Understanding Energy Management Systems

Although they have been around for a while, energy management systems (EMS) have been slow to catch on in the foodservice community. That may soon change, however, due to a growing number of restaurant chains exploring whether these efficiency tools can help reduce energy consumption.

"There has been renewed enthusiasm recently to try to determine if EMS fits the industry and their potential," says Don Fisher, president and CEO of Fisher-Nickel inc. (FNi) and operator of the Food Service Technology Center in San Ramon, Calif. "These systems are an integral part of hotels and office buildings, but they have to get cheaper and more effective, and EMS makers have to better understand foodservice for them to gain traction in our industry."

Aside from cost, the main issue with EMS is a lack of hard documentation showing their energy savings potential, unlike energy-efficient appliances, which have a proven track record in that department, Fisher says. As a result, it becomes difficult for most operators to justify the costs of such installations.

Types of EMS

Energy management systems are computers or central processors that monitor and control systems and equipment in a restaurant or building, says Fisher. Many have remote-access capabilities that allow users to monitor these controls from a computer — or, perhaps in the future, a smartphone — outside the restaurant's four walls.

The most basic energy management systems are essentially sophisticated time clocks, meaning they turn down, turn off and turn on lighting according to set controls. Other basic models monitor indoor air temperatures like sophisticated thermostats, and can be set to prevent staff from turning up the heat or air. In some cases, service agencies and manufacturers have access to these systems, which report breakdowns or malfunctions as they happen or are about to happen.

Currently, roughly 30 manufacturers make energy management systems, but many focus only on HVAC and lighting. Only a few go beyond total HVAC to zero in on foodservice equipment, however.

Energy management systems hooked up to refrigeration systems monitor temperatures, like HVAC systems. These can indicate if a door was left open or when a malfunction occurs. Some refrigeration EMS technology includes smart defrost to prevent overuse.

"With cooking appliances it is trickier," says Fisher. Some EMS manufacturers claim to be working on appliance control that will be able to turn a backup fryer off during nonpeak hours, for instance. In this case, energy management systems are more capable of controlling electric systems than gas. One chain, for example, is testing the ability to turn off griddles remotely through EMS when they are not in use.

Water-heating energy management systems monitor hot-water delivery to maintain temperatures. This prevents staff from turning heaters higher than they need to be, which could lead to more energy use.

Benefits of EMS

The benefits of using an EMS, according to Fisher, include energy reduction, maintenance cost reduction, and effective health and safety monitoring.

While these systems theoretically reduce energy consumption through the use of set controls and monitoring, there remains a lack of hard data to support these claims, Fisher says. As a result, EMS does not contribute directly to LEED points. Although these systems have the potential to help buildings reduce energy overall, which indirectly leads to LEED points.

Still, Fisher says, chain restaurants are leading the pack in trying out these systems and in the near future might have better data on EMS ROI. "These systems have the potential to reduce energy consumption between 5 percent and 15 percent, or more, but it's not a fixed number." Some systems do monitor kilowatts used per hour per piece of equipment, in which case some simple math can determine potential energy savings when compared to pre-EMS numbers.

In some instances, energy management systems can reduce maintenance costs, flagging building problems with rooftop units, such as refrigeration compressors, so technicians can come out during regular business hours rather than during more expensive overtime periods. Warning flags in this case also prevent potential food waste and costs by allowing service agents to come out and fix a problem before an entire cooler shuts down, thus resulting in spoilage. On an ongoing basis, systems that manage cooler temperatures ensure food is fresh and safe for consumption.

EMS and Decision Making

How can a foodservice operation tell if it can benefit from an energy management system? Fisher says that decision-making process starts with a look at the energy bill.

How big is the bill? If it's significantly larger than any other operational cost, any added potential savings, on top of simply efficient design and equipment, will benefit the end user. In some instances energy management systems help set controls, and energy-saving priorities, to help offset any lacking competencies in the management team.

Still, the savings should outweigh the costs. "If you don't have a good manager and your operation is not well run, you could potentially save 15 percent on your utility bill," Fisher says. "But if you have a little deli with a $10,000 utility bill, 15 percent, or $1,500, at a cost of $5,000 to $10,000 for EMS will not pay back as quickly [as] if there was a $50,000 bill. There is still a minimum cost for EMS, and if the energy bill isn't large enough, it becomes harder to justify the costs." Hence the reason why chains seem to be leading the EMS movement.