From Best Practice to Standard Practice: Saving Energy with Good Maintenance

Richard Young, Senior Engineer and Director of Education

The Food Service Technology Center (FSTC) just celebrated its 25th anniversary with a day-long symposium that focused on the “Kitchen of the Future.” The first speaker on the program was the FSTC’s lead site audit engineer, Todd Bell, who opened the show with a presentation on the current state of foodservice energy-efficiency. Todd entertained the audience for 20 minutes with picture after picture showing the ways that kitchens routinely waste energy. Some of the slides were very funny – the heat lamp screwed into the light fixture in the walk-in refrigerator – and others were just groaners. (How is it that a school district could buy new un-insulated hot food holding cabinets and then wedge them in-between refrigerated prep tables?) Todd’s message was this: “There is way too much waste! Operators are in the habit of walking by glaring maintenance problems and inappropriate use of equipment without thinking about how that affects their bottom line, the performance of their kitchen or the environment.”

The challenge is that good maintenance, and energy-efficiency in general, is often treated as something special or optional, like flossing, instead of something that is just accepted everyday practice, like brushing your teeth. The goal of the FSTC is to move energy-efficient actions such as maintenance from “best practice to standard practice.”

So, to help get you started, here are five must-do maintenance practices that should never be overlooked:

  1. Fix Water Leaks: The combined costs of water and sewer have been rising faster than the rate of inflation for at least a decade. Water is an increasingly expensive commodity that you cannot afford to throw away. Water leaks at sinks, dishmachines, mop stations, toilets and on irrigation systems are a 24 hour-a-day, 7 day-a-week, waste of money. All those drips can add up to thousands of dollars of lost profit a year. The good news is that most leaks are easy to fix. So don’t ignore that dripping faucet – fix it and save.
  2. Clean Refrigeration Coils: Refrigeration is the process of removing heat from inside a box. That heat is absorbed by the “evaporator” coils inside the box and released by the “condenser” coils outside the box. If the coils are dirty, the heat doesn’t move through the system like it is supposed to and the refrigerator has to use more energy to get the same job done. Really dirty coils can double the cost of operation and really strain the compressor. Cleaning once or twice a year is NOT enough. Quarterly is typically the minimum and if you have a more grease intense operation, like a burger restaurant, monthly is more likely the ideal schedule. You will save money on energy and cut your chances of an expensive service call.
  3. Replace Missing Knobs on Appliances: Cooking appliances are energy intensive. You do not want to leave them on when you don’t have to. An appliance that is running but not cooking food is not making you any money. It is draining your profits. But how can the staff turn off those range burners, or the broiler, or sections of the griddle if all the knobs are missing? Using a pair of pliers to operate your equipment is not an elegant way to manage your energy costs. Replace those missing knobs and then implement an equipment start-up and shut-down schedule so you use the energy you are buying as effectively (i.e. profitably) as possible.
  4. Properly Set the Temperature on Water Heaters: Making hot water can be one of the biggest energy costs in the kitchen. Making more hot water then you need just adds to that cost (and reduces your take-home pay). The FSTC crew routinely finds water heaters running anywhere from 10 to 40 degrees higher than necessary. Set your water heater so that you comply with local health codes and then check it on a regular basis to make sure it stays there. While you are at it, be sure to replace missing insulation on your hot water lines. These two actions are cheap-and-easy energy savers that should never be ignored.
  5.  Make Sure Cooking Appliances Sit All the Way Under the Exhaust Hood: All the cooking appliances on a line need to sit all the way under the exhaust hood. That may seem obvious, but the FSTC surveyors routinely find appliances that have migrated outside the exhaust hood for one reason or another. A hot appliance that is not properly ventilated is a health and safety hazard and, all the heat that doesn’t get captured by the exhaust hood will end up in the already hot kitchen – making it that much more expensive to cool. Also, be sure to turn off those exhaust hoods at the end of the work day after all the appliances have been turned off.

These are just a few simple maintenance items – there are many more and most of them are painfully obvious. The FSTC site audit team has a favorite slogan: “If it looks wasteful it is!” Keep that idea in mind and you will be more profitable while walking a little more gently on the environment.