It's tough to open a paper or turn on a television lately without hearing talk of businesses that have gone “green” by adopting practices that are more environmentally sensitive. Facing significant pressure from rising utility costs, restaurants and prepared foods departments may be next in line for that green makeover.
“The time has finally come where food-service equipment manufacturers are starting to get on board, and the food-service buyers are starting to look at energy efficiency,” said Dan Bendall, a principal at FoodStrategy, a Rockville, Md.-based consultancy that plans and designs food-service facilities. “In the past, manufacturers from time to time would put things on the market or test a few products that were more energy-efficient, but the buyers weren't really there.”
Bendall drew a comparison to the auto industry, noting that American car makers for years had trouble promoting energy-efficient vehicles until gas prices spiked and the national conversation about energy consumption and the environment intensified.
“Business owners are getting more conscious about how their operations impact the environment, and there are financial motivations: The cost of gasoline is going up, the cost of electricity is going up, and people are realizing that those prices probably aren't going to come back down,” he said. “Now, people are starting to get on board. Energy Star is getting into food-service equipment in a big way, adding more types of equipment all the time.”
Food-service equipment manufacturers who spoke with SN agreed, noting that product efficiency has become a critical selling point.
“Energy costs are going up, whether it's electrical or gas, and even water has become a big consideration,” said Tim Kasler, director of marketing at Easton, Ohio-based Henny Penny. “It's very important nowadays to manufacture equipment that is efficient with regard to all of those utilities for our customers — particularly our larger chain accounts.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star certification program — which has established itself as the gold standard for more efficient consumer products — has become one way for suppliers to demonstrate that a product meets those higher standards. But to date, Energy Star has developed standards for only a select few categories of commercial kitchen equipment. Currently, open fryers, hot food holding cabinets, solid-door refrigerators and freezers, steam cookers and, most recently, commercial dishwashers and ice machines are the only products that can earn certification.
Several factors are considered when choosing product categories to evaluate for Energy Star certification, explained Gwen Dobbs, senior associate at Washington-based ICF International, which works with the Energy Star program on a consulting basis. Products that have independently made large gains in energy efficiency and pollution reduction while remaining cost-effective are the best candidates for assessment.
However, since the program also acts as a marketing tool for both the EPA and its partners, there must be sufficient competition and differentiation in the marketplace to make a category assessment worthwhile for the agency.
“It can't be one manufacturer making a single type of product,” explained Dobbs.
In addition, since the Energy Star program is charged with making demonstrable reductions in consumer and commercial energy use with its marketing programs, product categories that have the potential to make the biggest impact are going to be the program's top priority. But that's good news for commercial kitchens and food-service equipment manufacturers. Energy Star has been focusing more attention on commercial operations like restaurants lately, Dobbs noted.
Commercial kitchens use about 250,000 BTUs of energy per square foot, making restaurants and other food-service operations some of the most energy-intensive small businesses in the U.S., according to the EPA.
Yet according to estimates from Energy Star and Fisher Nickel's Food Service Technology Center, San Ramon, Calif., as much as 80% of the $10 billion spent on energy each year by commercial food-service businesses does no useful work. “These lost energy dollars are often wasted in the form of excess heat and noise generated by inefficient appliances, heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, lighting and refrigeration,” according to Energy Star's website. The agency says that food-service operations that invest strategically in efficient equipment and planning can cut their utility costs up to 30% without sacrificing food quality, service levels or employee comfort.
“That's one of the main reasons that [Energy Star] has started looking more closely at commercial kitchen equipment,” said Dobbs. “Restaurants and commercial kitchens are very energy-intensive.”
The development of certification standards remains a very slow process. In the meantime, equipment manufacturers are limited to making efficiency comparisons directly with competitors' products, or working on new types of innovations. Kasler, for example, said that Henny Penny will soon launch a vertical merchandising unit that uses LED lighting rather than traditional fluorescent bulbs — in addition to energy savings, the product will have the added benefit of requiring significantly less lighting maintenance.
And Alto-Shaam has even created its own trademark and logo intended to supplement the Energy Star certification for products that the EPA has not yet developed standards for.
Todd Griffith, regional sales manager for Alto-Shaam, said the company's EcoSmart line includes products that meet or exceed EPA requirements and California equipment standards, and have proved to be at least 30% more efficient, on average, when compared to a lineup of standard equipment.
“We've always been sensitive to environmental impact issues with regard to food-service equipment,” noted Griffith. “We look at efficiency trends, such as utility consumption — how much gas is used; how much heat is put off from exhaust, which impacts air conditioning and ventilation; how much water is used and put down the drain; kilowatt usage for electricity — all of this while assessing the performance of the equipment. So it's a long-term platform that we'll be using. You're starting to see more manufacturers involved with this as well.”
Energy-Saving Tips for Prepared Foods Departments
Check and calibrate thermostats on water heaters and fryers — Thermostats often lose accuracy over time. Periodic temperature checks may reveal that equipment is turned up too high, wasting energy. For example, the Food Service Technology Center, San Ramon, Calif., estimates that a water heater set as little as 10 degrees too high can cost a kitchen an additional $650 per year in energy expenses.
Reduce idling time — When any equipment is running, it's using energy, particularly if it's a broiler, hot-top range, a conveyor oven or a combi oven, and according to the FSTC, the average fryer spends 75% of the day idling. Many kitchens like to get all of their equipment pre-heated and ready to go first thing in the morning, but establishing a startup/shutdown and standby plan that's tailored to a prepared foods program can lead to significant energy savings over the course of the year.
With combi ovens, use “Combi” mode sparingly — Compact and versatile, combi ovens are popular items in many prepared foods departments. However, “combi” mode itself can use double the energy needed for convection mode. One way to reduce energy consumption here is by following the manufacturer's directions and using the oven's programmability functions.
When replacing equipment, choose high-efficiency models — According to FSTC calculations, an average restaurant kitchen fully equipped with high-efficiency and Energy Star-certified equipment can expect to save almost $7,000 per year in energy costs, compared to a kitchen with standard equipment.
Keep existing equipment well maintained — Torn or leaky gaskets, clogged burners, loose freezer and refrigerator door hinges, uninsulated water pipes and over-fired pilot lights all cause existing equipment to work overtime, leading to unnecessary energy expenses. Making minor repairs right away saves money in the long term.
These tips were provided by the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star Program and Fisher Nickel's Food Service Technology Center, San Ramon, Calif. For more energy-saving tips geared toward food-service operations, check out the following sites:
www.energystar.gov/cfs — This section of the EPA's Energy Star site deals specifically with commercial food-service equipment. Learn which product categories have been certified and which manufacturers offer certified equipment. In addition, some of these products may be eligible for government-sponsored rebates. Visit www.energystar.gov/cfsrebate_locator for more information.
www.fishnick.com — Fisher Nickel's Food Service Technology Center has been scientifically testing and benchmarking the efficiency of commercial food-service equipment for more than two decades. Their site includes a comprehensive set of equipment reviews, energy calculators tailored to commercial kitchens and links to related sites.