December 2009

Bringing The 'Star Spec To Steamers

By Brian Ward

Energy was a sore spot—California's shortages in 2000 had thrown a scare into everyone—and there was no time to waste. The ink had barely dried in '01 on the specs for Energy Star's first commercial foodservice equipment category, reach-in refrigerators and freezers, and already in early '02 a standard for steamers was in the works.

Steamers were out in the field in large numbers, and each great, belching one of them used a lot of energy turning all that water to steam. There was another matter too—water conservation. Energy Star wouldn't address that directly, but pressure on energy use would indirectly put pressure on water use, too. Less water used, less water heated. Less energy.

The Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star group began its research on steamers, consulting with stakeholders from steamer manufacturers and environmental groups plus the North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers and the equipment testers at Pacific Gas & Electric Co.'s Food Service Technology Center in San Ramon, Calif. What should the standards address? How should definitions be set up? What kind of testing should be done?

A Competitive Differentiation In 2003
Although new energy standards represented expense to manufacturers, most were up for it, says Rebecca Duff, senior manager at ICF Int'l., a consulting firm that works with the EPA on Energy Star.

"Energy efficiency was just beginning to be a big topic," Duff says. "Manufacturers were looking for ways to differentiate themselves and promote their products, and energy was a way to do that."

Unlike refrigeration, steaming and other cooking processes involved multiple kinds of energy usage. Energy used while idling was an issue, and energy used in the cooking process itself was a separate issue. Some steamers idle for many hours a day and cook only sporadically. Others see heavy action and not so much idling. So if you're going to reduce energy consumption, you'd really better address both situations.

Fortunately, ASTM Int'l. had already ratified a standard test method for steam cookers. ASTM F1484-99 would do quite nicely, measuring idle energy as well as cooking-energy efficiency and other factors too. No need to reinvent that wheel. And there were already data to help define a baseline.

For setting the parameters, Energy Star decided to limit itself to six-pan steamers and under, so as not to confuse things with larger units that would tend to have different efficiencies.

For all parties involved, it made sense to set the bar at a realistic level, not too high and not too low. Too high, and the expense of reaching it would be prohibitive for manufacturers. Too high, and Energy Star would be so rarified that nobody would know what it meant. On the flip side, too low, and the significance of the Energy Star label would be diluted.

So, as in refrigeration, Energy Star set itself at the 75th percentile, meaning it represented the top 25% in efficiency levels. The top quartile would earn the Star—and that rule of thumb became the standard for subsequent equipment categories, too. In August '03 the standards were unveiled.

As you can see in the table, that top 25% in '02 translated into 50% cooking efficiency for electric units, and idle rates ranging from 400W for 3-pan units to 800W for 6-pan steamers. For gas units, 38% was the minimum cooking efficiency, with idle rates from 6,250 Btu to 12,500 Btu.

A Funny Thing Happened
All went well, and the industry stretched to produce more models that earned the Energy Star label. And then, just a couple years ago, a funny thing happened.

One of the manufacturers submitted for approval a 10-pan model that met the 6-pan criteria, including idle rates. Which sounded great, except that the Energy Star definitions had set the limit at six pans. After some scrambling, Energy Star amended its standard, and the 10-pan model got its Star.

How much is the Star worth? The EPA figures an Energy Star steamer will save an average of more than $500/yr. in utilities over its non-Star counterpart.

Visit for a list of qualified models.