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How to Evaluate Foodservice Equipment Following a Flood

A former service agent shares a some tips on how to evaluate foodservice equipment in the aftermath of a flood.

With the East Coast experiencing historic flooding courtesy of Hurricane Irene, various tropical storms and other rainfall, many foodservice operators will return to their work needing to assess the status of their businesses, including their equipment.

With their entrepreneurial spirit driving them, many operators will look to hit the ground running as they try to resume business as soon as possible. Before doing so, however, it is important to take the time to inspect all of the equipment to make sure the flooding and weather did not compromise it in anyway.

Simply put: now is not the time to cut corners. "It can cost you twice as much time and a lot of money down the road if the equipment fails due to problematic system components or if somebody gets hurt," said Don Purser, national service manager for Unified Brands. Purser should know, he was a general manager for New Orleans-based Heritage Service Group in the days immediately after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast region six years ago.

Purser and the Heritage team were back in business within weeks of the storm and began helping customers assess the damage the flooding that followed the storm did to their equipment. As a result, Heritage's business experienced a fundamental shift. "We serviced a lot of restaurants and condemned a lot of equipment," Purser recalls. "Our business was 20 percent installation and 80 percent service prior to the storm. After the storm, our business was 80 percent installation and 20 percent service."

With this experience still pretty fresh in his mind Purser shared a few tips associated with dealing with foodservice equipment in the aftermath following a flood.

Refrigeration Equipment

It is important to understand the level the flood waters reached to make sure it did not compromise the refrigeration unit's insulation. "If the water gets into the insulation, it renders the equipment almost useless. The same applies for hot side equipment," Purser said.

If the insulation is intact and dry, then examine the inside of the unit, removing any food items that have been sitting at temperature of more than 40 degrees F for more than two hours. It is also important to make sure there is no rust, mold or corrosion inside the unit.

After sitting in water for any period of time, the defrost timer and controller will need to be checked. It is also important to have a compressor resistance check performed. If the compressor has failed and the unit needs replacement, the operator will need to have a service agent, or another qualified provider, vacuum and capture the refrigerant and dispose of it according to EPA guidelines.

Gas Equipment

Once you understand the water level and whether it impacted the unit's insulation, the next step is to make sure the regulators are intact on a piece of salvageable gas fired foodservice equipment, Purser said. From there, it is on to the manifold, most of which are not made of stainless steel and that means they corrode easily, warranting replacing.

The burners represent another important place to check. Many of today's high efficiency fryers, steamers and ovens use infrared burners, which may need to be replaced. And if the unit has a closed system, like some fryers, you need to look at the entire combustion chamber. "Anything related to combustion, you have to look at closely to ensure nothing compromises safety and performance," Purser says.

Also, many of these products may feature digital controls, which represent another area to check. "A lot of manufacturers do a good job of coating their boards to make them resistant to this kind of thing, but if they are exposed to moisture for any period of time, they will need to be replaced," Purser added.

Electric Equipment

In the case of electric foodservice equipment, it is important to make sure the electricity in the actual restaurant is safe to use. "Following Katrina, we wanted to make sure the circuits were sound before we ever considered plugging anything back in," Purser says. "You should be there on-site to talk to the electrician."

Once the building's electrical system is deemed sound, the service agent should check the equipment's power cord, contractors, transformers, elements and the terminals. "Anything that moisture could impair," Purser said. "If there was rusting or corrosion, we had to make a call as to whether to try to test the equipment."

Condemning Equipment

In the event a piece of foodservice equipment was condemned, Purser and Heritage would write a letter on the company's stationery confirming the item was no longer in working order. The operator used this as documentation when working with the government or their insurance agent. "There is more cache brought to the table when we represent the manufacturer and that helped things move a lot quicker," Purser said.

Copies of the letter were sent to the operator and, in some cases, the fire marshal. "Every local area has a process for how they condemn equipment," Purser added.

And it is during times like these when communication between the operator and the service agent becomes even more critical than usual. "You have to tell the customer what's happening and why. They are out of business and will be in the midst of fighting with the insurance company, so they need to know why they can't open for business and what is specifically wrong with their equipment," Purser said. "This caused a lot of consternation with customers but once we calmly communicated the 'why' it helped diffuse the situation."

Once equipment was condemned, Heritage provided the customer an option to work with an equipment dealer or to have a used appliance in good working condition installed.

Resuming Operations

Once a foodservice operation is ready to resume its business, it is important to test the equipment by cycling it, cooking food on it, etc., Purser said. "That way you make sure it is safely working as designed."

In extreme situations, it is not uncommon for a restaurant to use propane-fired equipment to set up a temporary location until their facility is back up and running. Just because a situation is temporary does not mean that safety should be overlooked. "It is important to make sure that is installed and started up by a trusted service agent to ensure everything is hooked up properly to ensure the application is safe," Purser said.

With respect to sanitizing equipment after a flood, Purser says there is no substitute for good, old-fashioned elbow grease and the manufacturer recommended cleaning method.