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FOCUS: Good Washers Come In Small Packages

Some equipment categories get all the attention. Anything that uses a ton of energy or sells in huge numbers, for example, tends to get the new duds first and more often. Think fryers, for example, or steamers. Or door or conveyor warewashers.

Undercounter warewashers usually don’t fit into that group. They’re for smaller operations and smaller volumes, and the market for them is smaller. Consequently, they don’t often get the spotlight. 

Which is not to say undercounters never change. As a matter of fact, in the past few years, the market, regulatory pressures and technology trickle-down have put some neat new features on undercounters. To check on new developments, we gathered information from five manufacturers who have introduced new undercounters at or since The NAFEM Show in 2011, and we got the update.

Smaller Operations, Regulators Driving Changes 

The first thing we discovered is that the market has expanded somewhat and diversified. Key traditional markets, such as bars and smaller mom-and-pop restaurants, still use undercounters, of course. And types of operations joining the list now include wineries, daycare centers and certain smaller healthcare installations, such as assisted living and decentralized satellite delivery systems at hospital operations. Sandwich shops, coffee concepts and even quick-service chains also figure into the mix. Remote, kiosk setups of various commercial concepts often need warewashing, and for them undercounters are proving useful.

Making undercounters easier to use has been a priority, and handy features have trickled down from bigger washers. All of the latest high-temp units have systems to monitor and ensure a 180°F final rinse temperature. Various models have features such as auto deliming and settings to reduce the danger of stemware damage. Access to controls and components has improved compared with earlier iterations. 

Also nudging the market for undercounters are health departments, NSF Int’l. and Energy Star. A lot of smaller operations that traditionally used to do things by hand now find the inspector wants a machine.

Updates in NSF standards play a role in technical development. For example, one of the manufacturers in this group recently added built-in chemical jugs for the detergent and rinse additives to conform with updated NSF requirements. 

And then there’s Energy Star, which certainly makes advancement a competitive necessity. In recent history, typical undercounters used 1-1.5 gal./rack or more, but the new high-temp models in this group are getting 0.6 to 0.8 gal./rack, and low-temp units need only slightly more than 1 gal./rack. Lower water consumption translates to less energy used to heat the water, and other electrical and heater improvements cut usage as well. One of the manufacturers has built energy recovery into its units, using captured energy to preheat incoming water, and another recent redesign incorporates energy-recovery “compatibility,” presumably the half-step to future implementation. It’s probably reasonable to say the current crop uses roughly half as much energy as its predecessors of just a few years ago.

High Temp Or Low? 

As you begin sorting your options, one big question is whether you want to go with high-temp, 180°F sanitizing or low-temp, chemical sanitizing during the rinse cycle. Like bigger warewashers, undercounters come in both versions. For years, the undercounter market has been roughly half and half, give or take a few points either way, and the manufacturers we talked with figure it’s still more or less that way. 

“It may be 60-40 in favor of low-temp” at the moment, one manufacturer guesstimates (note, in Europe, it’s nearly 100% high-temp). “It trends back and forth. Applications drive that.” High-temp machines are better for removing fats, proteins and lipstick from ware, he notes. On the flip side, busy, high-turn bars want their glassware cold, and assuming things like lipstick are handled, they might have a reason to go with low-temp units.

Another influence to consider is codes. Increasing requirements for hoods might mitigate against high-temp units in some locales, one maker notes, although some new models capture and recycle steam. Then again, some applications and inspectors push the other way. The main thing is that you’re aware of your local influences while you make your choices. 

As for operating costs, high-vs.-low both have their tradeoffs in heating energy vs. water consumption vs. chemical cost and consumption. You can work with your suppliers to do some calculations.

Buy Or Lease? 

When it comes to ownership, whichever way you lean, suppliers will be more than happy to provide what you want. In fact, you may have more choices than you realize.

It used to be that the market was fairly simple. Back in the day, you either bought a high-temp or a low-temp warewasher from a dealer, or you leased a low-temp unit from a chemicals supplier. As often as not, the choice was driven by your bankbook. Today, you still have those choices, of course, but you also have others. Chemicals companies will lease you your choice of high-temp or low-temp machines, and a growing number of dealers will sell or lease whatever type of machine you want. All of which means you can go just about anywhere to get what you want, the way you want it. 

Which One To Choose? 

So how do you know whether you’re a candidate for an undercounter washer? First consider what you’re washing and how much. One maker suggests you consider whether you’re doing standard chinaware or serving utensils. Hotel pans? Are you doing dishes, glassware or a combination? Talk with your supplier about that, as it has implications for types of racks, for example. As mentioned previously, if you’re looking at food residue, fats or lipstick, you might go with a high-temp machine. If you’re looking at bar volume and quick-turn cold glassware, and you don’t need high-temp, you might rather look at chemical-sanitizing features.

As for volume, all of the new models in this article’s Gallery use 20-in. x 20-in. racks. If you’re new to undercounters, keep in mind that you need to consider your peak demand, not your daily average. One manufacturer says operators sometimes are tempted to go with a $5,000 undercounter when a $10,000 door-type machine would have been wiser, and then everybody’s stuck. Most of the new models in this batch are rated for a maximum 30 racks/hr., which translates to a 120-sec. cycle, and they have additional settings for longer cycles (even twice as long or 15 racks/hr.) for heavier washing. One model is rated at up to 40 racks/hr., a 90-sec. cycle and also has an extended wash cycle. 

Proper Installation 

After you’ve sorted out the basics of the equipment itself, you need to think about the interface with your facility, too. First, look at your installation area. Some smaller operations have enclosed spaces that don’t offer sufficient breathing space for a commercial unit—residential-style cabinetry, close clearances, etc., can be problematic. Make sure you have proper space. Confirm your electrical connection is suitable and guard against power surges. A professional installer will make sure your electrical service is suitable. Make sure you have a floor drain, too.

Because undercounter units are complete right out of the box, a lot of operators assume an easy plug-and-play. One maker estimates 30% to 40% of undercounter units are installed by the operator himself. The result is “more installation issues and warranty claims.” So get it properly installed. 

Final note: Commercial undercounters look a lot like residential warewashers, but they’re not. “A commercial undercounter is very different from a consumer product,” one maker emphasizes. “It won’t have a drying cycle. High-temp units typically recirculate water rather than dumping it after each cycle, but use fresh water for the sanitizing rinse.” The spray arms are more powerful, too. Finally, be sure you have a commercial-grade hot-water supply.

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