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Simple Mistakes, Big Bills

Operator error can lead to expensive service calls. Service agents share the mistakes they see and how to avoid them.

Kitchen equipment service is often compared to auto maintenance. It’s not something anyone enjoys getting done, but it’s important and basically unavoidable. You’ve got to change the oil in both a car and a fryer. Get that rattling sound checked out, or you could have more expensive repairs in your future.

This is all true, but only to a point. Sometimes service calls happen — and sometimes equipment breaks down — because of user error. Just like it’s a bad idea to floor it at every green light and slam on the brakes at every red, it’s a bad idea to run hot side equipment on max all day or fill every square inch of refrigerator space with food.

Service agents know this as well as anyone. Every day, they’re sent on service calls caused by operator mistakes. It’s only smart to listen to them when they talk about these errors — and how to avoid them.

The Lesson: Know Your Utilities

John SchwindtA Word to the Wise: Operators should calculate their needs before purchasing a piece of equipment, for example, an ice machine. “They buy a machine that fits in the space and find out they are always running out of ice,” says John Schwindt, Hawkins Commercial Appliance Service. “That’s because they bought a machine that is not the right size for their drinks. We get quite a few of those service calls.”Many mistakes — so, so many — are made in the purchasing phase, and many of these come down to a simple mismatch between the unit the operator buys and the gas or electrical setup in the operation itself.

Some of this is straightforward, service agents say. Does the operation have propane gas or natural gas? Buy units that match. What’s the building’s voltage? Buy units that align.

Other questions are a little more complex, especially when it comes to gas equipment. When buying new gas-fired units, account for a building’s gas volume, gas pressure and gas line size. When operators don’t know this information, they can find out from the service agents they use to maintain their equipment — a good reason to establish a good relationship with a firm on the repair side. On the equipment side, dealers and manufacturers’ representatives can help identify equipment that matches the operation’s utilities.

For equipment purchases made online, there’s not always a traditional dealer relationship on which the operator can rely. These purchases may be cheaper, but to avoid mistakes, operators need to invest some time, says Jeff Martin, director of service operations, Southeast, for Clark Service Group. “I would advise [operators] to educate themselves about the piece of equipment they are buying. There is always a spec sheet. Read the spec sheet. It will give you the information. Do a little bit of homework,” he says.

The Lesson: Understand Application and Capacity Needs

Not all purchasing errors are as cut and dried as ordering equipment that doesn’t match the utilities. Operators often purchase equipment that simply doesn’t meet their needs. When the piece falls short of expectations, they may place a service call for equipment that simply isn’t broken.

This often comes up on the hot side. Ovens, fryers, etc., have known cooking capacities and recovery times. These determine how much food the equipment can put out during a given time frame. Operators, then, need to correlate the equipment with the amount of food they serve, says Martin. “If you’re buying a piece of equipment that is undersized, you’re working it at full potential and you are never happy with it. If you’re running it at max ability every day, you’re not going to get the [full] life cycle out of it,” he says.

In these cases, the operator calls a service agent because their oven isn’t recovering fast enough or, later, because that oven that’s been running at max capacity for 10 straight months needs repair. Ice machines provide a prime example of this phenomenon. These units are made to produce a set amount of ice in a 24-hour period. When purchasing an ice machine, an operator needs to know how much ice it uses on a given day.

The calculation is simple. Take the average ice use per customer, or average ice use per drink, and multiply by the number of drinks the operation serves each day. Ice machine factories even have calculators and charts that show how much ice an average customer uses at specific types of operations.

According to John Schwindt, vice president of operations and general manager of Hawkins Commercial Appliance Service, many customers buy ice machines without calculating their needs. “They buy a machine that fits in the space and find out they are always running out of ice,” he says. “That’s because they bought a machine that is not the right size for their drinks. We get quite a few of those service calls.”

In these cases, the service agent times how long it takes the machine to make a batch of ice, weighs that batch and then calculates the unit’s 24-hour production. If the machine is producing at its stated capacity, there’s simply no solution and the operator is left with a bill for a service call.

The Lesson: Invest in the Install

Once operators purchase the right piece of equipment, the installation and start-up come next. Here, operators err by hiring people or companies that don’t specialize in kitchen equipment. This can be anyone from a cousin who is handy to a firm in the skilled trades that simply doesn’t know the nitty-gritty of kitchen equipment.

Equipment that’s not properly installed and started up will not perform at its best. Thermostats may be off by several degrees, or units may not heat up and recover as quickly as they should. At worst, an improperly installed piece of equipment can get seriously damaged, leaving the operator with repairs that aren’t covered by warranty.

Some of these errors route back to the utilities. A company that doesn’t specialize in kitchen equipment may think that all gas lines are the same, when that’s simply not true. Hooking a unit up to a mismatched gas line can cause serious issues, says Schwindt.

In addition to utilities, there’s the simple question of where to locate new equipment. Clearances for fans and vents represent important factors, but so do things like the distance of heat and grease from an electronic control panel. According to Don Jones, refrigeration service manager with EMR, a plumber or general contractor will not be aware of this consideration. “They don’t read the installation manual, especially the information on clearances. That oven or that fryer is supposed to be so far away from other pieces of equipment. They don’t realize when they put these things in, you can’t put the control panel of a combi oven next to a greasy fryer,” he says.

The Lesson: Look for Simple Solutions First

Little oversights can often lead to calls that don’t require repairs but do come with a bill for a truck roll. These calls often occur the morning after a cleaning crew has visited the kitchen. The morning team tries to turn on a range and it simply won’t fire, or a refrigerator is suddenly (to all appearances) dead.

Jeff MartinA Word to the Wise: Operators should invest some time into their equipment purchases. “I would advise [operators] to educate themselves about the piece of equipment they are buying,” says Jeff Martin, Clark Service Group. “There is always a spec sheet. Read the spec sheet.”Often in these cases, the cleaning crew has unplugged the unit or unhooked the gas line’s quick-connect hose. Operators should check the plugs and hoses before calling their service agent, Schwindt says. “If someone calls and says my bank of fryers isn’t working, I say the only thing that is common for those fryers is the gas line. Have you checked to make sure the gas line is snapped on?” he says.

This free and easy fix won’t be stumbled on every time, though. “They call in a service, we come in, pull the unit out and the plug is just sitting on the floor,” says Schwindt. The result, again, is a completely avoidable bill for a truck roll.

Similar mistakes happen frequently on the cold side of the kitchen, says Jones. Operators, he says, will often leave refrigerator doors open for extended periods, sometimes when receiving food shipments, sometimes just in the course of work. They’ll then notice the refrigerator is running warm and place a service call. “I’ve experienced it quite a few times, where you can’t find a problem and start to question the customer [about how they are using the refrigerator]. They want you to grab a tool out of the toolbox and fix the problem, but it really just takes a conversation about what exactly is going on,” he says.

Jones’ advice: When a refrigerator runs warm, note the temperature, shut the door for 30 minutes and check the temperature again. If it drops, the problem might be how often staff open the door and how long they keep it open.

Avoid the Errors

Commercial kitchens are busy places with plenty of factors, like heat and grease, that can lead to service calls. Operators can’t avoid all of these service calls, but thoughtful purchasing, installation and planned maintenance can help them reduce the number of calls. It’s a simple fact: Equipment needs regular maintenance, and even with this maintenance, something is eventually going to break down.

But not every breakdown needs to happen. Some come about because operators are in a rush or looking to save a few dollars on a contractor. If operators take the time to consider their kitchen, their equipment and how their operation works, they can avoid errors that lead to expensive service calls. 

In A Nutshell

When purchasing, talk to a service agent about gas and electric specifications. This includes voltage, gas pressure and gas volume, among other factors. Buy equipment to match.

Know what and how much the operation will cook with the equipment. Talk to a dealer or manufacturers’ rep about the capabilities of the equipment.

If a unit won’t turn on, check electrical plugs and gas hoses. These are often unhooked by cleaning crews.

If a refrigerator is running warm, check the temperature, keep the door shut for 30 minutes, then check the temperature again. If it has dropped, the door may just have been left open for too long.

Have kitchen equipment professionals install and start up new equipment. A bad install can damage or even destroy a new unit and void the warranty in the process.