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How to Reduce Refrigeration Energy Costs in Commercial Kitchens

Opportunities for reducing electricity consumption in commercial kitchens are abundant but deciding where to start can be challenging. Here’s a tip: Start with the biggest opportunities for quick improvements with little to no capital cost.

According to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, of all the equipment using electricity in your kitchen, refrigeration uses the most by far – at a national average of 44%.

Consider what 44% of your electric bill looks like. If those bills don’t usually land on your desk, you can assume, for the average restaurant (roughly 3,500 square feet), 38kWh of electricity per square foot per year, and average cost of $0.10/kWh, that would be about $5,800 per year to operate refrigeration equipment.

Save $1,000 Every Year With Maintenance

Regular, scheduled maintenance can allow your refrigeration unit to run more efficiently and, in some cases, may help prolong the life of the equipment. Maintaining clean condenser and evaporator coils and allowing proper air flow pays off—to the tune of almost a thousand dollars per year for an average-sized food service facility. 

In 2014, the San Francisco Department of the Environment commissioned Fisher-Nickel Inc. at the Food Service Technology Center in San Ramon, California, to conduct a study examining different ways to save refrigeration related energy. As part of the study, a sample of 10 units were selected to measure the impact of basic condenser-coil cleaning. This would be a chance to note the typical conditions of refrigeration in the field—some units had accumulated some typical dust and dirt buildup, which acts as an insulator and inhibits the condenser coil’s ability to shed heat, making the compressor work longer and harder, while other coils were even more heavily coated with dust and dirt mixed with airborne grease particles.

Basic cleaning reduced energy consumption by 2% (for the coils that were fairly clean to start with) to 49% for one particularly grimy example. For all 10 units, the average was 17% reduced energy consumption. Take that out of the average $5,800 figure, and you save $986!

Tips from Refrigeration Maintenance and Repair Professionals

Other regular maintenance can reduce energy consumption and premature wear as well, though the savings might be more difficult to quantify. Here is a list from Refrigerated Specialist Inc. – a company that provides performance maintenance solutions for commercial refrigeration equipment in hospitality and food service industries throughout north and east Texas.

  1. Ice makers/bins/dispensers: Clean/sanitize at six-month intervals including new water filters. In cases of more aggressive mold or scale accumulations (including yeast, bakery and fried items), poor water quality or high running hours activity, they may need more frequent cleaning/sanitizing. Performing a production test to reconcile against published output capacities is good to confirm the unit is not wasting running hours, energy, and water. Electrical/mechanical testing is also recommended.
  1. Reach ins/under-counters/cold wells: Clean condenser and evaporator coils; drain blow out every six months along with tightening/adjusting of hardware. Calibrate thermostats and timers. Again, harder use or hotter/greasier kitchens may require more frequent cleaning cycles.
  1. Walk-ins: Similar six-month intervals on both evaporators & condensers. Electrical and mechanical testing, hardware adjustments and general tune ups are also recommended.
  1. Frozen beverage (dairy, non-diary, alcohol, or wine based) systems: These are high touch items, with lots of contact with operators and sometimes customers. Follow manufacturers’ directions on cleaning/sanitizing of vats, barrels, and faceplates. Usually this should be done daily. If you make it weekly, you might find no one has done it in months. Keep spare tune up kits on hand (O-rings, seals) and NEVER run out of petrol-gel lubricant, using it correctly which generally means sparingly.
  1. Gaskets: These are a housekeeping item requiring regular cleaning by the operator. Food debris and beverage spills will cause mold growth, resulting in sticking gaskets, in tears and premature failure. Harsh chemicals (for example, bleach when improperly diluted) will clean but will also shorten gasket life. Lastly, keep in mind gaskets need to be relatively soft and pliable, which means they don’t take well to harsh handling. Proper handling during cleaning goes a long way toward keeping a gasket for its full life cycle.

An additional tip from RSI: In more challenging environments—high volume, high heat, high dust or grease—using a professional preventive service can make a big difference over a do-it-yourself approach.

Along with proper refrigeration equipment maintenance, replacing or adding components can allow for optimal efficiency operation of your existing equipment. Many of these upgrades are eligible for rebate incentives.

This table shows the types of commercial kitchen equipment and corresponding components that are eligible incentives through local utilities.  1) Eligible Component Rebate List: Automatic Door Closers; Equipment Type: Walk-Ins 2) Eligible Component Rebate List: High efficiency fan motors; Equipment Type: Walk-Ins/Reach-Ins 3) Eligible Component Rebate List: Strip Curtains; Equipment Type: Walk-Ins 4) Eligible Component Rebate List:Anti-Sweat Heater Controls; Equipment Type: Display Cases 5) Eligible Component Rebate List: LED Refrigerator Display Case Lighting; Equipment Type: Display Cases 6) Eligible Component Rebate List: Night Covers; Equipment Type: Display Cases

This list is not comprehensive and may include other components such as:

  • Door gaskets
  • Suction pipe insulation
  • Door Frame Heater Controls
  • Refrigerated Case Light Sensors
  • Retrofitting Open Multideck Cases with Solid Glass Doors

Contact your local utility to find out whether it offers rebates for these or other eligible components.

Choose ENERGY STAR

When it’s time to replace your refrigeration equipment, remember that models earning the ENERGY STAR label are, on average, 25% more efficient than standard equipment. These products are eligible for incentives in many parts of the country. For more information and a complete list of ENERGY STAR certified commercial refrigeration equipment and automatic commercial ice makers, visit the ENERGY STAR Product Finder.

Author: Tanja Crk, ENERGY STAR Certified Products