The Cold, Hard Facts
By: Mike Sherer
To see a variety of ice machines, click here for the Ice Machine Gallery.
Today's ice machine makers take water- and energy efficiency to the next level, tweaking the four Cs: construction, components, cycles and controls.
Last time we covered ice machines, back in 2003, ice machine efficiency and productivity were just starting to take off, with manufacturers unveiling more effective models on a regular basis.
Fast forward a few years and those same manufac-turers are now on a roll, consistently coming out with new machines designed to keep you as cool as Chili Palmer in a room full of Hollywood producers, even as you review your utility bills.
Using a combination of design, technology, more efficient components and in some cases whole new approaches, manufacturers are tweaking ice ma-chines to make them more water- and energy efficient. And the happy side effect: Many machines are also becoming more reliable and easier to clean and service.
How We Got Here
First, let's look at why today's ice machines are far more efficient than in years past. It's a bit of a saga, so stay with us:
As of Jan. 1, 2008, all ice machines sold in Califor-nia have to meet new energy efficiency requirements. These standards were set by the Consortium for Energy Efficiency, a broad-based coalition of industry, government and academic experts. Work-ing with groups like the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute, CEE set minimum efficiency standards for a variety of equipment categories, in-cluding ice machines, which it dubbed "Tier 1." The Tier 1 standard is only for energy use.
CEE also established Tier 2 and Tier 3 standards that now range from 7% to 15% below Tier 1. Those will change in the future as the group sees how technology develops and the market responds. Tier 2 equipment, in fact, must be 10% more efficient than Tier 1 starting Jan. 1, no matter what type of ice machine. These two standards include water-efficiency as well as energy-efficiency minimums.
So why is this important? As part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the federal government took its cue from CEE and adopted standards essentially identi-cal to CEE's Tier 1 as the minimum efficiency level all commercial ice machines have to meet by 2010. California likes to stay ahead of the curve, so the California Energy Commission mandated the Tier 1 efficiency standard starting in 2008, two years ahead of the Feds.
Now, the change in California is supposed to be transparent. In other words, it won't matter which machines you buy because they all have to meet the new efficiency specs. Unlike the EPA's Energy Star program, you don't have to worry about looking for a "rated" machine.
Fortunately, there are more than 200 models that already meet the specs, many of which meet Tier 2 and Tier 3 standards. Granted, several are variations on a single model, but the good news is that there are more coming. And manufacturers are already looking at improving the water efficiency of their machines in anticipation of the gradual phase-in of Tier 2 and 3.
Figure Your Needs First
Efficiency, of course, is a relative term, and when it comes to ice machines, efficiency involves more than how much energy is required to produce a batch of ice. It also involves how much water is used. Thanks to ASTM test methods, efficiency is measurable. And thanks to ARI, you can find out the efficiency rating of every commercial ice maker on the market. (To access the ratings, go to www.ari.org and click on the blue box to the left that says "Access Our Certified Product Direc-tories.")
Before you look for efficient machines, however, be sure you're checking out the types of units you really need. To review, you've generally got three options: flake ice machines, which produce ice by scraping it off the inside of a barrel-shaped evapora-tor with an auger as it freezes; nugget ice machines, which essentially compress flake ice into small nuggets or cubelets; and cubers, which freeze water into individual, well, cubes.
Which type of ice you use in your operation largely depends on what your customers want and expect in their beverages. You need to maintain your brand personality and image, and your beverage program is a big part of that. But you may also need ice be-hind the scenes, in areas customers don't see, which adds other requirements.
By now you all know the pros and cons of the three basic forms of iceflake ice cools drinks or food fast, but also melts quickly and may dilute bever-ages too soon. Meanwhile, nugget ice also cools and melts faster than cube ice, but many consumers like the fact that it's chewable. And cubes are the coldest, hardest form of ice and look great in a glass, but require more time and water to make. So, choose the form that's right for your operation first, then look for machines that produce it most efficiently.
Reinventing The Wheel
Manufacturers are taking several approaches to improving the efficiency of their offerings. The first strategy they're using is adding types of machines they didn't previously make. For example, one supplier is introducing a line of nugget ice machines at The NAFEM Show in October based in part on the trend toward offering chewable nugget ice. A par-ticular fast-food chain's rapid growth has been introducing chewable nugget ice to more and more consumers, making it almost a must-have ice product in some areas.
Another manufacturer has added more "slab" ice makers to its line-up and squeezed more energy and water efficiency out the same size cube machines it made before. The difference is in the evaporator. Evaporators designed to freeze individual cubes require more water and a longer freeze cycle, and thus more energy, to produce a batch of cubes. Cube ice machines these days predominantly feature a waffle iron-shaped evaporator that freezes cubes in a slab. The slabs break apart easily, though customers sometimes end up with little clusters of cubes in their drinks.
More manufacturers have added remote compressor technology to their products lines. Only two manufacturers offered air-cooled remote compressor ma-chines five years ago. Now at least five major manufacturers offer them. Putting the compressor and condenser on the roof gets heat and noise out of the restaurant, allows the components to operate more efficiently, and lets you put the ice-making head right on top of a beverage dispenser or ice bin.
Here are some other ways manufacturers are tweaking machines to give you more for less:
Construction. Surprise! Insulation helps improve energy efficiency. While it may seem like a no-brainer, insulation is something manufacturers constantly try to improve. Insulating the entire box, including door and base, with environmentally friendly foam is a plus.
Makers also are looking at design elements that, while they may not directly improve efficiency, do improve employee or service access, making them easier to service and clean. A cleaner machine, of course, is usually a more efficient machine.
One new line of machines, for example, has a hinged door (insulated, of course) on the front for easy access. And all components can be removed without tools, so employees can easily dismantle them and run parts through a dishwasher. Another manufacturer's new line also features an open design making all components easily accessible.
A third line of new remote compressor cubers features a removable water reservoir. Removing it opens up the whole bottom of the ice-making head, giving employees room to clean inside, including the ice dispenser it may sit on.
Components. More efficient components make for more efficient machines. Manufacturers of compressors and fan motors are feeling the same pressure from federal and state governments to make their products more energy efficient, too. Equip-ment manufacturers, and ultimately you, are the beneficiaries.
Ice machine makers also are doing a better job of sizing compressors to their evaporators, along with valves and refrigerant lines. Reach-in manufacturers did much the same thing to improve efficiency of their product lines when refrigeration standards got tighter. The fine-tuning can result in a lot of savings.
Part of the increase in efficiency also has to do with fan blade design (where fans are used). Another benefit from some of these unique new designs is quieter operation. Several manufacturers now use compressors and fans that operate more quietly.
Some manufacturers are trying to reduce the number of components they use, building more com-monality into model line. One manufacturer, for example, uses only two different water pumps for all the machines in its new line. Reducing the number of unique components across a product line im-proves serviceability and means parts will more likely be in stock.
Cycles. By tweaking ice-making cycles, manufac-turers have found another way to boost efficiency. But each has a different take on how to go about it.
Cycle time is one way. In general, bigger machines are more efficient. An ice machine with a larger evaporator, longer freeze cycle and fewer harvests will put less demand on the compressor than a smaller machine that cycles more frequently, even if they both produce the same amount of ice per day. And at the end of the day, 500 lbs. is 500 lbs.
Manufacturers also will debate the relative merits of continuous water replenishment versus batch ice-making all day long. Batch ice makers fill a reser-voir with all the water needed to make a batch of ice. That water is continuously recirculated over the evaporator until the ice is formed. Manufacturers say that the water in the reservoir gets colder as it's circulated over the evaporator, saving energy. The remaining water is flushed from the reservoir at the end of the cycle, taking impurities with it, but po-tentially wasting water over time.
Machines with continuous replenishment cycles add water to the reservoir as it's needed. Less water is used to make cubes and flush sediment out of the reservoir, but adding ambient temperature water constantly makes the compressor work harder to get that water to freeze, some makers say.
Interestingly, one maker made the move from a batch ice-making process to a continuous process in some of its new machines because the remote compressor design limited the size of the reservoir designers could use. The manufacturer's machines have always been pretty energy efficient, but their machines have never been as water efficient as they'd like. The changeover in the new machines has improved overall efficiency.
Conversely, another manufacturer is making reservoirs in its new series larger to accommodate batch ice making. The company says that's improving energy efficiency.
Harvest assist is another cycle feature added onto a wide range of machines in the last five years. Though not new, it wasn't until equipment makers figured out how to remotely place the compressor that it became more energy efficient. Most ice makers run hot gas through the evaporator to harvest ice. But newer remote units use cooler vapor from the refrigerant accumulator tank to harvest ice. As the vapor turns back into a liquid inside the evaporator it generates the heat necessary to loosen the ice from the evaporator.
A couple of manufacturers go a step further to minimize this "defrost" cycle. One uses a patented pressure transducer on its cuber line to assist ice harvest. Another uses a small air compressor to help break the suction formed between the ice slab and the evaporator plate when the ice melts during harvest. The air assist has been a feature on its larger machines for some time, but now is being added to smaller models.
Finally, at least one maker saves some energy by timing the machine so the compressor kicks back on during harvest rather than the freeze cycle, evening out the load on the compressor somewhat.
Controls. As with a lot of other equipment catego-ries, increasingly sophisticated computer controls have led to improvements in efficiency, ease of use, etc. Ice makers are no different.
Computerization allows equipment makers to add sensors that monitor all aspects of the ice-making cycle, allowing the machines themselves to make adjustments for conditions.
A long-standing feature on one maker's machines, for example, is a control board that monitors incom-ing water pressure and power fluctuations. Long freeze cycles or a shortage of water trigger an audible alarm. If the machine senses power fluctuations it shuts down, then automatically recycles when power is back up.
One line of new machines has diagnostic lights right on the front of so you can tell at a glance what the machine needs. One light tells you when it's time to clean the machine. Another lets you know if there's a problem with the water filter or water supply. The product line's control boards also monitor water quality, and will automatically flush the reservoir more often to purge minerals. You can manually override this feature, in which case the time-to-clean light will come on more frequently.
Since lime and other minerals act as insulators when they build up on parts, they cause machines to work harder to make ice. In other words, dirty machines are less efficient. More manufacturers have added auto-clean features for that reason. Some machines, for example, are designed as closed systems to pre-vent growth of mold and bacterial film. They also have an auto-clean feature that lets you simply fill a cup with sanitizing solution and push a button. The machine automatically cleans itself, rinses the solution out three times and goes back into service.
One maker has refined the pump for its nugget ice machine and introduced a "smart"diverter valve. You can locate the ice maker in a back room and pump ice to two bins or beverage dispensers as far as 75 ft. away. The diverter valve senses which bin or dispenser needs ice and automatically switches over. Employees never have to handle ice.
Another manufacturer's cleaning system is even more automatic. The feature on most of its large machines can be programmed for a two-, four- or 12-week cycle depending on conditions in your stores.
Almost all manufacturers now also use anti-microbial parts in their machines. There are several proprietary types of antimicrobials, but they all es-sentially work in the same way. Parts are impregnated with the anti-microbial substance, helping prevent or retard the growth of mold, bacteria, etc.
Other new features that improve efficiency include a new ice level control. A sensor on the ice bin determines the amount of ice you have on hand. You can program the machine to adjust the level of ice in the bin depending on the day of the week or season. If you use less ice during the week than on weekends, for example, the machine doesn't have to cycle as often to keep your ice bin full. If you're closed on Sunday, the machine will shut down Saturday night and not cycle again until Sunday night or Monday morning.
The same manufacturer also offers an advanced control board as an option that records ice machine data, so service technicians can download and analyze it. It's also compliant with the NAFEM Data Protocol. Expect a lot more machines to have this type of sophistication as tighter efficiency specs are phased in.
You Don't Have To Go Far
So what does all this mean for you? Like we said earlier, if you're operating in California, starting Jan. 1 your buying options will be limited to only the more energy-efficient models on the market.
But state regulations aside, you're likely to be factoring energy savings into equipment lifecycle cost calculations and capital expenditure plans. Keep in mind that ice machines for sale in California next year will represent the benchmark for all ice machines nationally in a little more than two years from now. Those that are already meeting CEE's Tier 2 and Tier 3 standards are likely the machines with the fastest payback.
What About The Rest Of Us?
You say you're not from California? And you don't have a single store there? Don't fret. More energy- and water-efficient ice machines are on their way to you, too.
Energy Star says it will likely publish its minimum requirements for ice machines sometime in October. As of now, the draft of the requirements out for comment matches CEE's Tier 2 specifications. This means that most ice machines that receive an En-ergy Star rating will use about 10% less energy than machines that meet the new California minimum efficiency standards. And Energy Star is likely to review its requirements again when the federal minimum efficiency specs go into effect in 2010.
So for those of you everywhere except California, you'll soon be able to shop for efficient machines by simply looking for the Energy Star label. You can find out more by going to www.energystar.gov.
To see a variety of ice machines, click here for the Ice Machine Gallery.