Water filtration systems have improved dramatically over the years, and the range of options for use and types of use have increased, as well.
Not only do many operators install water filtration systems or softeners to slow the wear and tear on their ice machines, steamers and other water-based equipment and ensure optimal performance of these items, they also use different types to enhance coffee and beverage service, develop and carbonate their own healthy sodas, even recreate water with a chemical composition similar to that in New York City to help make the region's infamous pizza and bagels in other parts of the country. Think green meets value-added.
And the good news is that water systems are becoming more powerful in terms of their capacity, according to one industry expert. In fact, many of the high-volume QSRs and other restaurant chains and hotels now look for systems that will last longer without as many filter changes.
These operators, in addition to independent restaurants, also want more point-of-use water filtration systems that they can install throughout the kitchen for various purposes. The four main filtration systems include carbon filter for removing chloride and chloramines from drinking water and cleaning up coffee brewing water, water softeners to reduce lime buildup on equipment, and more complex reverse osmosis and blending systems to completely purify water or create special water recipes for various consumption and cooking uses.
Before considering installing a drinking water filtration system, many operators in geographic areas with hard and heavy mineral-laden water look to softeners to reduce mineral deposits, lime and other buildup that can corrode equipment, diminish performance, even increase energy use and carbon footprint in some cases.
A warewashing machine, for example, becomes a lot less efficient due to scale buildup from hard water, notes another industry expert. When that happens foodservice operators need to use more toxic chemicals just to descale the machine. So on the operation side, soft water impacts the environment in many ways.
According to a study by the Water Quality Association (WQA), hard water can lead to as much as a 24 percent loss of efficiency in water heaters, whereas softened water maintained the original factory efficiency rating over a 15-year lifetime. In fact, carbon footprint increased 18 percent for gas storage tank heaters when operated on hard water for 15 years compared to 0 percent for softened water, the study found. States with very hard water at 10-plus grains per gallon (gpg) include those around the Great Lakes as well as the Dakotas and parts of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Florida.
Tankless heaters failed to function completely because of scale plugging after only 1.6 years of hot, hard water use, according to the study. Softened water, on the other hand, was shown to save 40 percent to 50 percent of operating costs, depending on their application.
Frequently needing to de-lime steam ovens represents an extra expense for operators because they often must hire a service agent to perform such a task. Sometimes it can take the service agent two, three, even six hours to remove what is basically hard rock, according to one expert. For operators that need to go through that process three, four or more times per year, those costs can really add up. Not to mention, added buildup causes a reduction in energy performance. If an operator has already invested in an energy-efficient or water-efficient model, those savings may be wasted with regular de-liming needs.
Industry observers often point out that most foodservice operators fail to realize how much energy is lost by not softening the water for their equipment. That's because as scale builds up it basically becomes an insulator, making it difficult for any heating element to get past that scale just to work. One-quarter inch of scale can lead to a 38 percent energy efficiency reduction, according to one estimate.
From another green perspective, water softeners help operators reduce the amount of detergents in the warewashing machine they use, thereby saving costs and cutting down on environmental waste.
Filtering water in-house to enhance basic tap water for diners, even private labeling the bottles to reflect the operation's brand, went through a boom several years ago. Around the same time, many restaurants considered charging diners for this improved water, but once the recession hit that idea wash washed down the drain.
This was partially due to the fact that it became difficult for some operators to give up the revenue they could make by selling bottled water. Many restaurants and chains have made up potentially lost profits from free filtered water by developing specialty sodas for which they can charge a
premium as well as cocktail add-ins like homemade tonic. One chain recently introduced a line of specialty frozen drinks that starts with filtered water.
Still, because of environmental concerns associated with plastic water bottle purchasing and waste, restaurants continued to filter and serve their own tap water as both a marketing advantage to show a commitment to sustainability and to differentiate their businesses from other competitors serving plain old tap water. In fact, serving cleaner, better-tasting water to diners in pretty glass bottles has almost become the norm. Leaving the bottles on the table also cuts back on labor costs associated with constantly refilling water glasses using messy, ice-laden pitchers.
Water quality depends largely on geographic region. Texas, Arizona and New Mexico have high levels of minerals in their water, which can dramatically degrade the taste of pure tap water. New York and Seattle have a lot of particulates in their water, considered to be "dirtier," and requiring heavier filtration. In Georgia, Florida and other warm-weather states, algal blooms and organics in the water can cause severe problems with taste, odor and clarity.
First, operators should test their water to see what levels of carbon, softening and other filtration methods might be appropriate. The most basic water filtration system for drinking water, cleaner ice and beverage service is a carbon filter, but reverse osmosis systems can also be used for drinking water.
Basic carbon filters do a pretty good job of filtering out chloride from water to improve taste and odor, but they won't filter out other known contaminants like pharmaceuticals and heavy particulates, according to one industry expert. What complicates the matter even further is the fact that increasing numbers of municipalities are switching from chloride to chloramine, a chlorine and ammonia compound, as a cheaper alternative to kill bacteria during filtration.
Chloramine is more cost effective and very stable because it's not a gas like chloride, so it stays in the water lines longer and disinfects further down the pipeline, according to one expert. The problem is traditional carbon filters only remove a small number of chloramines.