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August 2000 (Updated March 2003)
By Brian Ward

SPECIAL REPORT: Cashing In With Connectionless Steamers
Cut water consumption by 90% or more. Eliminate the usual deliming regimen. What’s not to like about no-plumbing steamers? Check out these 12 variations on a theme.

Awright, word-association time: If we say steamer, what’s the first word that comes to your mind?
Time’s up. If you pictured a conventional, fully plumbed, high-output steamer, chances are good your answer was lime or delime or service call. And with good reason. Conventional plumbed steamers use loads of water, which leaves loads of crusties in or on intakes, floats, elements, drains and valves.

Which would be fine with correct deliming. But sure as sediment rolls downhill, you assign a junior staffer—who promptly flubs the job.

Fortunately, several no-hookup models—meaning no-water-line models—now alleviate maintenance heartburn. True enough, these units aren’t the high-volume screamers you find among the fully plumbed varieties, but they fill a great need in medium-production usage. And spec’d in multiples they can crank heroic volumes—still while dodging the maintenance issues.

Cost advantages are many. The no-hookup units use steam more efficiently and produce less of it during the day than the higher-powered, plumbed steamers. And with no drain hookup, you’re also not paying for cool water to temper the waste water. All told, connectionless steamers use maybe 10% (or less) as much water as a conventional unit. Usage varies widely, but makers we talked with offer examples of maybe eight gallons per day, as opposed to 30 gallons per hour for their plumbed convection units. And then there’s the flexibility of not being tied to plumbing.

On the maintenance side, it all translates to no deliming and generally minimal maintenance needs. Such setups also negate the need for water filtration, at least from a maintenance perspective.

At last count, seven makers are now into the no-hookup business, including AccuTemp Products; Cleveland Range/Enodis; Groen/Dover; Market Forge Industries; Southbend; Stellar (Technology & Equipment for Food); and Vulcan-Hart Co.

No Two Alike
Together, they produce a dozen models in the three- to six-pan range. Many of them are similar in core characteristics, which is to say they require
no hookups and drastically cut maintenance. But beyond that, differences abound. Capacities (3-, 4-, 5- and 6-pan units) range widely, as do kW/pan ratings. Elements include both dry and immersed setups; some units have temp controls while others don’t. We even have a vacuum unit among the atmospherics.

Understandably, then, street-level prices for multiunit buys are all over the place. On the low end, a base-model three-panner will run from about $2,700 to a bit over $3,000. Move uptown, either in size or features or both, and figures climb to the far side of $5,000. It adds up to a very interesting category. Most specs on these units appear in the grids and boxes, but some brief profiles are in order, as well. First up, alphabetically, AccuTemp shook up the market in ’92 with the unveiling of its Steam ’n’ Hold, a six-pan adjustable-vacuum steamer that today remains the lone vacuum unit in the category.

The story on vacuum: Reduce air pressure, drop the temperature at which water turns to steam. The setup allows you to vary steam temps from the usual atmospheric 212&Mac251;F all the way down to 150&Mac251;F. The lower temps are an advantage with more delicate products, such as broccoli, and meats benefit as well.

What’s the tradeoff for the vacuum advantage? Some added complexity (mainly the pump and seals). So front-line applications are out. Otherwise, though, performance at atmospheric settings is generally comparable to other connectionless units. Current versions come in 6-, 8- or 12kW ratings, with temps up to 212&Mac251;F.

Another unit, on the market now a couple years, is the Steam Cub, by Cleveland Range. The Steam Cub takes five 21&Mac218;2”-deep pans. Standard power is 9kW, in the form of nine dry-mount (as opposed to immersed) elements; you also can check off a 6kW option with six elements. The base model used to get programmable controls, but this year moves to basic electromechanicals for simplicity and cost control.

As with most of the units in this group, you open the compartment door, directly fill the reservoir, turn the machine on, and go. The timer lets you know when the batch is done; an adjustable-temp standby mode is standard.

Want more? Opt for the Steam Cub Plus. The Plus gets you digital programmables and three steam modes.

Groen, a DI Foodservice company, introduced its Vortex connectionless steamers at the May 2002 National Restaurant Association Show. The units, in 3- and 6-pan models, offer standard power of 9kW and 12kW respectively and dry-mounted elements. Vortex units offer a convection fan, which circulates steam throughout the cooking cavity and boosts cook times and evenness of cooking.

A built-in sensor detects temperature changes inside the cavity, and when full power is no longer needed, Vortex automatically switches to a cycling mode and cools to the designated hold temp. And the unit will alert you when your reservoir is low. If no one on your staffs responds, the steamer shuts down as a safety precaution. To restart, you just refill the unit.

Or A Pair With Power Savers
Market Forge Industries, meanwhile, steps up with two Eco-Tech models. The ET-3E is a three-panner with a single 6kW element; the ET-5E takes on five pans with a 9kW element. Both units use immersed elements, the priority being quicker direct heating of the water. To resist element shock during refilling with cooler water, the elements are low Watt density designs.

On the Eco-Techs, a standard power-saver mode cuts input power by a third for low-load situations like single-pan batches. A constant-steam mode will override the standard timer, and a steam-and-hold setting is standard.

And More Juice For The Jolt
Southbend’s Simple Steam first came onto the scene in ’97. The original was the EZ-3, a three-pan atmospheric unit featuring three dry elements at 2.7kW for a total of 8.1kW. A five-pan EZ-5 at 11.1kW joined the stable just last year. Both models offer simple on/off controls, standard timers, as most models here do, and a 2.2-gal. reservoir.

Among interesting notes, both EZs feature an automatic drain valve that opens and closes with the on/off power switch. Also both units boast high kW/pan and kW/reservoir capacity ratios, suggesting some oomph for startup and recovery. In addition, both use a unique sensor to trip an auto idle mode. Basically the sensor measures steam exiting the cook chamber. Essentially a little steam exiting means steam’s being absorbed by the food in the chamber. A lot exiting means one of two things: Either the food is finished absorbing (doneness), or the chamber’s empty—and the idle kicks in. Another differentiating feature: The EZ offers an external water-fill in addition to the direct-to-reservoir approach.

An auto-fill feature, listed in the grid as optional, actually gets you a new model, the Super Simple Steam. Ask for models SEZ-3 and SEZ-5 if auto-fill is what you need.

Or Perhaps A Reach For The Stars?
Stellar arrived on the scene in 1999 with a thoroughly different approach to the whole steamer business.

The company’s first series, called Capella, starts with a clean sheet of paper. New-think details are too numerous to fully list here, but a few will make the point. First, the cooking compartment is domed. Spokesfolks say the shape aids natural convection, encouraging contact and Btu transfer to the food. And second, the compartment is made of aluminum because aluminum is a superior heat sink, storing energy that other materials would more quickly release.

Another unique feature: Heated walls allow steam to keep its latent Btu heat until it contacts food. Steam looses its oomph when it hits a colder surface, so this design ensures the only colder surface within the steamer is the food itself. Those heated walls depend on a pair of small 400W heaters to hold them at or just above 212&Mac251;F. There’s also a Super Steam mode that activates the heaters more frequently to create more of a boil, and thus more steam and more convection movement.
A full line now, the Capella range starts with four- and six-pan units and goes up to two-compartment models with eight-, 10- and 12-pan capacities.

Since the introduction of Capella, Stellar has added the Altair—the specs are the same as Capella, but the model features auto fill as standard—and the Sirius, a gas version of Capella that also adds auto fill as standard. Both Altair and Sirius go up to a 10-pan size, and both incorporate a circulating fan that increases movement of steam in the cooking chamber. And there’s a new accessory for all steamers: a stand-alone condenser hood which Stellar reps say removes roughly 80% of vented steam from the environment.

Vulcan-Hart Co., meanwhile, offers its VPX3 and VPX5 models, both dry-element designs with an aerospace thermal grease used to aid heat transfer by sealing contact between the aluminum-block heater core and the base of the reservoir. The three-pan gets three elements totaling 9kW; the five-pan gets three worth a total of 15kW. Power and transfer are focal points.

Other strengths, say V-H execs, include one of the tougher slammable doors in the group, with a heavy latch and a double panel. A 60-min. timer is standard on both units, and simple controls round out the package.

Thinking It Through
Normal space limitations preclude a complete breakdown on every unit’s details, obviously. Door constructions, venting and low-water warnings, for example, haven’t got the once-over here. Nor did we get into cycle times on temp-control units, which are worth looking into as they impact cooking and utility consumption. But now at least you see some of the major similarities and differences. How do they all add up? Why don’t the factories all converge on the same designs?

In a word, priorities—the same priorities that drive you to different decisions in your own businesses.

One difference is power. Btus per pan and per reservoir volume, for example, can suggest power for preheat and recovery. For cook times, too, depending on any cycling in temp-controlled units. But insulation figures in, too, so check into it.

Another issue is element placement. Why are some elements immersed, while others are dry-mounted in an aluminum block beneath the reservoir? Priorities vary. Immersed elements, some argue, obviously heat the medium (water, broth, whatever) more directly, and presumably more quickly. Plus they’re readily accessible. Dry-element advocates say the dry approach eliminates all the water-contact issues (sediment, any possible temperature shock, etc.) and gets elements out of the way where they’ll remain undisturbed—and therefore unbroken.

Some Final Notes
On multiple vs. single elements: Multiple elements give you redundancy, the multi-types say. A burnout reduces power, but doesn’t shut you down. On the flip side, single-element fans would point out that multiple elements multiply your chance for a fritz anyway.

Or take external fillers, for example. Have one, proponents say, and you can refill the reservoir without disturbing pans in the steamer. Detractors judge the convenience not worth the added cost and complexity. They note that if you’re not running a vacuum, opening the door and pulling out the pans might not be a big deal. Only you know how that plays out in your own kitchens.

In the end, you have to study your budget and set your priorities. Then go “kick the tires.” If cook times are heart-attack issues to you, maybe you should be looking at fully plumbed units anyway. Or multiple connectionless units. But whatever your performance questions are, ask for test data, preferably standardized third-party data so you can see apples-to-apples numbers under the same exact test procedures.

And remember: whichever way you go, you’ll be saving a ton in water consumption and service.

Need to know more? There's more to know. Any one of these companies will be glad to clue you in on the finer features of their heated transport carts.

AccuTemp Products
Cleveland Range/Enodis
Groen/DI Foodservice
Vulcan-Hart Co.
Market Forge Industries

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