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Green Tip: The Role of Cleaning and Maintenance in Energy Efficiency

When trying to create an environmentally friendly foodservice environment, most operators take the proper first step of specifying energy-efficient equipment. What often gets overlooked, though, is the fact maintaining an energy-efficient environment is much more of an ongoing process that requires proper cleaning and maintenance of equipment.

In fact, most any veteran service agent will tell you that a properly cleaned and maintained piece of equipment will tend to operate at the levels promised by the manufacturer. Unfortunately, properly cleaned and maintained pieces of foodservice equipment tend to be the exception rather than the norm.

Even operators who understand the importance of properly maintaining their foodservice equipment occasionally struggle in this area. "They remember how to do it when it is new but three months later when it actually needs to be done, they don't remember," says John Schwindt, vice president of operations for Hawkins Commercial Appliance Service, Englewood, Colo. Hawkins is a certified CFESA company. "It's out of sight, out of mind. People are supposed to change the air filters on their home furnaces once a month but they struggle to remember that. And the environment in a restaurant is a thousand times worse than what is in your home."

As a result, Schwindt estimates that when looking at a piece of equipment in a commercial kitchen, 80 percent of the time the item in question has not been properly cleaned or maintained. "And I don't think that is an exaggeration," Schwindt says. "It all comes down to man hours and the operators don't want to pay people to do it. In other cases the staff does not clean and maintain the equipment correctly."

Probably the one area where foodservice professionals seem to understand the need for regular maintenance is with refrigeration. "That is because they know if refrigeration does not work they will lose food product or the health department will catch them," Schwindt says.

Attention to Detail Matters
What may seem like a small or irrelevant detail can have a significant impact on the amount of energy a piece of equipment consumes. Schwindt points to research from a study that compares energy usage between units with clean versus dirty coils commissioned by the Air Guard Research and Technical Center that shows a five-ton HVAC unit will use an estimated $470 of energy per season if it has a clean refrigeration coil. If that coil has 1/16-inch of dirt on it, the energy cost goes up to $687 per season. "Take that over four quarters in a year and you are saving almost $1,000 annually on just one unit," Schwindt says.

When that savings principle is applied to multiple pieces of equipment, it won't take long for the benefit to grow considerably. "We try to push people to do some type of preventative maintenance at least quarterly, if not every other month," he adds. "CFESA companies will always recommend having an authorized service agent fix the product. That way, the trained technician should know all of the intricacies associated with the product. For a cook or staff member, that is not their normal job."

As foodservice equipment manufacturers continue to place an emphasis on developing energy-efficient products, the need for proper maintenance will only become more important. That's because to become more energy efficient, many pieces of equipment are becoming more high-tech. "These appliances, including those with the Energy Star rating, will pose a greater challenge to maintain their efficiency levels," Schwindt says. "Plug and play is a thing of the past."

Still, foodservice staff can take a number of steps to help ensure a piece of equipment operates at peak efficiency. For example, when it comes to cooking equipment staff should clear dust, lint and other debris from air intakes to maintain proper airflow to electronic components and ensure proper burner combustion, says Bruce Peeling, general manager of EMR, a Baltimore, Md.-based service company. EMR is a CFESA-certified company.

"Also equipment needs room to breathe," Peeling says. "Refer to the owner's manual to make sure the proper distance is between pieces of equipment. Oftentimes foodservice operators will modify their cook line to support new menu items and that will result in the moving of equipment closer together. This can cause grease to migrate into the air intake vents and destroy the controls."

Parts selection can also play a significant role in energy efficiency. In some rare instances, it is ok to use a generic or non-OEM part without affecting performance. But that's not always the case, so it is important to understand how parts decisions will impact the unit. "NAFEM has put out white papers on how the use of OEM parts impact energy usage and product safety," Schwindt adds.

What may seem like the most basic of steps can have a significant impact on energy consumption. "The practice of turning everything on when arriving in the morning needs to be altered because today's equipment heats up faster and responds faster than previous generations did," Peeling says. "Turn equipment off or to a lower setting when not use. And turn on the equipment in stages to avoid spikes in electricity usage, which get billed at a higher rate."

Cooks will often shake a sauté pan and the runoff will get into the burners. When this happens, it is important to wipe the burners right away to avoid build up, Schwindt says. "It would take a few seconds to wipe off a spill when it first happens, compared to the hours it would take to clean up debris that builds up over time and is far-reaching."

And it is important to ensure that the burner continues to function properly for several reasons. "If a recipe calls for an item to be cooked for a specific period of time, the equipment needs to deliver the proper level of heat," Schwindt says. "Also, a burner that is not functioning correctly can dump carbon monoxide into a room and nobody likes carbon monoxide."

Even something as seemingly simple as how the staff cleans a piece of equipment can have a significant impact on performance. That's why Schwindt recommends using a dry or slightly damp cloth, not a wet one, to wipe things down and keep surface areas clean. "There are a lot of electronic components in today's equipment and water and electricity don't mix," he says. "And the same applies with water and oil. If the cloth is slightly damp it will just grab the lint and the small particles of food."

Casters and quick disconnects have made it easier for staff to clean the kitchen walls and floor. "But you have to be careful how you disconnect and move the product so you don't unintentionally damage the equipment," Schwindt says. And it is important to put the item back correctly, including in a level position, to ensure it functions properly.

Although it may seem unrelated, how staff clean certain kitchen areas, like the floor, can impact the performance of a piece of equipment. "A lot of people just dump buckets of water on the floor to clean it at the end of the night," Schwindt says. "They don't realize that there tends to be electrical components underneath the equipment and getting water in this area causes a problem."

Also, it is important for staff to pay attention to how they use specific pieces of equipment. For example, when removing a basket of cooked product from the fryer, staff should allow a moment for the excess grease to drain back into the fry pot. "Instead, they shake it and the grease goes all over and builds up into the unit or down the flue, Schwindt points out. As that grease builds up, often in less than obvious places, it will affect the fryer's performance and potentially create a fire hazard.