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FOCUS: The Great High-Efficiency Fryer Challenge

Sometimes markets are just really slow to change, especially when a technology is new and unfamiliar. Combination oven steamers jump to mind. They first appeared in Europe during the late 1970s and showed up here a few years later, and yet we Yanks continued to eye them suspiciously until just the past half decade or so. Go figure. Cook-chill systems were like that, too. Induction. The list goes on. Slow acceptance. 

Those at least were very new ideas, so you can understand a certain wariness. But less exotic things like high-efficiency fryers have been slow to gain traction, too. The concept is straightforward and familiar enough―they’re fryers, and they’re efficient—but for myriad reasons people still spec the old standards and live with the high operating costs.

“For fryers, when we use the term ‘high efficiency,’ these days we really mean Energy Star fryers,” says David Zabrowski, director of engineering at Fisher-Nickel inc., or FNi, which operates Pacific Gas & Electric’s Food Service Technology Center in San Ramon, Calif. “Since Energy Star estimates its sales penetration is just 10% of market, we figure the resistance must include a lot of misperceptions,” he says.

Voodoo & Money

Back in the 1990s, for example, high-efficiency fryers had some growing pains with things like brittle infrared ceramics and fussy burners and so on, and for a time their repair costs did run higher than those of their fuel-guzzling cousins. But that time is long gone. Another persistent misconception: High-efficiency fryers save energy at the expense of performance and “can’t keep up.” Not true. Never was true. It’s not at all like downsizing range burners during the ’70s and then waiting longer for water to boil. Today’s efficiency is actual efficiency—more energy into the food and less blowing past it.

And then there’s the money issue. Traditionally, high-efficiency fryers have higher sticker prices because they’re more sophisticated. The argument is in the payback, of course. Zabrowski figures roughly a two- to three-year payback traditionally for an average operator; faster for a high-volume location. But what if you don’t have the up-front money? Well, it turns out that issue is going extinct too—thanks to high-efficiency developments in the no-frills category and also some very aggressive rebate programs in California and elsewhere.

“The rebate for a high-efficiency fryer here used to be $500 per vat,” Zabrowski says. “Now it’s increased to $749—quite a difference.” 

He also says a pilot program for dealer-direct rebates has changed the purchasing dynamics. Instead of an operator putting out the cash, filling out an application for a rebate and then waiting for the check, now the operator gets the rebate at point of purchase. The money never leaves the pocket.

And now, because that’s opened up demand, dealers are more willing to stock high-efficiency units, which makes it a lot easier to sell them. 

The Fryer Challenge Event

So a lot of the barriers have come down, and now it’s a matter of getting the word out and dispelling myths. How to do that? A demonstration! A big one!

“At PG&E we had been working with SoCalGas on a ‘Combi Challenge,’” Zabrowski says. “The format was focused, intensive, immersive training on the technology. We had the manufacturers come in and talk about their own models. And we talked about maintenance, energy efficiency, rebates, everything.” 

After some discussion, the two utilities realized a similar approach would be good for a Fryer Challenge, too. Which, depending on when you read this, is either just passed or coming up soon—March 12 at SoCalGas in Downey and a second event the following day at PG&E’s FSTC in San Ramon. The event will be compressed to a three-hour session so it’s more convenient for attendees with busy schedules, Zabrowski says.

To appeal to a broad market, the event will focus on gas-fired high-efficiency fryers, either Energy Star rated or otherwise meeting the Energy Star standard. The size range will be 35 lb. to 50 lb., the typical 14-in. to 16-in. category. Zabrowski says dealers, local restaurant and hotel operators and chain people will be invited. 

Like the Combi Challenge, the Fryer Challenge will be a comprehensive experience, with manufacturers talking about their fryers, utility test teams talking about utility and throughput performance and attendees getting hands-on with the fryers, preparing food themselves and then eating it for lunch. For a baseline, engineers will present test data on a base-model standard fryer genericized as a “Fry Devil” with its real badges removed to avoid any specific brand implications. And then the high-efficiency models will be compared against it. Full temperature signatures with drops and recovery, idle rates, everything will be charted and discussed. Sessions on maintenance and oil management also are slated, Zabrowski says.

And how big are the differences between high-efficiency and standard models? Zabrowski says as much as 2:1 in cooking efficiency and as much as 4:1 in idle rates. 

“It’s not just about energy and speed of cooking. It’s about total performance,” Zabrowski says. “There’s a difference you can taste,” he emphasizes. He notes quicker recovery and cooking not only saves time and energy but creates a better-cooked, less oily, better-tasting product.

“The biggest challenge in this event is trying to contain the information in just three hours and get the right bodies into the room. We could do this for a whole day, but we can’t get people for that long. We have to rein it in.” 

Better Tech, Better Models

Timing couldn’t be better for this kind of event. Not only are the rebates improving, but technology is pushing things along, too. Even among high-efficiency fryers, new models are taking high efficiency to higher levels. Burners and heat-transfer are improving by leaps and bounds. Improved oil-filtration systems are filtering better and more often, which improves oil life and makes smaller oil volumes possible—which leads to all kinds of things like lower oil usage, smaller vats, quicker recovery, better quality and less energy required to heat less oil. Broader heat transfer means less scorching, which again helps oil. It all becomes a symbiotic circle.

Just since January 2011, new high-efficiency models have hit the market from Frymaster, Pitco and Vulcan. And Alto-Shaam, Henny Penny, Keating of Chicago and Ultrafryer also are strong in the high-efficiency category, several with new designs in just the past few years. All seven appear in the Gallery section of this story with their newest and/or most efficient models listed there. 

At press time in January, the manufacturer lineup for the Fryer Challenge wasn’t finalized, but Zabrowski said he expected most if not all of the seven to be participating. He said some would come with models listed in the Gallery, while some others would be testing newer designs, in some cases so new they’re not even listed yet for Energy Star, rebates, etc., but they’re clearly expected to qualify.

One of the big new stories: Frymaster’s introduced its new LHD65, a tube-type, Energy Star qualified large-vat gas fryer rated at 110-lb. oil capacity and 105K Btu. The high-efficiency model boasts an exclusive thermo-tube design and advanced controlled-flow diffusers to move energy straight to the vat. Results show energy up the flue is reduced, with exhaust temps at 550°F or less. Energy Star test data rates the unit at 57% efficiency. Frymaster says benefits include quick heat-up, quick recovery and low gas consumption per pound of product cooked.

High-Efficiency Hits Entry Level

Another big story in fryers: Pitco has come to market with the industry’s first real entry-level, high-efficiency fryer, the VF-35. “Pitco has broken through the glass floor,” as Zabrowski puts it. “The VF-35 has no filtration. It’s stripped down. But it’s perfectly positioned,” he says. Low pricing plus high rebates put the out-the-door tab right there with traditional $800 throw-aways. “That means two things: It cooks faster and recovers faster than other economy fryers, and it means it uses half the energy. It has opened up a whole new market for energy-efficient fryers.”

And a third hot story is Vulcan. The ITW company has just come out with its VK series, with three models in 45-, 65- and 85-lb. capacities. Zabrowski describes the VK, with its mid-60%-range efficiency, as “neck and neck” with the most efficient fryers on the market. He says the new design uses innovative approaches. It’s simple from an engineering standpoint, efficient, with no hot spots, and simple to manufacture, he says, which helps on the cost side, too. 

SoCalGas and PG&E have high hopes for the Fryer Challenge, and the hands-on aspect is an important one. You can read data all day, but until you cook and eat something, you don’t really “get it.” It’s more than just the energy, although that’s plenty. It’s flavor. It’s a lot of things.

Zabrowski quotes Don Fisher at the FSTC: “We have yet to put in a high-efficiency fryer at an operation and find the operator didn’t like it.”

Click here for featured high-efficiency fryers.

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