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Sustainability: The Role of Equipment and Supplies in Creating Greener Foodservice Operations

Sourcing energy-efficient and water-saving equipment and reducing waste in labor and production are ways to develop more sustainable foodservice operations.

When we hear the word "sustainability" on the consumer level many of us immediately picture green, grassy farms, chickens running around happily, farmers unloading trucks of their seasonal bounty at open-air markets and restaurants, bushels of organic vegetables and fruits, and meat that's been stamped with a grass-fed or all-natural label.

But for the foodservice industry, the concept of sustainability extends far beyond just the food and the farmer that produced it. It starts with the kitchen — the workhorse of an operation and, in most cases, the energy-draining monster of the building in which the foodservice operation resides.

Sourcing energy-efficient and water-saving equipment for cooking, holding and storage, reducing waste in labor and in production, and reducing energy consumption — these are just a few of the opportunities kitchens have to not only reduce their reliance on precious natural resources, but also their overall utility costs. Sustainability in this regard means closing the loop on what's used and reused.

Analyzing the Energy
So how does an operator begin the transition to creating a more sustainable kitchen? A growing number elect to start with energy audits, performed more rustically by in-house managers, or through a third-party organization or firm specializing in that line of work. A handful of consultants and dealers offer these services as well.

"We encourage operators to start by collecting two years or more worth of utility bills, which may include electric, water, gas, or in some cases trash bills," says Paul Kuck, energy consultant with Advantage IQ, an energy and resource management firm, and founder of From there, operators can create their own spreadsheets to start analyzing the information or have the third-party deal with that tedious but useful job.

"Basically, we're tracking the usage, costs and dates to determine consistencies and inconsistencies," Kuck says. Some of the questions to ask could include: Why did the water bill skyrocket in June? Was it a dry month requiring more irrigation? Why did the energy bill go up that one day last week? Did an employee leave a walk-in cooler door open too long?

Finding out where the utility strains are helps start the process of creating a more sustainable kitchen, even before purchasing more efficient equipment. For Dennis Reardon, project manager at Kittredge Equipment Company, an Agawam, Mass.-based dealership, the nature of his work has started to lean more heavily to the energy auditing and reduction strategy side of things.

"I constantly get calls from facility directors at plant operations, hospitals and colleges interested in reducing their energy use, especially when there are budget cuts," he says. Reardon will visit the site to collect data on how often staff run the dishwasher and other equipment, and then collaborate with the operator's management team to develop design and flow changes as well as source efficient equipment pieces to replace older, outdated models.

"I've used those types of energy audits to help foodservice operators formulate new budgets that carry less energy costs throughout the year," Reardon adds. In some states, power companies offer rebates for operators that can demonstrate these savings through energy audits or similar documentation. These rebates can accelerate the returns operators get when purchasing energy-efficient equipment, taking the payback time for the slightly more expensive items to three years or less instead of the more typical five-year time frame, according to Reardon.

For Georgia Tech's foodservice operation, an energy audit was the first step in the university's goals to reduce consumption by 26 percent and achieve zero waste by August 2015. Energy audits are currently underway at all of the on-campus dining units, according to Nell Fry, sustainability coordinator for Georgia Tech Dining Services. "We are working with Sodexo facilities and the Loyalty Consulting Group to do a comprehensive audit of all equipment, set up preventative maintenance schedules, and perform strategic updates that, paired with employee training, should be able to help us reduce our energy use by 26 percent," she says.

On top of that, the university has replaced outdated equipment, where financially possible, with energy-efficient items such as reach-in and walk-in coolers and freezers, some cooking equipment and warewashers with additional water-saving capabilities. Since replacing their two major dish machines, the college has been able to save 843,898 gallons of water annually, a cost savings of $23,800 in annual energy and water costs last year compared to their previous machines, according to research conducted by Georgia Tech Dining Services.

By going trayless in two dining locations and eliminating 80 percent of trays at the university student center food court, they've conserved 21,000 gallons of water per week, a cost savings of $4,500 a year in water alone. Georgia Tech's new North Avenue Dining Hall, which demonstrates these energy- and water-saving initiatives, is on track to earn LEED gold certification. Upgrading to motion sensor-controlled lighting systems and turning lights off at night has saved the university an additional $3,102 per year.

The changes are expected to generate a cost savings of $807,200 during the next five years, according to the research. Of that total, $624,000 will likely come from preventative maintenance of efficient equipment and employee training; $142,500 for equipment updates, and $40,700 from water conservation initiatives, according to the college. After the five years, the college plans to use these cost savings to fund additional sustainability measures.

Efficiency Updates
As of January 1, 2011, Energy Star requires that all product partners follow a new set of third-party certification and verification procedures.

"ASTM has been working on a certification program for Energy Star appliance categories, but that effort has stalled," says David Zabrowski of the Food Service Technology Center in San Ramon, Calif. "If successfully launched, however, the program would provide an alternative to other Registered Certification Bodies (e.g., UL, ETL, CSA, NSF, etc.) for certifying commercial appliances as meeting Energy Star specifications."

Aside from Energy Star and other energy–efficient rated equipment, operators have saved on resources and costs through more innovative pieces of cookware, according to Chris Moyer, manager of the National Restaurant Association's Conserve initiative. Some of these pots claim to save as much as 200 percent more energy than conventional cookware through their ability to radiate heat faster, requiring less time for boiling liquids and heating foods. And this past year, one manufacturer released a high-speed conveyor oven that automatically powers down between uses to save, they claim, 30 percent more energy.

In other sustainable equipment news, at the Greenbuild Conference and Expo in Chicago in late November, the USGBC finally launched the official LEED for Retail standards for both new construction and commercial interior projects after two years as a pilot program, according to the FSTC's Richard Young. The new standards now contain more specific requirements for kitchens in LEED projects, including a prescription checklist for purchasing energy- and water-efficient equipment as well as other prescriptions for HVAC, waste management and other systems involving the kitchen.

Smart, Sustainable Kitchens
Creating smarter kitchens also helps create more sustainable kitchens. By using equipment monitoring software, users can see how much energy each piece of equipment consumes on a day-to-day basis.

Eric Norman, vice president of consulting firm MVP Services Group, uses kitchen management software to monitor the energy use and equipment functionality for a few of his school foodservice projects. "I can be sitting at my computer, log in to the program and pull up a school in the middle of Iowa and watch the kitchen in real time," he says. "I know if a walk-in cooler's door might have been left open because I can set an alarm that will go off when the temperature falls too low. Then I can call the school and say, 'Hey, something is wrong with your cooler.'" A level up from energy auditing, it's precisely this day-to-day observation and management that will increasingly help operators save energy costs, Norman says.

At Reid Hospital & Health Care Services in Richmond, Ind., four of the kitchen's combi ovens use a smart technology system that allows Dori Martin and Michelle McClurg, co-directors of the dining department, to monitor both activity and energy use on the machines. "Then, at the end of the week or month, we can download all the activity and analyze what's happening with those machines," McClurg says. In one case, they found employees were turning on the combis almost an hour and a half ahead of schedule, as opposed to the prescribed 20-minute advance start-up time. Not following this seemingly simple procedure resulted in a major energy drain. "With this technology we can identify a problem and save quite a bit of energy."

Water and Energy-Saving Warewashers
Warewashers are known as a major energy and water drain on kitchens, particularly in larger, high-volume operations such as colleges, universities and healthcare facilities. So it's no surprise that these institutions look to the dishroom as a place for initial and, in many cases, dramatic savings in resource use and cost.

That was the case at Reid Hospital, which switched to a more water- and energy-efficient warewasher that saved the dining department countless dollars in utility costs, according to Martin and McClurg. They also sought to make improvements to the machine to reduce the total chemical use.

For example, they installed an electronic eye on their dish machine that regulated the use of certain chemicals. "Before we installed the eye, empty racks would pass through and trigger a chemical release in the machine even if there were no dishes running through," McClurg says. The new system allows for the more efficient use of chemicals.

Part of selecting the right warewasher for an operation involves carefully analyzing the way an operator uses the unit and how often they run the machine each day. An effective way of assembling the appropriate data is to conduct a ware audit, similar to an energy audit for other kitchen equipment, says Suzanne Painter-Supplee, director of consultant services for Champion industries and a LEED Accredited Professional.

"Regarding audits, a meals-to-racks conversion is becoming more popular because it reflects a true apples-to-apples figure for the job," Painter-Supplee says. "Audits can also be done comparing rack conveyor units to flight-types. And labor modeling can help determine the proper-sized unit — machine run time should not exceed labor scrap time."

What needs to be further evaluated when comparing machines or determining savings is, in Painter-Supplee's opinion, the ability to reduce the rated connected power in kilowatts. "When you have a machine using the 300-plus GPH, all of that 180-degree F water replenishes the other tanks," she says. "Less hot water overrun frequently requires a higher kilowatt tank heat, or heavier-duty cycles, even if there isn't a dual or quad rinse. You have to make up that heat somewhere. Even having a prewash at 120 degrees F to 140 degrees F jump-starts the process of building heat throughout the machine.

"With flight-type machines, boosters are coming down from as much as 81kW down to a mere 28 kW, and that's doing the same number of dishes. "I had one client who we got down from 110 kW to 30 kW."

Hoods and Heating
Aside from total equipment usage, heating and ventilation represent another potential energy drain in a kitchen — and a major opportunity for sustainable growth. A number of hood manufacturers have patented their own energy-saving methods for their products to the point that it's become easier for operators to use a more efficient system.

"Many of these energy-efficient hoods can save 30 to 40 percent or more energy than standard hoods," Norman says. "Each manufacturer seems to be coming out with its own patented ways to make more sustainable hoods with better air flow."

As far as heating sources, using more advanced systems, such as a geothermal heat pump, can help reduce energy two-fold. The system, which is often set up underneath floorboards, uses recirculating water naturally heated by the earth's core, combined with special tiling and insulation to heat a building. While initially expensive, energy savings are accumulated over time and many power companies offer rebates for this use of alternative energy. Rebates may also be offered for use of solar or wind-generated energy, which can be achieved through installation of on-site panels or turbines, but many municipalities carry certain restrictions regarding these installations.

Waste Reduction Tools
Without running through the specifics of composting and recycling programs, reducing waste starts with tracking waste. Operators install scales that weigh waste and transmit the data to a software package that then analyzes the origins of that waste. With this information in hand, the operator and the consultant work together to find opportunities to reduce food waste.

In other waste-reduction topics, pulpers, where allowed according to municipal codes, help cut down on waste that's hauled away. At Reid Hospital, installing a pulper on each floor's dishroom was an easy way for the hospital to dramatically reduce its waste.

At Georgia Tech, reducing waste is a huge priority as the university foodservice operator strives to reach its goal of having zero waste by 2015. A pre- and post-consumer composting system has reduced waste by 98 percent for two of the university's residence halls while generating fertilizer for a local farm, according to Fry. The cost for implementing composting on campus was negligible, she adds.

Additionally, Georgia Tech's contract foodservice provider, Sodexo, has cut down on the use of disposables by encouraging students to use their own mugs and containers. And, where appropriate, Sodexo offers biodegradable or recyclable disposables. The university also sends its used cooking oil to a local biofuel manufacturer that processes it and returns 2,600 gallons of biodeisel to the university annually.

Calculating Sustainability
Just in time for its biennial trade show, the North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers plans to reveal more details about a major project two years in the making — a sustainability calculator, similar to the organization's total cost of ownership calculating tool.

The calculator is a spreadsheet that contains line items that measure equipment energy use, gas use, exhaust, ventilation and other operational aspects of a kitchen. It also includes efficiency benchmarks that help determine the sustainability score of a kitchen on a scale of 0 to 100.

The tool also allows operators, consultants and dealers the opportunity to present complete energy use reports to architects and other project team members when designing new kitchens or improving existing ones, according to Mark Gilpatric, manager of engineering products for Hatco Corp., and chairman of NAFEM's Environmental Factors Committee and member of the association's Technology Liaison Committee. "The idea behind the calculator is to generate a common nomenclature to use when trying to develop and quantify a sustainable foodservice environment," Gilpatric says.

The calculator covers four phases of a kitchen project. The first phase deals with the manufacturing of the products going into the kitchen: How much recycled materials were used in the product? What is the percentage of scrap material used in making the products? What are the materials used for refrigerants and foam blowing and do they adequately reduce potential for ozone depletion?

The second phase deals with packaging of equipment and supplies, asking among other things: What percentage of the product's weight is used for packaging? Are the materials made from recycled materials or recyclable themselves?

Phase three deals with energy- and water-saving equipment. The report allows manufacturers to fill in results from energy tests that can help operators claim points toward their overall score. One challenge in this area, Gilpatric says, is the number of variables that come up in comparing equipment in this way. "We don't have a database for every piece of equipment to be able to say this product consumes less or more energy than another product, so there's no way to make an accurate comparison across equipment types," he says. The idea is to encourage manufacturers to do more energy and water testing, and to offer a tool that can help operators make their own comparisons of energy- and water-saving claims among different manufacturers for the same type of equipment. The tool allows operators to claim points for the purchase of both Energy Star and CEE Tier 2 equipment.

Finally, the fourth phase deals with the end of life of the equipment: Can the equipment easily be refurbished with new parts for resale and reuse? Can the product materials be recycled, or easily taken apart? What kinds of hazardous materials are in the product that would raise concerns in its destruction? The latter consideration is of particular concern if the equipment is to be resold in Europe, which requires special approval (ROHF certification) for products entering the market to ensure no hazardous materials were used to make it.

"The value behind the tool is not necessarily the score at the end, but that it creates a nice, organized way to report this information so operators working on LEED submittals or wanting to reduce their carbon footprints have a place to start," says Gilpatric.

In developing this new tool, the committee received feedback from various consultants and other foodservice industry professionals who say the calculator will come in handy for use in projects seeking LEED certification. Rather than having to manually pull spec sheets from manufacturers as well as energy testing information from them and other sources, the calculator, which requires manufacturers to supply that information ahead of time, can save significant time and effort in the LEED data collection process.

The next step for the calculator is working with ASTM to develop a standard terminology and official style sheet for it that can help eliminate the many variables posed by manufacture cut sheets and other paperwork out there, according to Gilpatric. That type of standardization is precisely what LEED is looking for as well, he adds.

Players in the foodservice industry from build-out to remodeling have more tools and equipment choices than ever before to create more sustainable kitchens. As one of the largest energy-consuming segments in the foodservice world, we have an obligation to reduce kitchens' overall resource use, as well as a major opportunity to benefit the environment, future generations and the businesses themselves. Sustaining those three areas is precisely what defines a sustainable foodservice operation.