When the warmer months roll around, you really appreciate your ice maker (if it is keeping up with demand) or swear at it (if it isn’t making enough ice). If you choose the right ice maker for your restaurant, then do a few things to take care of it, this key piece of equipment should last easily 10 years.

First, buy the ice making and storage capacity you need.

How do you know how much ice you will need in a day? Here are a few rules of thumb. If you are serving fountain sodas, you will need about one pound for every drink you sell. If you are filling a 10-foot salad bar with ice, it will take about 300 pounds; don’t forget to add more for the evening meal after some melts. In a bar you will need 2-3 pounds per guest served. Each of these quantities takes into account melting and ice used to cool soft drink syrups. As you can see, the amount of ice needed can be large. Also be sure to buy an ice maker that can handle the highest volume day of the week.

Most operations should choose an ice bin size slightly larger than the maker. On a slow day the maker can “get ahead” and make more ice in the bin for a busier weekend day or holiday. Some operations open only on weekdays take advantage of their bins and buy a much larger bin to make extra ice over the weekend so they can downsize their ice maker and save a few dollars.

The type of ice is the next consideration. The three choices include cubes, nuggets and flakes.

Cubes are the classic beverage choice. Cube ice is clear and appealing for beverages. Commercial-quality cube ice differs from that made in ice trays at home. Commercial ice makers produce ice differently for better visual quality and much higher production. Most manufacturers make different machines for at least two cube sizes. If you have a bar operation, you may want to look at the one or two manufacturers whose machines produce extra large one-inch or larger cubes, which look great in a drink.

Nugget ice is a newer shape that is often used in fast food. This is a compressed ice formed into small cylinders. While not as crystal clear as cubes, it is hard and slower to melt than flaked ice. The product is formed in an easy-to-chew-sized nugget, which many customers like for beverages, especially in quick-service applications. Making nugget ice uses less water and less electricity than producing the same amount of cube ice, so it is less costly to make. The nugget machines are also a bit more compact and require less maintenance. You may not want to use nugget ice for bars, but it can be quite acceptable for just about everything else. Nugget machines are also generally less expensive.

Flake ice is the other main type. Flakes are ideal for rapid cooling but tend to water down drinks too much. Flaked ice is great for back-of-house uses like icing down fresh seafood. Flakes also pack into a salad bar well. Per pound, flaked ice is usually the least expensive ice to make.

Industry standard ice production ratings can be misleading if you don’t know what to look for. Most manufacturers’ ice-making figures are based on 50°F water and 70°F air conditions. Because these temperatures are often unrealistic in restaurants, the true production capacity is actually lower. A good rule is to assume a worst case of 90° air temperature and 70° water temperature to calculate ice-making capacity. You can help the situation by not locating your ice maker in the dishwashing room or some other hot area of the kitchen.

Ice maker styles, other considerations

Most ice makers are available either as air- or water-cooled models. The initial cost is usually the same. Ice makers use either air or water to cool their refrigeration compressor and condenser system. Each method has advantages. The air-cooled condenser is cost effective, but significantly heats the air used for cooling the motors. Of course, dissipating the heat into the room and heating it just diminishes the unit’s ice-making capacity. Water-cooled machines are wonderful if your building has a cooling tower or closed-loop chilling system. A closed-loop system means you are not using tap water to cool, then dumping it down a drain. Dumping cooling water would be a tremendous waste and cost. A closed loop and cooling tower may or may not be feasible in your outlet, however. In addition to dispersing less heat than an air-cooled machine, the water-cooled system does have some significant advantages in machine efficiency. Water-cooled makers generally use less electricity than similar-sized air-cooled machines. Water-cooled units are also quieter. If water cooling is practical in your operation, use it. Using water-cooled ice makers, especially with larger machines, can reduce the heat an ice maker adds to the kitchen.

Two important factors affect ice quality. The first is incoming water quality. Most ice makers will benefit from a water filter. Water filters condition incoming water, reduce the need to clean a machine as frequently, allow top equipment performance and improve the taste quality of your ice. A filter will greatly reduce lime and mineral buildup inside your maker as well. Use a good-quality water filter and follow the directions to change when needed.  

Maintenance is the second factor. Regular cleaning and upkeep are critical to productivity, food safety and quality ice. If your unit does not self-clean, you should establish a regular cleaning regimen. Many manufacturers recommend a six-month maintenance program. If the unit is in a less-than-desirable location, you may want to consider doing maintenance like coil cleaning and flushing the machine every three months. If buying new equipment, you may want to consider a self-cleaning ice maker, or at least one with a feature to warn that cleaning is necessary. Some ice bins are now made with a bacteria inhibitor to lessen the chance of bacteria in ice becoming a problem. You also may want to add an after-market device to generate ozone in the water for safe sanitizing.

Dan Bendall is a principal of FoodStrategy, a Maryland-based consulting firm specializing in planning foodservice facilities. He is also a member of Foodservice Consultants Society International. He can be reached at 301-926-8181.