Maximizing Energy Efficiency: Why Maintenance and Proper Use Matter

Purchasing energy-efficient equipment is a significant investment. Equipment maintenance along with operator training to avoid misuse and mistakes are two key steps operators must take to protect upfront costs and maximize return on investment.

A key step to making sure foodservice operators get a positive return when investing in energy-efficient equipment is to make sure staff know how to use each item correctly and what actions to avoid. For example (clockwise from top left), check and clean hoses and connections behind all equipment, repair broken nobs on ranges and clean all burners to ensure proper gas use, instruct staff to refrain from propping open walk-in doors for long periods of time, replace light bulbs with energy efficient versions and turn off lights when not in the rooms and regularly check remote compressors and remove any debris that might make it harder for them to pump cool air to ice machines and refrigerators.Planned maintenance programs combined with educating the staff to follow these plans and maintain what they can is the easiest and most important way to protect those hefty investments, says master technician David Duckworth, Commercial Food Equipment Service Association (CFESA)-certified trainer and director of training and development for Commercial Kitchen Parts and Service in San Antonio. "We find ourselves continually ramping up that part of our business," Duckworth says. "There is a huge benefit to keeping a unit up and running effectively before problems become too big."

When it comes to "musts" for a planned maintenance list, include ventilation; dishwashers for temperature checks and leaks; steamers for scale buildup, gaskets and correctly positioned drainage; faucets for defunct or leaky sprayers; refrigeration for condenser cleaning, temperature and gasket checks; and ice machines for scale buildup and condenser cleaning.

Craig Welborn of Bargreen Ellingson in Seattle agrees with the importance of proper use and maintenance to make the most of an expensive, energy-efficient piece of equipment. "When considering an energy-efficient piece of equipment, it's important to take into account how that specific item differs from other similar pieces of equipment," he says. "A typical gas fryer and an energy-efficient fryer operate very similarly overall but may differ significantly as to how they expend their energy and at the rate in which they do so. It's important to understand how these types of equipment save energy in order to learn how they are best suited for an operation and how specifically they can be utilized."

Aside from proper and planned maintenance, operators can save energy by operating equipment more wisely or by utilizing the equipment in a more effective way. "Batch cooking and simply optimizing a load within an oven, for instance, used to be difficult to do without severely affecting the consistency of the other food products within the cavity," says Welborn. "With the advent of new technology, there are now ovens that cook more evenly and effectively throughout the oven cavity to allow for optimized cooking with a myriad of different food products as opposed to merely cooking one specific food product at a time. Many of these ovens are versatile and can even caramelize, sear, sous vide, braise, bake, and can even be ordered with options such as smokers."

Simply turning equipment off or down during nonpeak or nonuse hours is another way to maximize energy savings, Duckworth adds.

While service agents handle many of the more intense cleaning and maintenance tasks, operators have plenty of opportunities to aid in lengthening the service life of specific pieces of equipment, including making sure they operate at peak efficiency. Here's a closer look at the varying types of equipment and their needs for proper maintenance and use.

Dishwashers

Duckworth points out the importance of keeping the pumps clean. "It's very critical for operators to make sure they keep the pump free of large debris to prevent clogs from napkins, papers, straws and lint," he says. "Otherwise, your dishwasher will not clean properly, so you're basically defeating the efficiency you might have had."

He also recommends regularly cleaning wash arm assemblies and making sure they are properly in place to ensure all jets are clear of debris. In addition, keep an eye out for leaks, particularly when hard water is present, as this type of water can tear up valves and lower the unit's efficiency.

Many energy-efficient pieces now come with curtains that hang between the wash and rinse sections, so it's also important to make sure those are not damaged and are properly in place to prevent mixing the wash water with the rinse water and having to start the process all over again. Maintaining these curtains also prevents refill water from splashing out of the dishwasher and not being reclaimed for heat exchange.

Steamers

For connectionless steamers, regularly checking door gaskets to ensure a proper seal, which means the unit does not lose steam, will make the most of the unit's energy-efficiency capabilities, says Duckworth.

Watching out for leaks is also important. A common mistake operators make with steamers is connecting their energy-efficient steamers to hot water sources when these units are built to work with cold water.

Also closely monitor these water-based pieces of equipment for scale buildup. Some newer, more efficient steamers and combi ovens have systems that can tell if there is scale buildup in the boiler and will alert the operator or start a timer that begins a countdown until service is necessary. The service agent can also program these units to set up an optimal reminder time for descaling. Keeping the cavity clean is the most important way to maintain optimal heat transfer.

Some combi and steamer units have self-operating cleaning systems so operators can maintain the units themselves.

Ranges

All energy-efficient cooking equipment has temperature controls that require regular calibration to ensure optimal performance, says Duckworth. "Most restaurants will have their own temperature monitor or sensing devices that they can use to regularly check temperatures, but if not, this should be part of the PM plan," he says.

Also, gas pressure needs to be at the correct level. If the unit is not recovering fast enough or cooking as quickly as normal, this could be a sign that gas pressure is off and needs to be corrected by a service technician. "You should have a nice, blue flame, not a yellow or high and lazy flame, which could indicate problems with the temperature," Duckworth says. "A too-low flame is not good either."

Part of maintaining good flames comes from regular cleaning as well. "If you let the stovetop burners or the vents on the air shutter coming into the burner get clogged up with food and debris, the unit doesn't operate as efficiently," says Duckworth.

Fryers

Compared to other units, an energy-efficient gas fryer will typically idle at a lower rate, retain its heat more efficiently which can be more effective in its recovery process once product is dropped into it, according to Welborn. The equipment does this through a variety of heating systems and controls built in — which can account for the higher cost of these systems.

With electric fryers, the key is keeping the elements clean for optimal heat transfer, says Duckworth. Too much caked-up carbon or debris will reduce its efficiency, so it's important to have a system for cleaning the tank. Some fryers come with self-cleaning capabilities.

Operators can program low-volume fryers to send automatic alerts indicating that it's time to filter the oil. "By regularly doing that, operators can save 40 percent on oil usage, which is a huge expense to any restaurant," Duckworth says.

Properly maintained insulation and seals can further help these units retain their energy-efficient capabilities.

Proper operator use is also important when it comes to maximizing fryer efficiency, says Welborn. "If an operator throws a load of frozen product into a fryer, and the fryer is idle, it typically takes a longer period of time for that fryer to recover to proper temperature than if the oil is at the proper temperature when the product initially goes in," says Welborn.

To operate even more efficiently, operators can manage their fryers in the same manner that energy-efficient fryers are built, simply by turning down the temperature during nonpeak hours and turning it up prior to their peak serving times. Operators with two fryers can save further on expenses by simply shutting down one of their fryers altogether until just before it's needed, or they can use both fryers with smaller loads to limit the impact and allow for the fryers to make a more proper recovery.

Refrigeration

Many walk-ins now come with sensors that will alert the operator when temperatures fall out of a predetermined range, often the result of open or faulty doors. Training staff to close the walk-in doors — not prop them open with a chair during loading and unloading — represents a critical step to maintaining optimal temperatures, but that can be easier said than done. Alarms and sensors cause enough of an annoyance to encourage staff to keep those doors closed.

Keep condensing units clean, checking on them at least monthly if not more frequently. "When the compressor is working well, this will prolong the life of the unit," says Duckworth.

Torn gaskets will reduce the efficiency of a unit, energy-saving or not, by letting chilled air escape while the door is closed. The harder the unit has to work to maintain temperatures, the more energy it consumes. "You can tell if this is the case if there is a lot of condensation around the door, and by making sure temperatures are calibrated and correct."

Ice Makers

These units fall into the same category as refrigeration when it comes to planned maintenance and proper use. "One of the most critical things — other than keeping the condenser clean — is to regularly change the filter," says Duckworth. "Generally this will fall under a PM plan because we don't want people working with chemicals to do this."

Some newer units will send a notification to the operator or service agent if the equipment's ice production falls short of specified levels, which could indicate scale buildup or a clogged condensing fan. "If you notice mold in the bin or discoloration of the ice, that is a sign that the unit needs to be cleaned too," says Duckworth.

Ventilation

Energy-saving ventilation systems have come a long way in recent years, but this does not mean they do not require operator maintenance. Still, many newer models now come with alerts to indicate off-balance hoods or clogged filters.

"Another way to tell if the unit is off balance is when you walk in a room and pull the door, it slams right behind you," Duckworth says. "If you're exhausting more air than you're bringing in, you're probably pulling out air conditioning along with the grease and steam, so now your system is working harder because the cycle is off."

Pulling in too much outside cold air and trying to heat that to maintain a comfortable working environment can also lead to overuse of energy.

Some newer units have charcoal filters that prevent heat from escaping, but operators need to make sure those are changed regularly too. Again, this is where a good PM plan comes into play.

With demand-controlled ventilation systems, regularly checking belts and replacing them when necessary maintains optimal energy savings. Changing the belts before this happens can prevent a total system breakdown.

Cleaning is vital as well. One of the worst mistakes operators make is not having a schedule in place to periodically clean the ducts all the way through the hood and exhaust motor and to keep the blowers clean. Operators can clean their own filters, but for deeper cleaning, hiring a company might be necessary, says Duckworth.

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