Energy Efficiency in Equipment and Practice

Many people want to do the right thing to help out Mother Nature. Save the trees. Support the farmers. Buy the hybrid car. Design your kitchen to conserve energy and water.

In general, kitchens are only slowly becoming “green,” says Jim Webb, principal of Webb Design. But, Webb says, “People are beginning to wake up to the idea of sustainability.” The common definition of sustainability means going about our daily lives, but with an intent on preserving natural ecosystems within our environment. In other words, you can run an industrial plant, but don’t dump gallons of waste in the ocean. Same thing with kitchens—exhaust in the form of heat and smoke are normal occurrences, but let us do what we can to reduce those impurities to keep the air clean. And, using equipment that uses less electricity, water and gas, not only helps preserve our natural environment, but it also saves dollars upon dollars in overhead costs as prices for these resources continue to escalate. More end-users are tuning in to the idea of producing the same amount, or more, using less, especially in states like California with limited energy and water supplies. Meanwhile, manufacturers continue to develop more energy-efficient products to better serve operators, some launching nationwide conservation initiatives. And more companies have jumped onboard the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program, through which participating businesses measure energy performance, set goals and track savings. Manufacturers meeting the government’s energy standards receive Energy Star certification, which they can use as a leg up on the competition. In 2005 alone, participating businesses saved a combined $12 million in energy costs. 

The Buyers So, who’s buying this stuff? Larger chains with the resources to assess exactly what energy-efficient equipment they can buy, and have the funds to pay for it, says Mark Godward, consultant and president of Strategic Restaurant Engineering (SRE). Initial costs for such equipment is higher, but in the long-term, chains realize they can save on escalating overhead costs. Smaller chains, those with 100 stores or less, generally don’t have the funds or resources to make those purchases, Godward says.

In addition to large chains, college and universities are designing their kitchens with the idea of sustainability in mind. The University of California system has proven to be a leader in the initiative to go “green,” by developing policies and protocol regarding sustainability and teaching their students about the importance of the issue. The university’s foodservice kitchens reflect that attitude, with energy-saving equipment and extremely efficient HVAC systems. 

The Products Among the best pieces of energy-efficient equipment on the market, in Godward’s opinion, are induction cooktops. The cooktops generate heat only when the pan comes in contact with the surface, heating the food at its core quickly and thoroughly without releasing excess energy. In this case, the energy efficiency does not affect labor because the cooking environment is more comfortable for cooks, and because the cooktop can simultaneously hold more pots and pans than gas burners. The equipment also does not affect throughput, because food production remains the same or better than traditional ranges, Godward says. The one thing induction cooktops tend to impact, however, is the taste of the food. With gas ranges, food sears more thoroughly and there is a stronger caramelizing effect, making the food taste differently than if it were seared on an induction range.

Some manufacturers also make equipment that saves both gas and water, for example. One combi oven on the market not only runs on half the amount of Btu compared to a traditional model, but it also uses 70-percent less water because the cooking cavity is more thoroughly sealed off to retain steam and heat. One ice machine on the market uses a prod to release ice from wells inside the unit, faster than waiting for the wells to melt slightly and let gravity perform the job. As a result, ice production volume remains the same in less time, thus lowering energy consumption. Some products are simply more effective; for example, reach-in refrigerators that have tighter insulation to prevent air bubbles from releasing energy.

HVAC systems are becoming more efficient, according to Webb. Some simply suck in less air, so they use smaller motors, less air conditioning, and the ductwork doesn’t require as much cleaning. Some HVAC systems use infrared technology that adjusts fan levels according to the amount of smoke and heat in the kitchen. For example, if a grill is loaded with hamburgers, the infrared senses the extra smoke and speeds up the fan. During non-peak periods, the fans slow down, using less energy.

The Debate Aside from some initial higher costs to purchase energy-efficient equipment, what’s the catch? The energy savings seem to present a tremendous opportunity to reduce operating expenses over the long haul, so why doesn’t everyone buy the equipment? Godward uses the hybrid car example to answer that. While hybrids are great for the environment, the problem is, what if the car can’t possibly fit your wife and four kids? What if only the gas-guzzling SUV works in that situation?

This is precisely the issue many operators face regarding energy efficiency. Operators have a number of impressive, top-quality energy-efficient products at their disposal, from induction cooktops, to fryers and combi ovens with lower Btu requirements, to refrigerators with defrosters that turn on only when needed, instead of automatically ever hour. Equipment like that will unquestionably save dollars in energy and water use in the long-term, but, it’s more complicated than that, Godward says. Some energy-efficient equipment can negatively impact labor and throughput if not applied properly in operations.

For example, an energy-efficient fryer may run on less gas, but it also may take longer to prepare food, Godward says. As a result, the cook needs to tend to the equipment longer, thereby affecting labor, and the fries don’t come out as fast, thereby affecting throughput, he says. This is a sensitive concern for chains with high-volume food production and that want to be able to serve their guests quickly. “Labor and throughput — those things have to be weighed in the balance,” Godward says. “You could get a car that runs on less gas and it costs $40,000, but then you can get a non-hybrid car with all the same comforts for $20,000. Chains think that way themselves — they can’t give up a significant amount of their profitability for saving energy.”

The Energy-Efficient Solution So what, then, is the solution to the debate over energy efficiency? How to do you strike that fragile balance between saving the Earth, and maintaining your business? The solution, Godward says, lies in the engineering of kitchen operations. Take the fryer example mentioned earlier. Perhaps the chain, rather than buying energy-efficient fryers, will instead realize that it only really needs one regular fryer to perform the work of two. As a result, it will save energy through more efficient operations rather than through efficient equipment. Or, perhaps the chain could buy regular equipment, but then use an energy-efficient hood system to reduce heat in the kitchen and the impact on air conditioners. Or, maybe the energy-efficient fryer does produce the same throughput as a traditional model, so the chain makes that environmental and cost saving purchase. In all, it’s how the end-user defines energy savings in its own terms that makes the ultimate difference.