becomes the baseline requirement for all equipment, then it loses its power to lead and educate. And, in the complex and diverse foodservice marketplace, many operators will simply ignore the new regulations and continue to purchase inefficient equipment regardless of the regulations. Meanwhile, the state’s energy providers will have lost their power to influence behavior and manufacturers will have less incentive to innovate.”

Interestingly, the voluntary nature of Energy Star has been working well and commercial foodservice equipment continues to become more efficient. “That’s one of the things we’ve been noticing as we look through our historical data,” Zabrowski said. “The efficiency is getting better and better over the years. Equipment testing, education, training and utility incentives built around the Energy Star criteria have lifted all boats in terms of energy performance.”

Despite the potential challenges with this legislation, both Souhrada and Zabrowski were clear in that their organizations remain steadfast supporters of Energy Star. “I’ve been in communication with the EPA and they are supportive of our direction,” Souhrada says. “NAFEM is a very strong supporter of Energy Star and has been for the past 20-plus years. NAFEM worked with the EPA and FSTC to start Energy Star for commercial foodservice. We want to keep the program strong for manufacturers and operators as well.”

That’s part of the message Souhrada will deliver to during the Colorado Transportation and Energy Committee meeting in Denver on April 23. There he will read a statement on behalf of NAFEM. “Our goal is to raise the efficiency level of all the foodservice equipment products, and not just the upper quartile,” he said. “We want to do this for all the stakeholders involved, including manufacturers, operators, legislators and others. In doing so, though, you must consider all aspects before jumping in with both feet. We want to work with the legislators to develop a plan that does not have an opposite impact and harm businesses.”