Monitoring Done Well
If you’re in the market for a wireless temperature- monitoring system to help automate your record keeping, you’ve likely discovered there are plenty of suppliers with countless solutions. Doing some homework up front will ensure you choose the right solution for your facility.
Wireless temperature-monitoring systems entered the market 15-20 years ago as part of the digital revolution. Managers who relied on staffers walking around the kitchen recording food temperatures with a probe, pencil and paper were drawn to the systems’ ability to automatically take and log temperatures at predetermined intervals around the clock. Another coveted feature was these systems’ ability to issue alerts when temperatures rose or fell out of safe range (40°F-140°F is the danger zone).
“Managers want these systems for that 3 p.m.—or a.m.—phone call when a cooler goes down because you not only have a food-safety issue, but you have a lot of money tied up in this equipment,” says Alan Mellinger, business unit manager at Comark Instruments/ Fluke Corp., Beaverton, Ore.
These systems passively monitor the temperatures inside a hot or cold unit using a temperature probe that’s connected to a transmitter on the unit’s exterior. There are a few different ways transmitters communicate temperatures. One way is to have the transmitters send temperature data to a receiver. The receiver is either hardwired to an in-house server or to the Internet via which the data is transferred to a cloud-based, hosted server. Another way is to use Wi-Fi transmitters to send temperature data directly to an in-house or cloud-based server (no hardwired receiver required) using the facility’s existing Wi-Fi network.
Wireless monitoring systems often incorporate mesh routers to ensure data travels from transmitters to receivers that are out of range or surrounded by too many walls or other interferences. Regular routers have a specific set of locations, or nodes, from which they can accept data and a specific set of locations to which they can send data. A network enabled with a mesh router doesn’t require predetermined paths between nodes, but finds whatever path it can within the mesh to transmit data in real time.
While researching systems, you first need to make a few decisions. Consider whether you want to store your own data, rely on your vendor to store your records (assuming they offer this option) or have a third-party datacenter store your information. The benefits of cloudbased servers and third-party datacenters are that you don’t have to worry about power outages, cooling a data room, taking up valuable space with a server and whether you have enough memory for all of your data/records. Off-site data management will add to your costs, however.
Next, ask your facility’s information-technology team if the hospital already has a monitoring system for laboratories, pharmacies, blood banks or other departments with temperature- sensitive storage. If so, find out if you can add transmitters to equipment in the foodservice department and tap into the existing system. It may be that simple.
Investing in a dedicated in-house server makes sense if the system eventually will monitor equipment in multiple departments—not just foodservice—or if the system will track foodservice equipment at more than one site on a campus.
If you’re just looking for a system that will monitor a few pieces of equipment in one kitchen, using a cloud-based server is the most economical. Whether you opt for an in-house server or a vendor-hosted or third-party storage system, you can access recorded temperature readings and trends by entering an Internet address, username and password from any computer or mobile device.
Next, decide what equipment you should monitor. Focus on which units’ data you need to record to comply with guidelines set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and local health departments. Many systems can monitor temperatures of walk-in and reach-in refrigerators and freezers, undercounter refrigerators, refrigerated merchandisers, hot-holding cabinets and meal-delivery carts. Some transmitters even monitor the temperature of the rinse water in a dishmachine.
“People in healthcare kitchens get dinged the most by health departments for the temperature of their rinse water [which must reach 180°F in the tank],” says Bill Eggers, chief marketing officer, Cooper-Atkins Corp., Middlefield, Conn. “One question to ask would be: ‘Can your system monitor my dishmachine?’”
Take note: Base systems monitor temperatures inside warm but not hot equipment, such as ovens, because the electronics can’t stand the heat. And base systems’ temperature probes only monitor ambient air, not food. They can’t withstand food contact over time.
If you want to monitor temperatures inside hot equipment or of actual food product, at least one supplier sells transmitters that accept thermocouple probes, which can read higher temperatures. Thermocouple probes are slightly more expensive than those in base systems.
Additionally, many suppliers sell handheld temperature probes for spot-checking food, and you can ask if they can integrate these readings with a wireless monitoring system.
Report, Alert Types
Wireless monitoring systems can generate all types of reports and alerts, and you’ll want to decide what data is most important to you. What data do you want or need to collect? When and how do you want to receive alerts?
Generated reports include daily temperature summaries, which include date and time, and are available in graph or column format. Some suppliers’ software can compile additional reports that include current transmitter readings, current and recently acknowledged alarms, low-battery alarms and audits. Reports often are available for printing or exporting to software programs.
“The reports make audits easy,” says Terry Fischer, v.p.-sales and marketing for E-Control Systems Inc., Sherman Oaks, Calif. “The reports also help you better understand the equipment’s performance and, by reviewing them, you can tell when the equipment might be failing and schedule a maintenance check.”
For instance, the systems may generate reports that show how often a refrigerator is going through defrost cycles. The more frequent the cycles, the harder the refrigerator is working to maintain temperature. The harder it works, the sooner it may fail.
As for types of alerts, your choices are local, audible alarms or email or text messages. You set the “safe” temperature range for each piece of equipment. Usually, the system has an option to set two high limits and two low limits for monitoring purposes, says Peter Norton, business development director, DeltaTrak Inc., Pleasanton, Calif.
“If the temperature goes above [or below] the first limit, it will send a limit alert to warn that some sort of action should be taken soon to ensure products’ quality and safety,” he says. “A change above or below the second limit alert usually indicates a more serious problem, such as a power outage, and generally calls for immediate attention.”
Ask suppliers how they ensure you don’t receive nuisance alarms. You don’t want to receive an alert every time temperatures fall out of range because a delivery team has the freezer door propped open.
Also consider whether to purchase battery-or electricity-operated transmitters. Electricity- powered transmitters cost more up front because each one requires a nearby outlet. Installing the outlets is often an added expense. Electricity-powered transmitters are useful because you don’t need to replace batteries. Some facilities use 1,500 transmitters, and changing batteries could almost be a full-time job. However, the transmitters have battery backups so the system can continue to monitor and store temperature readings during power outages.
Once power returns, both types of transmitters send all of the recorded data to the receiver. However, if either type of transmitter is down for an extended period, say, more than one week, it may lose some data. In any case, during a power outage, the system will send an alert that a connection was lost.
Once you decide where to store data, what equipment to monitor and what types of reports and alerts to receive, you’re ready to vet suppliers. Top questions to ask: Can you provide referrals? What training and support do you provide? Does your system meet my needs now and in the future?
“I certainly would ask for referrals,” Eggers says. “Ask how many hospitals the company’s system is in, and talk with a couple of other managers and find out about their system and what they like and don’t like. Ask suppliers how long they’ve been in business and how many customers they have.”
Ask if you can take a tour to see a system at work in a healthcare facility. These systems can seem complicated, but once you watch them in action, you’ll see they’re user-friendly.
Suppliers deliver different levels of training, and you’ll want to find out if their program meets your requirements. Some suppliers send in-house technicians to install systems and train your staff, while others appoint a third party. Out-of-the-box systems are available and make sense if you have the right resources, such as an IT department.
Along with referrals and training, you’ll want to ask about any after-sale support you’ll receive. Invest in a beneficial, ongoing partnership. You’ll want to be able to call someone if you have an issue.
Also, ask what size systems the suppliers sell and whether you can add transmitters easily in the future. “You need a system that’s easily scalable to your needs or even the entire hospital’s needs,” Eggers says. “If a hospital kitchen starts with eight walk-in refrigerators and freezers and, in three months, decides to add five more reach-ins, you want your maintenance department to be able to add the temperature-monitoring system to the new equipment.”
If you’re the first department at your facility to install a monitoring system, think about involving staff from other departments in your decision-making process. It may be easier to secure funding if other departments are on board.
Ask suppliers what regular maintenance services are available and how much the monitoring system will cost, including initial startup fees and any ongoing costs.
Certain transmitters and probes require periodic calibration; some suppliers provide this service. Simply remove the transmitter, replace it with a spare and send it to the calibration laboratory. The laboratory will send the unit back within a few days, and you can either reuse it or keep it as a spare.
At least one supplier performs remote system checkups. At your request, technicians will check periodically to ensure all of the system features and functions are working properly.
When budgeting, figure $400-$500 per transmitter for a base system. This initial charge typically includes the software, installation and one year of support.
Currently, suppliers are working on adding large display dashboards—liquid-crystal displays that list ambient temperature readings from inside equipment as well as food-product temperatures. The LCDs will be part of the hardware options that accompany these monitoring systems.
“Managers want someone in the kitchen to be able to look up at the screen and instantly see the temperature in cooler No. 6 or to know that the roast is 145°F on the cookline,” Mellinger says. “A display dashboard lets anyone spot an error within a control point and enables them to take immediate action to correct the situation.”
By doing a little homework, clarifying your needs and partnering with a supportive supplier, a wireless temperature-monitoring system can take much of the work out of ensuring safe temperatures in your kitchens.
TOP FIVE HOMEWORK QUESTIONS:
- Where will you store data?
- What types and how much equipment do you need to monitor?
- What are the lowest and highest temperatures you need to record?
- What data do you want to collect?
- When and how do you want to receive alerts?
TOP FIVE QUESTIONS TO ASK SUPPLIERS:
- Can you provide referrals?
- What training do you supply?
- What ongoing support do you offer?
- Will your system meet my needs now and in the future?
- What’s the total cost?