Ice makers have made some great technological strides in recent years. Through a variety of built-in electronics, ice machines are now more energy efficient, easier to clean and more economical to service. What follow are some features to look for when purchasing an ice maker.
Energy- and water-saving innovations have been implemented in newer ice makers. Efficiency and cost savings are now a hot topic because of rising water and electricity costs. The government's Energy Star program has just listed qualified ice makers, which can be found at www.energystar.gov. Ice machines that have earned the Energy Star rating are 15 percent more energy-efficient and 10 percent more water-efficient than standard icemaker models. These efficiencies can save up to several hundred dollars in electricity and about 2,700 gallons of water per year.
Qualifying Energy Star machines are generally no more costly than standard models. In addition, California and several other states have implemented rebate programs for purchasing certain energy-efficient models.
Serviceability has been improved on some manufacturers' models by the addition of computer chips with self- diagnostic displays. Much like your car, now a service technician can, on some models, make a quick diagnosis of problems for repair. In some cases, they can even alert you to future problems. Some machines have the ability to transmit data to a service technician who can diagnose a problem from a remote location. Indicator lights on the machines also alert you to the machine's current status.
Many icemakers are now featuring sanitation improvements. Look for more coved corners inside the bins for easy cleaning and new automatic or manual cleaning and sanitizing technology. Some machines are made with antimicrobial compounds molded directly into components. These compounds reduce the growth of bacteria, algae, mold and slime on icemaker surfaces.
Noise has always been a consideration influencing where to locate an ice maker. It's not a good idea to locate most ice makers near or on a wall adjacent to guest areas because of noise from the compressor and from ice dropping inside the machine. Some manufacturers have begun to address these concerns by providing additional sound deadening in the machine panels around mechanical components. Some machines also have state-of-the-art quiet fans and compressors that are less noisy than standard existing models.
Let's consider the basics of ice maker selection. The type of ice to use and the machine that makes it are important initial considerations. Three ice types are made by different machines. The classic ice type for beverages is cube ice. Cube ice is clear and appealing for beverages. Most machines spray water into chilled cube-size compartments. Unfrozen water drips away, taking water impurities with it. The result is crystal-clear cubes that are perfect in drinks.
Flake ice is another main ice type. Flakes are ideal for rapid cooling but tend to water down a drink too much. However, flaked ice is effective for cold pans or displays where the ice can be packed and mounded to merchandise well. Flaked ice is also excellent for icing down fresh seafood or poultry in your kitchen prep area.
You may want to consider a new hybrid ice that seems to be gaining in popularity: compressed nugget ice. This ice is not as crystal-clear as cubes, but is hard and slower to melt than flaked ice. Although you may not want to use this ice for mixed drinks, nugget ice is great for soft drinks. In fact, several quick-service chains have used nugget ice at their self-serve beverage bar with favorable customer response. The ice also does well in kitchen uses for chilling products like meats and fish. The process to make the ice uses less water and significantly less electricity than producing cubes, making nuggets less costly to make. The machines are also a bit more compact and are said to require less maintenance.
Another equipment innovation to check out if your operation has the right application is a new remote ice dispensing system. A manufacturer has developed an automatic system for loading several ice bins from one remotely located ice maker. The system may be very useful especially, for example, in an operation with several ice bins along a service counter. Each bin could be constantly filled automatically from an ice maker in the back of house. The system uses transport hoses and a series of switches to sense the need for ice at various locations.
Air-Cooled Versus Water-Cooled
There are a few other items to consider in selecting an ice machine. Deciding between an air-cooled or water-cooled machine demands careful consideration. Each has advantages. The air-cooled condenser involves no added water cost; however, the units will discharge a lot of heat into the room in which they are located. Water-cooled machines must be on a closed- loop system, meaning no water can be dumped down a drain. A closed loop and cooling tower may or may not be feasible in a smaller restaurant, however. In addition to dispersing less heat than an air-cooled machine, the water-cooled system does have some significant advantages in machine efficiency. A water-cooled maker's electrical consumption is generally less when compared to a similarly sized air-cooled machine. Water-cooled units are also quieter for areas where noise is a factor. If water cooling is practical in your operation, use it.
Do not underestimate the importance of a water filter for your ice maker. Water filters condition and remove some particulate and chemicals found in tap water. The filter will reduce the machine's necessary cleaning frequency, allow top equipment performance and improve the quality of your ice. Lime and mineral buildup will be greatly reduced inside your maker if you use a filter. Make sure to change the filter regularly according to directions.
The most important thing to remember about your ice maker is to choose the machine to best meet your needs and then take care of it. Consider some of the newer generation energy-saving and computerized machines. Buying the right machine and maintaining your ice maker properly are critical to productivity, food safety and quality ice.
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 240-314-0660.