4 Mistakes that Drive Service Agents Crazy

From installation problems to warranty equipment misuse and abuse, here's what service agents want you to know about the issues that make work tougher for everyone.

To start, this title probably comes on a little strong. The men and women who run service agencies are businesspeople, after all. They genuinely appreciate their customers and know the success of their agencies is due to the operators who call them and the supply chain partners that work alongside them.

It’s just some issues can get under their skin. Problems that come up again and again. Headache-inducers that could be done away with through a bit of education. In the end, they know that if operators take the time to learn about and avoid these issues, everyone, from rep to dealer to operator to service agency, will save time, money and plenty of aggravation.

Mistake No. 1: Not Thinking Through Installation Early Enough

Plenty of equipment problems begin during installation, or even before, when placing the order.

Some of the biggest problems arise from the most basic issues, service agents say. When ordering a piece of equipment, the operator, dealer and even the rep need to ensure the utilities for that item match the facility. The wrong voltage or natural gas type can stop an install in its tracks. While the supply chain has to deal with the problem, an install appointment halted by these issues also becomes an issue for service agents, says Scott Hester, president of Texas-based Refrigerated Specialist Inc. (RSI) and Cooking Equipment Specialists (CES). An install that can’t be completed still incurs costs in man-hours, after all.

Even when the right equipment is ordered, problems can still arise. One issue, says Wayne Stoutner, CEO of upstate New York service agency Duffy’s AIS, is simply defining what an installation covers.

What a lot of people think of as installations can be broken up into three categories:

  • Installation: Putting a piece of equipment in place and hooking it up to utilities.
  • Start up: Turning on equipment, adjusting gas or water pressure, and calibrating it to ensure it is performing as intended.
  • Performance check: A visit by a service agency aligned with the equipment manufacturer to see if a unit continues to run properly after a few days of use. This is often performed on simple pieces that were installed and started at the same time by a company that’s not affiliated with the manufacturer.

Understandably, these categories can get confused, leading to issues among all involved.

It’s not uncommon, says Stoutner, for his company to get called to a job site to start up a piece of equipment, only to find the unit hasn’t been installed. That means technicians could need an extra part, like a gas hose, they may not have. Even if they’re lucky to have it, those hoses aren’t free.

“We’ll tell the operator we can hook it up, but the hose is $100. Then it becomes an argument because the operator thinks we should cover that,” Stoutner says.

To avoid these conflicts, Stoutner says members of the supply chain should better communicate about the status of a purchase and install/start-up. This includes sharing operator contact info so the service agency can confirm the equipment’s status before sending a technician to the job site.

Even if everyone has their terms straight, problems can arise when equipment is installed by someone without expertise in commercial kitchens. For single-piece installs, such as a fryer replacement, operators may have a general plumber or a handyman do the job. In many cases, says Rob Dunwoody, mid-Atlantic regional service manager for Clark Service Group, these installations don’t follow guidelines for the piece.

Vents may not receive the clearance they require, while gas-fired items may end up with incorrectly sized gas supply. “They go to Home Depot and pick up a flex appliance connector. That’s not going to have nearly the flow rate of gas that it is intended to have. It may look right and it might fire up and start up okay, but it is not operating at the capacity it is supposed to. It can lead to combustion issues and other potential issues.”

Mistake No. 2: Thinking the Warranty Is a Fix-All

Installation problems can lead directly to another source of conflict for service agents. 

Bad installations, often performed by companies that don’t specialize in commercial kitchens, come in lots of flavors as previously noted, from the wrong-sized gas line to not enough clearance for vents. These mistakes can lead to service calls weeks or months down the road, when the operator thinks the piece is under warranty.

In these cases, the point of conflict becomes clear, says Dunwoody. “Who’s paying the bill at the end?” he asks. “We may be called out by the manufacturer to take a look at an issue with a piece of equipment, and we find that it is not installed properly. Then we’re stuck trying to figure out who is going to take care of the financial obligations for having one of our skilled technicians out there to diagnose that issue.”

Other service calls aren’t caused by a bad install, but by improper use or poor cleaning. In these cases, the operator, once again, receives a bill that could have been avoided.

Sometimes, though, the operator will push hard enough, or be important enough to someone in the supply chain, that a manufacturer will cover a repair for a new piece of equipment even if the warranty does not address the problem. In those situations, says RSI’s Hester, operators should understand they got special treatment and that the service agent wasn’t being needlessly difficult when sending them a bill or telling them the problem wasn’t covered by warranty.

No matter who pays the bill in the end, though, it would be better for all involved if the operator never has to make a warranty call in the first place. One way to avoid such problems is to have installs performed by companies that specialize in commercial kitchens. It’s a widely accepted practice that can eliminate obvious install mistakes.

Beyond that, says Stoutner, operators should simply refer to the troubleshooting guide in the unit’s manual. That can help them find simple fixes for several equipment problems that may not be covered by warranty.

Mistake No. 3: Equipment Misuse

Equipment misuse can cause troubles not just in the warranty period but at any point in a unit’s life.

One pain point, Stoutner says, often occurs with fryers. After a batch of fried food is done, the line cook should let grease on the food in the basket drain on its own. It’s not uncommon, though, for line cooks to knock the basket against the back of the fryer to speed up the draining process. This is not only dirty and unsanitary but also unsafe.

“Over time the fryer oil starts to build up inside the flue riser and if done for long enough, fires can occur,” Stoutner says.

Refrigeration units are particularly likely to set off service calls as the result of misuse, says Hester. In many cases, what the operator thinks is a breakdown is actually an improperly loaded or overloaded unit.

Take walk-ins, for example. Every walk-in owner’s manual will tell operators not to store food directly on the floor. With no air circulating below, heat from the floor can travel up to the food. Ice cream can go soft, fries soggy and proteins meant to be safely stored can end up in the temperature danger zone.

On several occasions, RSI has paid a visit to stressed-out operators worried their walk-ins are failing and taking all the food inside down with them. In these cases, all the tech can do is explain how to store the food, then hand the operator a bill for the truck roll and minimum time on-site. While many operators are glad the problem wasn’t with the equipment, they also don’t like dropping a few hundred dollars for a word of advice.

That’s not where misuse starts and stops, though. In some cases, a misused unit can hide an actual malfunction. Clark’s Dunwoody has encountered overloaded refrigerators with frozen-over evaporator coils. In this situation, it’s hard to tell what the actual source of the problem is.

“There may be an issue with it, but we need to get it back to a base level to where we can properly test it,” he says. “When it’s packed full of boxes and freezes up, we don’t know if it’s freezing up because it’s overloaded or if there’s an underlying issue.”

To avoid these types of issues, operators should read the owner’s manual and train their staff on the proper use of equipment. They can also turn to their supply chain partners for help, Hester says. “Our trainers and supervisors will go out and meet with the restaurant, spend a couple of hours with them on the house to teach them about proper food storage, managing ice levels and what you should check before placing a service call,” he says.

Mistake No. 4: Poor Cleaning

This is the cousin of improperly used equipment. If a piece isn’t cleaned correctly, or cleaned at all, it’s being set up to fail.

Clogged burners on a range represent one potential problem area. Burners can clog when pots and pans boil over, leading to grease and water blocking some burner holes over time. As a result, some portions of the burner flame end up too high, while other portions disappear entirely. To combat this, regularly clean burners, Stoutner says.

“They can be cleaned using oven degreaser or even cleaned in a pot and pan sink with hot water and soap. Once cleaned, they can be rinsed, dried thoroughly and reinstalled.”

While basic cleaning should always be a priority, Dunwoody feels there’s a clear winner in mistakes operations make when cleaning. “The biggest thing that drives us crazy is walking into an establishment and seeing a garden hose hooked up in the kitchen. We know that whoever is in charge of cleaning that kitchen at night is coming in and just hosing everything down. That’s the real killer,” he says.

The biggest problem with hosing down a kitchen, Dunwoody says, is water sprayed below the equipment splashing on components. This can clog burners and corrupt igniters. If water gets on a pilot, the temperature shock can cause that component to warp. When these events occur, the unit may not start in the morning, leading to an emergency service call that could have been avoided entirely.

The solution in this case is simple: Don’t hose down kitchens.

At least the hose-users’ hearts are in the right place — they’re trying to keep their equipment clean. But another constant source of problems are units that just aren’t cleaned at all.

These can present a double-whammy. First, the lack of cleaning can lead to a breakdown, and then the service technician sent to fix the problem has to spend extra billable hours performing routine cleaning before the actual repairs can begin.

According to Hester, you can see this pattern clearly with ice machines. In the summer, when there’s a big jump in service calls for these units, between one-third and one-half of machines need to be descaled and deslimed before the problem can even be diagnosed. That can easily add two hours to the service call. Often, it was the lack of cleaning that led to the problem to begin with.

“You add that up and the customer could have had a twice-a-year ice machine cleaning, not have had to buy a bunch of ice and not have had to deal with the headache of having it break down,” Hester says.

The reason many operators don’t have planned maintenance contracts, of course is money. They’re rolling the dice, hoping to avoid a breakdown, but eventually everyone craps out.

There are steps operators can take to reduce their planned maintenance costs, though. The most basic is cleaning what they can clean.

Operators should just look at the owner’s manual and see what they can handle, says Stoutner. “You’re paying our guy $100 an hour to clean that condenser. That’s not a very complex task. They can choose what to do themselves if they are looking to save a little bit of money.”

Not A Mistake: Choosing the Right Dance Partner

Saving a little bit of money, of course, is always a good thing. Saving a lot of money, as well as saving time and avoiding disruptions to a business and its ability to serve customers, is even better.

The list of steps operators can take to avoid these expensive, painful problems runs very long. Distill that list down to its essentials and operators will find a few key ideas: Keep units clean. Stay within the guidelines for operations. And look to the owner’s manual for operation and troubleshooting information.

Perhaps most important of all, though, is to find and work with companies that make good, reliable partners — the ones that will answer your questions, ask about your business before the sale and help solve problems after.

“Have your dance partner,” Hester says. “When you’re doing business with a stranger, there is always the possibility of greater misunderstanding.”