Keep your cool and boost your bottom line with energy-efficient refrigeration equipment

From refrigerators and prep tables to open-air merchandisers, going green while keeping your food cool isn’t only beneficial for the environment—it can boost your bottom line, too. Refrigeration burns a lot of juice; it’s responsible for nearly 20% of your power usage, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. By choosing energy-efficient appliances and maintaining your cooling systems properly, you’ll save money on electric bills, make your equipment last longer and ensure that food is stored safely.

Some pizzeria operators choose to have a walk-in refrigerator for bulk storage; a reach-in for daily or weekly supplies; an under-counter near the line for easy access; and a cold prep table. But you’ll want to weigh the amount of storage space you’ll need against the energy usage of multiple units, and, if possible, organize the coolers in gradually smaller units until you get to the hottest part of the kitchen, the production line.

The footprint for a walk-in starts at about 30 square feet—and that’s a lot of space to keep cold. If you have the room and you need a lot of storage, this luxury item may be one worth considering. Many pizzerias, however, can get away with one or more reach-ins instead. “Reach-ins are available in a wide variety of configurations and options. Some consider pass-throughs, roll-ins, or even under-counters, as reach-ins,” says Lynn Burge, advertising and promotions manager for Master-Bilt Products in New Albany, Mississippi. “Basic models include one-, two- and three-door sizes, and options include half-solid or half-glass doors, pan racks, extra shelving and leg kits in lieuof casters.”

Saving Energy

Thanks to recent improvements in insulation and compressors, today’s refrigerators consume less energy than older models. The U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency created the Energy Star program (energystar.gov) to rate the energy efficiency of appliances and help both individuals and businesses choose the right ones for their energy needs.
“The single most important factor when considering the purchase of commercial refrigeration is whether they are Energy Star-qualified,” advises Randy Augustine, senior product manager for reach-in refrigeration at Hoshizaki in South Peachtree City, Georgia. “Energy Star storage refrigeration is 15% to 30% more energy-efficient than standard refrigeration equipment.In a small facility, this could amount to hundreds of dollars annually.” He adds that many states offer rebates as incentives for the purchase of Energy Star-qualified equipment, and the cost of Energy Star equipment, on average, is comparable to standard models.

A typical refrigerator is comprised of a compressor and an insulated enclosure, notes Emily Hoffman, senior engineer at Altanova Energy+Sustainability in Long Island City, New York. “They’re not only the backbone of a refrigerator; they are also its major energy hogs,” she says. “Most refrigerators and freezers today use a single-speed compressor—they’re kind of like a car that can only operate at either 0 mph or 100 mph. When your thermostat rises a couple of degrees, a single-speed compressor will race at 100 mph to drop your temperature back down. But, because it’s compressing at such a high speed, it’s going to burn a lot of fuel to do that—like driving at 100 mph to cover 10 feet.”

A more efficient choice, Hoffman says, is a variable-speed compressor that can operate with less energy output but still ensure that your toppings don’t spoil. “It’s akin to an engine that can go not just 100 mph, but also 50 mph,” she continues. “When crossing smaller temperature differences, it may take slightly longer for a variable-speed compressor to reduce temperature, but it’s going to burn through way less energy in the process while still keeping your dough at safe temperatures. And since a variable-speed compressor can still speed along at 100 mph when it needs to—for example, after plugging in your machine after a massive cleaning—you get all the benefits of a high-speed engine along with the benefits of a slow speed.”

This raises the question: Why is your refrigerator warming up anyway? According to Hoffman, leaving the door open or adding hot food are typical culprits, but the unit also heats up due to the lighting, fans and defrost systems.“By investing in refrigerators that contain LED lighting, high-efficiency fans and motors that give off less heat than standard lighting and motors, you’ll give your compressor fewer reasons to run, saving you energy—and money—in the long term,” says Hoffman.

“LED lighting is a very popular option,” adds Burge. “Motion sensorsthat turn lights on as neededare also available. Highly efficient compressors and generously sized condensers —as well as evaporators and ECevaporator motors—are other features that help in energy efficiency.”

Beyond the Fridge

Refrigerated prep tables are another must in the pizzeria. They may come with handy features such as built-in portioning cups and scales; cutting boards; refrigerated cabinets for toppings and dough balls; and cooling rails around the tabletop. Some models also boast storage space in the rail. “This can be a great time-saver at the end of the day,” says Augustine.According to Augustine, health departments across the United States follow an industry standard—known as NSF 7—for the operation of refrigerated preparation tables developed by the National Sanitation Foundation. “By using a refrigerated prep table that meets NSF 7 standards and maintaining product in the safe food storage temperature zone, the operator ensures that the products served are free from harmful bacteria,” he says.

If you serve bottled drinks or premade to-go foods, self-service is an easy way to streamline your operation, and open-air merchandisers offer grab-and-go convenience that some operators prefer over glass-door models. Open-air merchandisers force a stream of air—called an air curtain—across the opening of the unit to keep cold air inside. If your restaurant has sufficient space for an open-air merchandiser, it offers the advantage of encouraging impulse purchases. These systems come in both horizontal and vertical models; if you have a lot of horizontal space and numerous products to showcase, a horizontal model may be right for you.

“With open-air models, there’s no barrier between the customer and product,” Burge observes. “However, open-airs aren’t as energy-efficient. Night curtains in open-air modelsareused after-hours to hold in cold air and reduce energy usage at nonpeak times or while stores are closed. Store owners need to weigh the energy usage versus the convenience factor when deciding between the two types.”

Proper Maintenance

Your refrigerator will run most efficiently and serve you well for years to come if you maintain it properly. Always make sure the door is closed and the refrigerator door gasket is clean and in good working order. “Check the door gasket every month for signs of wear, including tears, cracks or problems such as the gasket not sealing to the frame,” says Kevin Nakata, inside sales and technical support for Tundra Restaurant Supply in Boulder, Colorado. “Make sure to not overcrowd the unit or block air flow from the evaporator coils. This can cause the refrigerator to remain at incorrect temperatures, which can cause foodborne illnesses.

“It’s essential to keep all dust and debris out of the coils and away from the compressor,” Nakata continues.“I suggest blowing out the condensing coil at least once per month and installing a small piece of angel-hair filter material on the condensing unit to keep at least 80% of dust, dirt and other foreign objectsout of the condenser coils.”

Nakata also advises that you check the evaporator coils once monthly to ensure they are clean and free of cardboard fibers or any other materials that may cause the evaporator to overwork. And, depending on what types of items you store in a particular model, you may need to get professional help now and then. “Produce is the No. 1 killer of evaporator units in refrigerators, because produce makes acid in the air, causing the evaporator to break down over time,” explains Nakata. “If the evaporator coils are cleaned at least twice per year by a certified technician, the unit should last a lifetime!”

Michelle McAnally is PMQ’s food editor.