Steamer Care 101
By: Michael Romico
Connectionless steamers may seem less labor-intensive than their boiler-based predecessors, but maintaining them is just as important as it ever was.
Today's connectionless steamers may be more efficient and easier to use than traditional boiler-based units, but don't be fooled into thinking their upkeep is less important. That could be a costly mistake.
Consider the large operator on Hilton Head Island, S.C., that bought and discarded model after model, spending a small fortune as each brand and type of connectionless steamer quickly succumbed to a premature death. "They were spending $8,000 to $12,000 a pop and swapping out units every two years," recalls Larry Crawford, service manger with Whaley Foodservice Repairs in Columbia, S.C. "They thought they were buying the wrong brands."
The problem, of course, wasn't the brands. It was the operator's failure to do the small daily tasks that wore out the steamers well before their time.
These days more and more operators are moving to connectionless steamers. In the Southeast region where Whaley operates a dozen service branches, Crawford estimates that 75% of large chain operators are either now using or transitioning to connectionless models. (Institutional operatorsprisons, hospitals and schoolshave tended to stay with boiler-based systems due to their capacity needs and deep investment in those systems, Crawford says.)
Despite this move to connectionless steaming methods among chains, many operators are lagging in knowledge of how to keep these seemingly easier-to-use units maintained properly. Some are skimping on maintenance procedures they thought went away with their boiler-based units, says Crawford, and this leads to the same breakdowns all steamers can be subject to.
The Tap Isn't Your Steamer's Friend
The differences between connectionless and traditional steamers basically boil down to this: Connectionless units do away with a boiler and dedicated water lines, and instead employ self-contained heating elements and re-fillable water reservoirs.
First, Crawford says, operators must pay close attention to those reservoirs. "The water vessel has to be cleaned virtually every day. You have to invest in training to have this done consistently," he says. The reason: Scale buildup remains the main culprit in reducing cooking performance, energy efficiency and the unit's integrity.
That buildup is caused by mineral solids that are left behind when water boils to steam. And units with direct heating elements in contact with hard water naturally fall prey to deposit buildup faster than sealed heating elements. So de-liming of the reservoir is a key procedure for connectionless units, says Crawford. Removing the water reservoir, adding the cleaning solution for a soak and then flushing is the way to go, he says.
Tackle those open heating elements, too, if your unit has them. They need to be flushed and soaked with a scale-inhibiting solution. Lime-scale buildup on heating elements acts as an insulator, robbing heat from where it should go.
Fortunately, one advantage of connectionless units is that their open design allows operators to visually inspect for scale buildup and deposits.
Try Cleaner Water
Keeping the insides clean is one thing, but Crawford says operators also need to be wary of what they pour inside their units in the first place. Most operators have filtered and treated water for beverage machines, but some overlook the importance of using filtered water for their steamers, he notes.
One approach is to locate steamers closer to filtered water access so it'll be easier for your staff to carry filtered water over for manual filling. "It's not going to solve all the problems, but it'll make cleaning less of an issue," he says. (Another option is to look at boiler-free units that offer hookups to a source of filtered water.)
(For a comprehensive look at water filtration approaches, see our August 2005 water filtration story at www.fermag.com/eval/filtration.htm. Go to the "Cooing/holding equipment" subhead for information specific to steam equipment.)
Save Your Gaskets
All steamers rely on solid gaskets and doors to maintain cooking capability. Crawford says gaskets on these units are simple and relatively inexpensive components to replace. Even so, there's an easy way to keep gasket replacement costs to a minimum.
"When the steamer's not in use, leave the door ajar," he advises. "It keeps the gasket from forming a memory [with the door], which can lead to leaks later on." A lot of people close steamer doors because they think it looks nice, he says, and that's not useful for the long term.
Checklist: Steamer Maintenance
Now is the time to start caring for your steamers. According to Mike Coker, of CSI-Coker Service, Villa Park, Ill., many steamer makers are now requiring buyers to submit a record of maintenance before approving warranty repairs for payment.
In particular, manufacturers want to make sure you're keeping an eye on your water system.
- Drain the water reservoir after each day's use.
- Check that filtration systems are clear.
- Check door gaskets and latches for a tight fit.
- When not in use, keep door ajar to preserve gaskets.
- Check that the timer operates properly.
- De-lime as directed by the manufacturer.
- Check for leaks on a quarterly basis.
Checklist courtesy of the Commercial Food Equipment Service Association