FER EXCLUSIVE: How To Avoid Installation Nightmares

Talk about timeless topics. Installation problems have been with us since the dawn of foodservice. Cave walls probably have drawings of figures trying to fit a too-big clay pot through a too-small cave opening.

In fact, when you think about the phrase “installation problems,” it’s really a redundancy. We can land robots on Mars, but on the local project we can’t line up the gas connection with the fryer.

So you have to live with some friction. But what can you do to minimize it? Is it as bad now as it’s always been? Is the installation process getting any easier?

To find out, we went out to people who could write a book on the topic. They’ve all been in installation for years, even decades. Each of them had different observations for us, but they all made similar points too.

It turns out there’s really no secret formula to successful installation. It’s often not even a matter of the setup (correct gas and water pressures, no crossed wires, proper drain placement, etc.), hookup and startup of the equipment. In fact, nonworking equipment is fairly rarely the issue with opening delays. Successful installation is more a matter of project management—a combination of common sense, shared guidelines, a logical sequence of events and realistic expectations about the timeline. Experience and skill help, too. And did we mention triple checking everything on site every day?

First, The Contract

Item one, and an obvious one: Everyone we spoke with says the contract has to be clear. If and when something doesn’t work on site, who’s responsible? Who does what? The contract has to be the rule book everyone plays by. If architectural drawings have been updated, but the electrician does his job according to outdated drawings, who’s responsible for the cost of rework and the delay? If someone makes an equipment change and it blocks utility access, who makes it right and who incurs the cost? 

“When a kitchen equipment contractor is involved, the KEC is responsible overall, responsible for coordinating the plumbers, electricians, mechanical contractors,” sums up Brian Maloney, v.p. and director-national sales, TriMark/Gill Group. “The whole idea is to take ownership of the area where your equipment goes.” That consolidation of control and responsibility makes for better coordination and clear lines of communication. Contracts lock it in.

“The contract should address scope of work,” says Todd Slawson, senior v.p.-client services, N. Wasserstrom & Sons, Columbus, Ohio. “It must address the timeline and process. It should clearly state the scope of responsibilities, the change-order logic, all of it.” The details need to be finely articulated, he notes, but even then, you can encounter details that get challenged or misunderstood if you don’t have all parties engaged and talking early on.

This is not to say you won’t need a certain amount of flexibility. “Documentation of installation is always a dicey proposition,” notes Jim Hanson, president, Best Restaurant Equipment & Design, Columbus, Ohio. “You have to remember that foodservice equipment and furnishings are really for the most part made to go into a finished space. However, the space is almost never finished when we get there to install. So we must deal with any and all of the missteps that happened in construction along the way. Much of this cannot be spelled out fairly in advance, because every job site is different.”

Which brings us to communication. “If the front end is done right, execution is better,” Slawson says. “If all parties are at the table, we are very successful.”

But getting all of the parties to the table early on is a chronic challenge in foodservice installations. Major projects involve a lot of aspects that aren’t inherently foodservice related. There’s land acquisition itself. There are design and aesthetic issues, building engineering and business priorities, such as front-of-house space and appeal. Very often those elements take top billing, and whatever space is left over is inherited by kitchen and storage. Consequently, a foodservice consultant, kitchen equipment suppliers and installation people are not in on the earliest meetings. And that’s a problem. You need to be there from day one or as close to day one as possible. It’s not just about being in the loop; establishing relationships—understanding how what you’re doing will affect those who follow—and communicating are just as important for smooth sailing down the road.

Just ask the food and nutrition services director we know who took the anchor segment in a renovation relay team when he arrived at his new job in a large hospital. The major renovation project was well in progress; decision-makers had made decisions and then left mid-project. Things fell through the cracks. The actual installation in some cases only vaguely resembled drawings. A salad bar that was supposed to have rear access for replenishment was built flush against a wall. A checkout register was placed so that the checker had to turn away from the customer to operate the register. There was no clean-side storage in the dishroom, and, in fact, there was little storage space for anything. Equipment startup and training were on the fly and less than optimal. He spent his first weeks trying to fix the kitchen plan, the designers of which were no longer involved in the project.

Drawings, Drawings

Knowing who’s involved in the project, by name and function, and communicating with them can head off a lot of problems, such as working off of the wrong drawings. If there’s an Achilles heel in the project installation process, it’s conflicting versions of drawings floating around. First there are the architect’s plans, then a foodservice designer’s plans. Then, in increasing order of detail, the KEC does up plans and/or oversees plans including mechanical/utility rough-ins. Then if anyone has a revision—if building design needs to change, or someone changes a piece of equipment—that needs to be communicated to and incorporated into everyone else’s plans. This is where Murphy’s Law comes in. If anything can go wrong, it will.

“So a good set of kitchen equipment drawings, prepared by the dealer who is providing the services on the project, is important,” Hanson notes. “The dealer should have access to the architect’s plans and vise versa.”

New Software Helps

No matter what you do, installation challenges are a normal part of the process. But new tools can alleviate some of the difficulty. Software products for 3D building information modeling, such as Revit and others, can show you design conflicts before they become costly rework in the field. “Some of the new 3D software is amazing,” Maloney says. “You can see what’s going on above the ceiling … ductwork for hoods, the air conditioning duct, beer systems chases, remote refrigeration lines, soda chases. In a straight line, you might have an 80-ft. run, but if you can’t go straight, it could take 130 ft. With this new software, you can see what’s happening and plan accordingly.”

Steve Denison, large-project manager, Curtis Restaurant Equipment, headquartered in Springfield, Ore., agrees, with some caveats. “That kind of modeling takes a lot of time to do,” he says, and you need to budget for that. “And those projects we’ve been involved with still had issues.” Another observation heard from various sources is that not all clients and suppliers are on those systems yet, and compatibility becomes an issue. Still, it’s pretty clear which way it’s going in the future.

Other technology is simplifying processes, too. “I used to travel with paper and unroll it on a table,” Maloney laughs. “Now, I have an iPad.” He says he uses an application called Bluebeam Revu, which he describes as “Adobe Acrobat on steroids.” Bluebeam Revu turns any and all Word or CAD documents (Revit, Navisworks, etc.) into PDFs that can be compared, shared, commented on/marked up and updated in real time across all users. Maloney says he can upload, download and share documents on the fly and doesn’t have to carry any drawings anymore.

Even cell phones are simplifying work. Have a problem on the site? Take a picture and send it. Digital tools are adding up to big pluses for KECs in the field, coordinating millwork contractors, stone countertop specialists, metal fabbers and equipment teams.

The Art Of The Schedule

Software or not, however, planning a realistic timeline still is crucial, and that’s where many projects fall apart. “One thing we often see is inadequate sequencing of job activities and inadequate time allocation,” Slawson says. “If you’ve sequenced properly and allocated the right amount of time, then the site should be ready on time, and there shouldn’t be any chaos at the end.”

Often, site selection and permitting take longer than expected. Change orders are setbacks. Weather is an issue. And individual tradespeople on or off schedule can radically impact a timeline. You come to install the equipment, but the floor isn’t finished. Maybe the tile contractor didn’t work the weekend as expected. Or the building doesn’t have power. Maybe the hood isn’t ready. You have to have a lot of pieces in place before you can start up the equipment for test. If those pieces aren’t in place on time, the domino effect is scary. And opening day has to be opening day. Time is money.

“Unfortunately, most construction sites run behind,” Maloney says. “The [general contractor] has a particular turnover date, and that date isn’t changing, and yet that day you’re still finishing the installation because the tile guy is late so you couldn’t set the equipment in place or whatever the case might be. Schedule delays are a real problem, and everything trickles downhill.”

“There are variables,” Slawson says. “You come down to a crunch at the end. You had some lull time, then things change, then you’re in a crunch.”

On-Site Relationships

“Communication with installers and other tradespeople is critical,” Denison says. “You need to build a close relationship with the plumber, the electrician—not just the superintendent, but the people doing the work in the field. When you have that relationship, they’ll give you a heads up when you have a problem, when you have a conduit conflicting with hood lines or ducting, for example.”

“We have our own installation crew, people who have been here 15-30 years, so we have good continuity, as opposed to hiring an outside crew,” he notes. “You can create a level of support that is far superior. If you are off 1/4 -in. on something, you can cut and weld on the spot. You don’t have to stop the job waiting for someone else to arrive.”

Choosing Installers

No matter what kind of foolproof system you’ve tried to create, installation still comes down to the last pair of hands that touch something. And that means the installers themselves. How do you choose installers?

“There are problems with going on the cheap,” Denison says. “Low bid gets the job, but the low bid often turns out to be not the low bid. We see it more with independent operators who are tending tight budgets, the small- and medium-sized jobs. Larger projects, by and large, the trades are all right. We still see it though.”

Slawson agrees. “We really seek professional commercial kitchen people,” he says. “Front of house, millwork, we look for finish carpenters. We try to adapt the skill set to what the project needs.”

Slawson says Wasserstrom keys in on “people who have had repeated successes with us. … We look at three different areas for installers. First, skills assessment.

Another component is project management and customer-service skills. These specialists are on site all day every day. They must be cognizant of the plan, be able to manage the client and assess their own team members.” 

Common Design And Equipment Challenges

What parts of an installation are most likely to have problems? Certain items come up on everyone’s list.

Doorways are a common problem, Denison says. They need to be wider. “For some reason, designers or architects are averse to making 42- or 48-in. doors to kitchens,” he says. “We need to look ahead. Some day something will go wrong, something will need to be changed out and you won’t be able to get something through a 32- or 36-in. door.” Another consideration: Sometimes stacked equipment can be as tall as 84 in. “Another thing is good open access. Tight, 90˚ right-angle turns cause problems.”

Locating electrical receptacles and water lines directly behind the appliances—as opposed to offsetting them for access—is another common problem, he says. “We adjust as we go,” he concedes, “but consultants and architects should be cognizant that placement can be problematic.”

Some of the higher-tech equipment can be finicky, which may or may not be a surprise. More than one of our experts noted combination oven-steamers need attentive installers and, more specifically, proper setup. Other sophisticated systems, such as computerized fryers, too, involve more than snap-and-go.

“Ventilation and the hot side definitely have complexities,” Slawson notes. “Airflow and cross drafts, air demand, air balance are big issues. For refrigeration, air demand is not the same kind of issue, but you also have self-contained vs. remote condensers to think about. Where will they be? How many floors will you be going through?”

Maloney names the same items “and leaks in copper lines. Good refrigeration contractors install the piping in the project properly. If you have a leak, you must know how to find it, pressure test the line, put air or liquid in, then evacuate the line.” He also notes that under-sizing lines is a tempting way for refrigeration contractors to cut corners, but it’s not the right practice. “If a refrigeration unit is up on the roof, and the equipment is on the first floor, you could be pumping that refrigerant quite a way. The systems need to be sized correctly and the right components used—traps, pumps—for that installation.”

Certain types of layouts can be more prone to issues as well. Denison says open serveries, food courts and grab-‘n’-go operations are great for moving customers, but the open spaces are susceptible to air movement that can interfere with equipment performance. “All the equipment is designed to work at certain temperatures and humidity levels. Then you get cross-drafts, and the equipment sweats, or the condensate reservoirs overflow. Maybe the fix is something like a floor drain. But we see it on almost every job like that. Or you’ll see display cases adjacent to each other and exhausting their hot air into each other’s spaces.”

Start Up And Demos

Once you have the floors in, the equipment in place, the hood up and running, it’s startup time. “I like the manufacturers’ reps to be present during startup, or for orientation,” Denison says. “Then comes the demonstration, and the reps need to be there for that.” It’s important for the reps to do the demo for several reasons, he says. Not only do they have the specialized expertise in doing the demo for a specific piece of equipment, but it’s good on the relationship level, too. You get the kitchen equipment supplier/dealer, the site team, the reps and the owner all in the same place at the same time. Ideally, Denison says, the whole demo process should be done in a day or day and a half.

There are so many variables in an installation. Each site and footprint is different. Equipment, climate and codes are different. Then you have the human beings and their communication strengths, and dangerously, weaknesses. 

The price of installation, much like the price of freedom, is eternal vigilance.


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