Foodservice Equipment Reports

FER EXCLUSIVE: Trickle-Down Economics

The nation’s water-supply picture isn’t a pretty one. Every day, reports of ongoing drought conditions in California, the Southwest and other areas fill the headlines.

The simple reason is “too many people, not enough water,” the science of which you can delve into via a September 2013 report written, in part, by researchers at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences—a joint institute of the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration and the University of Colorado at Boulder (“Sectoral contributions to surface water stress in the coterminous United States.” 

“People are asking if we’re running out of water,” says water specialist Bill Hoffman, Austin, Texas-based senior technical advisor for Water Management Inc. based in Alexandria, Va. “The short answer is, no, we have the same amount of water we always had, but there are more businesses and more people drawing from the same pool. We only get as much as Mother Nature provides.”

Water and sewer rates across the country have doubled between 2000 and 2012, according to a study published by Journal - American Water Works Association last August (“Water and wastewater rates on the rise.”

“Twenty years ago water was so cheap no one worried about it,” Hoffman adds. “But not any more. If you think water rates are high now—wait 10 years.” In fact, between 2007 and 2011, water and sewer rates have risen 27% in the U.S. and 58% in Canada, he says, and water costs are rising at rates that far outpace any other utility. Hoffman points out a few reactions to these water-related cost increases. Among them: 

• A trend toward implementing green plumbing codes calling for individually metered water/sewer bills rather than communal bills for high-water-using businesses in strip malls or mall settings (Int’l. Code Council 2012 International Green Construction Code; Int’l. Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials 2012 Green Plumbing & Mechanical Code Supplement);
• Manufacturers are making much more efficient equipment than even five years ago;
• As with energy-cost awareness 20 years ago, water costs are “hitting the radar screens” of restaurant owners and operators; and
• State and federal regulations regarding efficient water use are proliferating. 

Water Smarts For Kitchens And Beyond 

Foodservice operators who take steps now to reduce excess water use sooner will have a competitive edge down the road.

Here are some operational tips provided by equipment professionals on how to make a dent in water use, focusing on the front-of-house, kitchens and dishrooms: 


The service area doesn’t typically boast a lot of water-hogging equipment, with one exception:

Dipper wells, one of the worst restaurant water-wasters, rely on a constant stream of flowing water—about 30-60 gal. per hour per dipper well—to protect serving utensils against bacteria growth. 

Modify: Convert existing dipper wells into mini rinse sinks by replacing the dipper-well faucet with a metered timer faucet in which water runs, say, for 10 seconds then shuts off. The rinsed utensils can be stored in a drying basket for up to two hours before needing to be sanitized. “One caveat: Work with your local health inspector before making changes to clear possible hurdles and ensure compliance,” notes Todd Bell, senior energy analyst at Pacific Gas & Electric’s Food Service Technology Center, San Ramon, Calif.

Specify new: If your restaurant requires dipper wells, Server Products has introduced a unit that keeps utensils food-safe by holding them in a 140°F hot bath. The high temperature helps block bacteria growth without the nonstop water flow. The company recommends changing the water every four hours. 


Steamers, combi ovens, wok ranges and ice machines all use mega-amounts of water daily. But they don’t have to.

Boiler-Powered Steamers 

Modify: Eliminate the steamer’s “constant-on” switch or train workers to flip it off when the steam mode is not in use. “The steamer’s single biggest water waster is the ‘constant-on’ switch,” says Mike Burke, who spent 15 years leading the steam-equipment product line for Vulcan. “With traditional steamers, any energy not absorbed by food goes straight down the drain. You’re wasting about twice as much water and energy when comparing using the timer vs. leaving the machine in constant-on.”

In one example from the FSTC, a morning cook who used the manual or “constant-on” switch cost $1,300 more in energy and $600 more in water a year than the afternoon cook who used the unit’s timer. 

Specify new: Opt for steamers designed without the “constant-on” switch. “Customers tell us they want the switch, but they have no idea what it’s doing to their operating costs,” Burke says. 

Consider boilerless steamers for back-of-house batch cooking. “If you’re doing production or batch cooking, and you’re able to leave the steamer door closed for the 15-20 minutes required for the cook cycle, a six-pan boilerless unit will save on water and energy costs. But if your steamer will be used for a la carte orders on a busy cookline, a three-compartment, traditional boiler-powered unit may be your best bet,” Burke says. It will keep up with the volume by recovering quickly.

Combi Ovens 

Boiler-type combis require an almost constant discharge of water from the boiler to maintain steam production. They, like steamers, also require a flow of cold tempering water at the drain point to make sure water entering the sewer is cooler than 140°F.

Modify: Use the oven’s programming capabilities to properly control different cooking modes and maximize energy and water efficiency. For example, use combi mode only when necessary and turn the oven down or off during slow times. “A few combi-oven models currently on the market allow water to run constantly, even in convection mode,” Hoffman notes. Confirm that the combi oven you’re considering shuts off water flow during convection mode. 

Boilerless combis, which rely on a water reservoir and spray a fine mist of water into the cook chamber to produce steam, typically use about half of the water of boiler types and are suited to batch cooking where you’re not opening and closing the door a lot.

Specify new: The ASTM F2861-10 test method makes it possible to compare the performance and efficiency of the wide range of combi ovens available (ASTM F2861-10, “Standard Test Method for Enhanced Performance of Combination Oven in Various Modes.” 

Train: When dealing with steamers and combis, make sure employees cook with as fully loaded an oven as possible. The door gasket has to be tight to keep the steam in—so keep an eye out for rough users or door swingers. 

Wok Ranges

Traditional commercial wok ranges require a constant flow of water across the surface to absorb excessive heat with flow rates of about 1 gpm or more—adding up to more than 700 gal. per day per range of water sent down the drain. 

Modify: Train wok cooks to minimize water flow during use and turn off the water when not in use.

Specify new: Try induction wok ranges, pioneered in Asia. They feature a shaped bowl in the range top designed to accept wok pans and feature a rotary switch for precise temperature control. Because heat is restricted to the wok itself, constant water flow to the range surface is not needed. These ranges require induction-friendly cookware. 

“Waterless” woks feature air-gap insulation that allows excess heat to escape around the burner ring, also eliminating the need for water cooling. Waterless woks have knee-operated joysticks that activate timed water flow needed to rinse woks between orders. 

Another option is the Wok Water Saver. Instead of using a constant flow of water to cool the wok range surface, this unit features a built-in water recirculation loop that runs under the surface to an external chiller.

Ice Machines 

Water-cooled ice machines generally use a once-through, twice-billed cooling system. In other words, you’re paying for water used to cool the machine and paying again for the sewer charges. Unless they’re connected to a recirculating or closed-loop water supply, water-cooled ice machines are frowned upon.

Modify: Water-cooled ice machines can succumb to mineral buildup on the condenser’s water-regulating valves, which start and stop water flow during ice production. When that happens, the ice machine will run water 24/7, resulting in massive water bills.

“Follow the maintenance guide religiously when it comes to periodic cleaning and sanitizing,” councils Scott Hester, owner of Refrigerated Specialist Inc., Mesquite, Texas (see this month’s Tech Tips). “Maintenance is a lot cheaper than service calls. And it’ll help you avoid ice-buying expenses that always accompany ice-machine breakdowns.” 

“If you’re using water-cooled ice makers on city water to cool the equipment, check the condenser drain/exhaust tube at the floor drain to make sure it’s not pouring water down the drain, even though the machine’s production cycle is finished,” Hester adds. “It’s worth getting into the habit of checking daily—ideally first thing in the morning while the machine’s cycled off. If water’s running, you’ve got a problem.” 

Specify new: Check the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s latest specifications for the most energy- and water-efficient air-cooled ice machines on the Energy Star website at

Air-cooled ice machines may make HVAC equipment work a little harder, but the associated costs are a fraction of the utility costs of water-cooled machines. Analysis shows that even factoring in extra HVAC loads, air-cooled machines still have the edge. “Based on current average utility costs, a water-cooled machine’s lifetime utility costs—electricity, water and sewer—will far exceed air-cooled-machine utility costs, even in air-conditioned spaces,” Hoffman notes. 

Ice machines on recirculating glycol refrigerant systems with remote condensers carry heat away from the unit and release it outdoors. If your machine doesn’t need to be moved around, and if you’re able to locate the remote condenser within 50-100 ft. of the ice machine, these are a good option. Some remote-condenser air-cooled machines locate the compressor unit outside, too, typically on the roof.


Following are suggestions for tweaking or upgrading dishmachines, spray valves and scrapping stations: 


Modify: Fix leaks and maintain your machine. “It’s common to see operations waste all kinds of water by ignoring slow leaks in dishmachine drains, faucets or hand spray systems,” says Pete Michailo, director of sales for Stero/Somat and a 35-year veteran in the warewasher segment. 

Maintenance culprits include loose hose clamps, O-rings, pinhole leaks and any plumbing connection points. Also check pressure-reducing valves—when these fail, they allow more water to flow through than needed. 

Specify new: When shopping for or leasing a new dishmachine, opt for units whose wash tanks feature a “positive closing” ball or gate valve that mechanically blocks water from flowing through the drain. The alternative drain-closing mechanism—a “drop-in-place” overflow standpipe—can be blocked from closing completely during operation. 

“If a piece of food gets trapped in the drop-in-place closure, you could be looking at thousands of gallons of hot water and a whole lot of soap going down the drain,” Michailo says. 

Check the Energy Star website at for the latest recommendation on energy- and water-saving dishmachines—new machines are water sippers compared with units 10 or more years old.

Train: Don’t load half racks, don’t overloaded racks and scrap, scrap, scrap. A half-filled rack takes twice as much water per dish as a full rack. Ditto for overfilled racks that restrict the spray or block items from being washed, requiring them to be cycled through the machine twice. 

Pre-scrapping plates keeps food waste out of the warewasher for cleaner results the first time through. “The better your dishroom crew pre-scraps the plates, the more efficient your dishmachine will be,” Michailo says. Food soil in the wash tank increases detergent use and requires more fresh make-up water. Food waste is more likely to stay on plates, again requiring a second pass through.

“Most operators delegate dishwashing to the lowest paid, lowest-tenured employees,” Michailo says. “Without supervision, you’ll often find no scrapping done at all. All that food goes straight into the wash tank, and your costs will rise accordingly.” 

Low-Flow Pre-Rinse Spray Valves

Specify new: Throw away those ancient 5-gpm sprayers and replace them with low-flow pre-rinse spray valves to save on water, energy and sewer costs. Recently introduced top-of-the-line low-flow/high-performance spray valves scour plates clean using less than 0.65 gpm. WaterSense, an EPA partnership program, gives a detailed overview of low-flow spray-valve technology on the EPA website at For a list of manufacturers making low-flow valves, go to the FSTC website at

Scrapping Stations

If your scrapping station is one of those fresh-water troughs that send hundreds of gallons of fresh water in a constant flow from the faucet to the drain, note that there are many better water-saving options available. 

Modify: “Disposal units use as much as 8 gpm and are often allowed to run continuously during the scrapping process,” Hoffman says. First, install an automatic shutoff that turns off the disposal after eight to 10 minutes or a device that senses disposer loads to turn on the unit only as needed, such as the Aqua Saver from InSinkErator. Also, check manufacturing specifications to ensure the disposal’s flow rate is correct. 

Specify new: Scrapping stations available today use recirculating water troughs and water plumes, disposers on timers, pulpers that reuse waste water and old-school collector baskets that collect scraps for regular garbage disposal, such as those from Salvajor. Again, if you have an old scrapping system, it’s worthwhile to explore waste-equipment manufacturers’ latest equipment. They’ve made major strides in water efficiency. 

One more bit of wisdom: Send out an enterprise-wide email to your managers and ask them to take a walk around their restaurants to look for garden-variety leaks. Dripping faucets and spray heads, leaky dishmachines and constantly gurgling toilets can cost you hundreds of dollars per restaurant every year.



What you actually pay for water is far more than the figure at the bottom of your monthly utility bill. The true amount starts with water costs but also includes sewer/pre-treatment, heating energy, chemicals, solid-waste disposal, capital equipment, labor and liability. Get a handle on the real cost of your water using the FSTC’s Pre-Rinse Spray Valve and Water Cost Calculator, found online at The tool estimates the cost savings associated with low-flow pre-rinse spray valves but can also be used for other water-saving devices.


Updating toilets can save significantly on water bills. In a city where water costs $9.81 per 1,000 gal., a restaurant restroom equipped with 5-gal.-per-flush toilets and averaging 75 flushes per day is spending $1,343 per year. If that restaurant upgraded to 1.6-gal.-per-flush toilets, its owners could cut that portion of the water bill to $430 per year. 


Boost flow to the bottom line by tapping into these online water-saving checklists and resources.

• PG&E’s FSTC offers water-use calculators, equipment energy efficiency and performance test results, rebate information and much more.
• WaterSense, an EPA partnership program, highlights water-efficient products, programs and practices. The site features calculators, in-depth restaurant case studies, rebate finders and more.
• Energy Star, an EPA voluntary program, promotes energy and often more water-efficient commercial kitchen appliances.
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