Maintenance Tips: Maintainin’ Your Cool

If you’ve ever had a piece of refrigeration go down, you know it’s no fun. The service call, parts and labor are just the tip of the not-so-cold iceberg. Lost time, disrupted kitchen access and interrupted flow add up—not to mention lost inventory. 

Whether you’re talking about reach-ins, prep tables or undercounters, most refrigeration failures can be traced directly to neglect of routine and minimal attention. “The cause is lack of maintenance, mainly,” says Mitch Byrne, president of Northeast Cooling headquartered in Round Lake, Ill. Byrne estimates, “Eighty percent of operators do nothing, no maintenance, ever. Maybe 20% do some, but not enough.” He adds that some operators receive routine quarterly maintenance, and they have virtually no breakdowns.

Clean Condenser Coils 

Most problems are heat related. A dirty condenser coil most often is the root problem. Dust collects on the coil, and airborne oil or grease usually collects, too, which makes more dust stick. All of that grime builds up as insulation. The condenser can’t eject its heat to the ambient air. The refrigerant gets too hot and starts damaging other components. Compressors and fan motors overheat, and the system starts drawing higher amperage and the wiring burns. The refrigerant degrades and leaves a thick residue that restricts the flow through metering devices, whether capillary tubes or expansion valves. Next thing you know, you have a whole system that needs troubleshooting and cleanup. 

“It’s an expensive repair,” Byrne says. “You have to remove the gas and tear down the system. It’s four to six hours of labor—a $1,000-$1,400 repair for a $20 part.”

So, keeping condensers clean is key. Once every three months—or maybe every month depending on your kitchen conditions—you should either brush, blow or chemically clean the condenser. Be careful: You don’t want to damage the fins on the coil. If you’re brushing, use a nylon brush and clean in the direction of the fins. If you prefer blowing, you can get a low-pressure air compressor that will do the job safely with a flexible hose that lets you get into tight spaces. If your condenser tends to gather grease/oil, you might prefer chemical cleaning. If so, use something mild and safe, such as Simple Green. However you choose to clean, do it with minimal invasiveness. You don’t want to push grime deeper into the machine; you want to get it out. Consider a lightweight filter cover to keep the grunge off of the coil. It’ll be handier than the cleaning; just make sure it doesn’t restrict too much of the airflow around the coil. Servicers recommend a rating of no more than 10% restriction. 

Seals, Hardware 

Other items needing a touch of maintenance are few, but important. Seals and gaskets pick up dust and dirt, which interfere with the sealing effect and eventually erode the material. Soapy water and a soft touch should be enough to keep them clean. Check hinges periodically, too: They’re moving parts, they need lubricating and they can wear and very gradually move out of alignment, compromising the door seal.

An Ounce Of Prevention 

As is often the case, an ounce of failure prevention is worth a pound of cure. When you’re choosing refrigeration, all other things being equal, look for components that are easily accessible. Condensers tend to be front-mount, which is good for cleaning access. But look for accessibility to other components, too, in the context of your kitchen layout. Make sure you leave breathing room around the equipment, Byrne says. Crowding the refrigeration equipment really makes a noticeable difference in the amount of upkeep it will need.

Think about where you’re locating your refrigeration in the kitchen, Byrne says. It has to be handy to workstations, of course, but don’t put it too close to heat sources. Keep it away from fryers, wood-burning ovens and workstations that generate airborne debris, such as grease, yeast or flour, which will coat condenser fins. Byrne also notes that working on a refrigerator in the middle of a hectic kitchen can block busy aisles. He suggests considering wheels where feasible; rolling a disabled unit to an out-of-the-way spot for repair can be helpful. 

Constant Vigilance

One last bit about prevention: Refrigeration seldom fails without warning, and a watchful eye can give you plenty of time to catch problems before they’re catastrophic. Check holding temperatures as often as possible; a trend to higher temps will be a clue. Shorter shelf life on food also can be an indication; even a degree or two makes a noticeable difference in spoilage. Keep an ear tuned to the compressor, too. If the refrigerator is running longer cycles, or more of them, call a service tech before it gets worse.

Preventive-Maintenance Contracts 

Last, but definitely not least, set up a preventive-maintenance contract. “Without a doubt, if a customer does a preventive-maintenance contract, that equipment will operate better, last longer and have less down time,” says Wayne Snell, preventive maintenance administrator at All-Temp Refrigeration in Madisonville, La. Even though operators might theoretically do some tasks themselves, they can’t really diagnose the equipment, and even if they could, accessibility is usually such a challenge that operators don’t have the time or inclination. In locations such as New Orleans, he notes, summers can be a special challenge. “If your ice-cream case goes down because of a dirty condenser, and you lose all of that product… well, shame on you,” he notes. 

For more information, check with your refrigeration service company, and also take a look at Northeast Cooling’s website at Check out Maintenance Tips and cruise through the blog there.”””


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