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February 2007
FSTC Celebrates 20 Years in the 'Test' Lane
By:  Brian Ward

About an hour northeast of San Francisco, at a small business park in San Ramon, Calif., the 11 engineers and support team of Fisher-Nickel Inc. are hard at work measuring what the latest foodservice equipment will do. Test stations, one after another, look like small operating rooms, with mazes of wires, probes and computers monitoring every unit’s energy intake, exhaust, water consumption and food output.

At one station, a significant new fryer is getting the whole workout. At another, a warewasher. A few feet away, a combi. Around the corner are more pieces, each facing a standardized test.

Having celebrated its 20th anniversary at the advisory board meeting and open house in November, Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s Food Service Technology Center is a busy place these days. Typically 20 individual pieces of equipment are either in testing or waiting at any given time. Don Fisher and Judy Nickel figure about 75 pieces now come through their doors each year. Manufacturers account for most of the business. Large commercial chains account for the rest. But either way, there’s a direct or indirect “chain pull” most of the time, Fisher says.

“We have about 12 active categories of equipment right now, (mainly) driven by the utility incentive program,” Fisher figures. “We have the Energy Star categories (fryers, hot-holding cabinets, reach-in refrigerators and freezers, steamers). Fryers and steamers are probably the top appliances. Then griddles, ovens, combi-ovens.

“We’re moving into dishwashers. … Dishwashers are now at the top of the Energy Star initiative for new categories. Fryers have always been active. And griddles.” Fisher also notes the FSTC now is “the keeper of the list” of equipment meeting efficiency requirements for sale in California—another boost to the Red Bull pace at the facility.

Early Challenges, Building Momentum

The hustle-bustle is a far cry from the program’s early days. During the 1980s, no such lab existed anywhere. Standardized test methods for equipment were all but unimagined. A few procedures existed, but they weren’t widely applied, and the science behind them was rudimentary by today’s standards. ASTM Int’l, the engineering and standards-development body then known as the American Society for Testing & Materials, had not ratified a single test standard for foodservice equipment. The foodservice industry just wasn’t into testing.

But the times were changing. The energy crises of the ’70s had spurred McDonald’s to look hard at energy consumption and kitchen productivity, and the Oak Brook, Ill., company  had built its own equipment and ventilation test lab in nearby Wood Dale.  Meanwhile, in California, where the population and environmental movements both were booming, it was clear that future energy production and consumption were going to be real challenges.

Against that backdrop, PG&E’s Bettie J. Davis—formerly Bettie Ferlin and now head of Davis Project Development—began a push for a foodservice test lab to measure energy consumption and productivity performance.

“In ’86, EPRI (Electric Power Research Institute) had a focus group or a think tank group in Palo Alto,” Fisher remembers. Because of energy work he had been doing for the Canadian government, he was there. So was Davis. “We got to chatting,” he says. “We both had research reports from each other in our briefcases. Six weeks later, I got a call.”

After much consideration, PG&E had given the go-ahead for a limited project, and Fisher-Nickel, which then was literally just Fisher and Nickel, was contracted to operate the program. With co-funding from EPRI, the Gas Research Institute and the National Restaurant Association, the fledgling part-time test project, which involved testing all day Saturdays and Sundays in a working cafeteria, began.

But the early going was slow. No templates existed. Each test had to be developed from the ground up, revised on trial and error as a whole new body of knowledge was taking shape. The notion of creating truly standardized tests, by which everyone would rise or fall, was unfamiliar and spooky.

Support And Growth

“The industry wasn’t in the habit of testing,” Fisher says. “The manufacturers were supportive of our initiative but nervous about ratifying test methods. But we were seen as a test kitchen, and it was good marketing.” Gradually the test protocols drew more interest and multiplied. Support grew. But so did the nervousness, he says.

“We developed the griddle test method in ’87, and it was ratified (by ASTM) in late ’89,” Fisher says. “The fryer method was ratified in ’90.” That was just two test methods in almost five years since project conception, he points out. Four years since the actual start of the program.

“It was a struggle,” he says. “We were swimming across steam, but never upstream,” is how he puts it. “The manufacturers never disagreed philosophically. They supported us. …They didn’t always want the objective data, but [often] they wanted to use it. It was a long, long effort.”

Through it all, though, PG&E remained supportive, he says, and the program picked up momentum. By ’96, 10 years into it, test methods for 10 different types of equipment had been ASTM ratified. Five years later, the total had jumped to 20. And in the past five years, the number has risen to 35.

The scope of the project has grown, too. Part-time testing in a cafeteria became full-time testing in a new lab in ’89. PG&E lent admin support staff. Richard Young, senior engineer and director of education, joined Fisher-Nickel in ’89. Staff grew, and today the team totals 15 people, including those at the Wood Dale, Ill., ventilation lab, which changed hands a few times over the years and is now owned by Architectural Energy Corp.

Coming Together

In the past few years, the FSTC group has had other successes as well. The group hosted its own symposium in 2000. One of the “big breakthroughs,” Fisher says, was a groundbreaking study called “Effect of Appliance Diversity and Position on Commercial Kitchen Hood Performance,” commissioned by the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers. The ASHRAE study measured stunning differences in capture and containment exhaust rates depending on exact placements, side to side and fore and aft, of various kinds of cooking equipment.

Another big event, related to that study, was the publication of a ventilation white paper that now resides on the Foodservice Consultants Society Int’l. Web site,

“Having our test methods be adopted as the measuring stick for Energy Star’s [cooking equipment standards] was a breakthrough, too,” Fisher says. Then there was the New York Times story last year that made the FSTC famous. And the collaboration among the four investor-owned California utilities to promote energy efficiency.

Fisher also notes the strong relationship developed with the North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers. Not to mention the Champion of Energy Efficiency award Fisher received last year from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

More is yet to come, say both Fisher and Nickel. “Momentum will build around appliance testing,” Fisher says. Utility incentive programs will expand, and the FSTC will also work closely with the also-expanding Energy Star initiative. Dishwashers are a hot topic now, and another project, with huge implications for foodservice, will study and set standards for hot-water heaters.

“In full-service restaurants, hot-water load is comparable to cooking-equipment load,” he says. “We have to measure that. Commercial water heating accounts for 40% of California’s natural gas consumption, and foodservice accounts for half of that,” he figures.

Ice machines, load shifting and water consumption all loom large on the horizon. Together with the lab’s advisory group, Fisher says, the FSTC will set priorities and keep moving forward.

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