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Perfect Ice

Ice Machines

Your operation rises or falls on your food and drink, but those are only two of three products you purvey to customers. The third is ice.

You may discount the importance of frozen H2O because you give it away for “free,” but your customers’ satisfaction with a cold beverage depends a great deal on the ice inside—whether it’s the craveable crunchy slush at the bottom of a soft drink, or a glass-clear adamantine cube at the heart of a single-malt scotch.

Ice makers aren’t the fussiest pieces of equipment in a restaurant but choosing the right machine for the job and then maintaining it properly for long, reliable service can make a big difference to your bottom line. And 2018 may be a particularly good time to reevaluate your ice needs, since January brought both new Department of Energy standards (minimum criteria that every ice machine maker must meet) and new numbers for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star 3.0 label (the best of the best in terms of energy efficiency). Some manufacturers extensively revamped their product line to comply with the new standards, while others needed to make fewer modifications.

The new numbers mean there are fewer Energy Star-rated units on the market; however, ice machines from all major makers now make more ice with less energy and less environmental impact than units that rolled off the line just a few years ago. “Operators looking for savings on water and electric bills need to really evaluate this depending on the age of their current machine; they may actually be astonished by the efficiency upgrades,” says Tim Birkett, President of DeMotte, Ind.-based Polar Ice Systems, which sells, leases and services ice machines. However, he cautions, operators should note each maker’s efficiency standards, since there are substantial differences from one manufacturer to another. For example, product spec sheets typically list energy and water usage per 100 lb. of ice; several manufacturers, but not all, submit their numbers for certification by the Air-Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration Institute.

Larger chains are studying their ice needs carefully and making changes accordingly. “We recently tested moving from cube to pellet-style ice,” says one operator of a quick-service chain. “Our testing was successful, and that’s the direction we’re heading, replacing existing cube ice makers with pellet-style machines from several manufacturers as the current machines fail.” The chain found that 70% of its customers preferred chewable ice. What’s more, the new pellet (nugget) ice makers, installed both in kitchens and in beverage dispensers, boost beverage yield by 20% and cut energy consumption 10%-15% and water consumption by 35% compared to previous models, according to the operator.

Ice Machine Types, How They Work
Operators typically use several types of ice in their facilities, but most types are made by one of two basic methods.

Cube ice comes in many sizes and shapes. It’s made layer by layer by flowing water over a grid cooled by a refrigerant-filled evaporator. For ice harvest, the grid briefly heats rather than cools, then the cubes drop all at once. The ice harvest, every 12 to 18 min., comes with an audible “clunk.”

Ice makers create gourmet “top hat” or “champagne cork” shape cubes a bit differently, in a grid with water injected through a tube into each cell. When the machine harvests ice, each cube has a large divot or cavity where the tube was.

Whatever its size or shape, cube ice made in this way is typically clear because it contains very little air or sediment; as the layers form, these “contaminants” get pushed out. However, some cubes are clearer than others. Water quality obviously affects the clarity of ice, but so does the speed of production. “Operators always want a bigger, faster ice machine, but the faster you make ice, the more potential there is to trap air bubbles,” explains one manufacturer. “Sometimes there’s a bit of a tradeoff.”

Cubers don’t turn all the water that enters the machine into ice; the purest water freezes first, leaving behind a residue of mineral-and sediment-filled water that flushes out. Different ice machines will flush varying amounts of water during the icemaking process. Machines can flush anywhere from 12 to more than 30 gal. of water for every 100 lb. of ice manufactured. Check spec sheets; nearly all makers list a model’s water usage.

Batch cubers come in a wide range of sizes, from undercounter units that produce 50 or 60 lb. of ice a day to monster machines that can crank out up to 2,800 lb. daily.

Flake ice, used for icing fish, seafood or other items being prepped and for salad bars and other cold displays, is made by a different method. Loosely-packed ice forms on the interior surface of a barrel-shaped freeze chamber, then an auger shaves it off the sides of the cylinder, pushing it out. It has a high water content (up to 40% water), so it’s unsuitable for beverages.

Flakers produce 200 to 2,500 lb. daily. Iced displays require a surprising amount of ice—about 35 lb. per cu. ft., changed two or three times a day.

Nugget ice—a popular choice for soft drinks—forms like flake ice, but with another step in the process: as it emerges from the augered freeze cylinder, it pushes through holes in an extrusion head, compressing it into tubes of soft compressed flake, which a sweeper arm periodically cuts into chunks about ½-in. long. These chewable chunks still contain a good deal of water (up to 20%), which slowly releases into the drink as the nugget melts. Operators use nugget ice for soft drinks, in blended drinks as well as for prep or display purposes (although it’s not as shapeable as snowy flake ice). Nugget-ice machine capacity ranges from 145 to 1,800 lb. a day.

Generally, LSRs and other operations that primarily serve non-alcoholic soft drinks choose nugget ice or small cubes to fill beverage glasses, since the smaller pieces of ice displace more of the beverage and thus lower ingredient costs. Bars and full-service restaurants that emphasize adult beverages will probably want to choose larger, harder cubes that melt slowly and preserve the integrity of the cocktail ingredients.

Maintaining Your Ice Machine
No matter how great your new ice machine is, neglecting maintenance will lower its efficiency and shorten its life, reducing the value of your investment. Don’t wait until something begins to go wrong to think about your maintenance schedule.

Even if you’ve tested your municipal water and installed the filtration system recommended by the manufacturer before plugging in your ice maker, both the water itself and the air around it can gradually introduce microorganisms into your machine. “An ice machine is warm and moist, and it’s near a food source, so there’s a potential for microorganisms to grow,” explains one manufacturer.

Assign someone to clean and sanitize the ice machine at least once every six months. “If you just clean the tubing and the parts that come into contact with water, that’s only half the battle,” he says. Take care of mechanical components as noted in the operator’s manual. Parts coated with dust and debris become insulated and have a hard time dumping heat. Clean the ice bin too when you’re cleaning the ice machine. Remove the ice and wipe down the entire interior, including the baffle and the underside of the lid.

Typically, a staff member can accomplish cleaning the ice machine in about an hour using instructions on the machine’s inside panel, he adds. (Note you may need to remove some components and submerge them in ice-machine cleaning fluid.) If you think the task is too complicated or time-consuming, you can either purchase an ice machine with an automatic cleaning cycle or make the periodic scrubbing part of an ongoing contract with a service agency that specializes in ice machines and is on your manufacturer’s list of qualified servicers. And consider ice machine sanitation systems (see “Keeping Ice Clean”).

You, your staff, your service agency or a water filtration specialist should change the water filters on the same six-month schedule, if not more frequently. If the water supply is problematic—for instance, well water with high mineral content—examine the filters and switch them out more often. A reduction in ice production or a sudden spike in error codes may signal that scale is building up in the machine. Scale buildup also can happen in the water pipe to the machine, particularly if the pipe was too small to begin with; if that happens, call a plumber.

Maintaining your ice machine is essential, not only because it’s a big investment but also because its performance impacts your bottom line. Plus, you want to keep customers happy and sell more beverages. Remember, ice is food.

Flake ice consists of loosely-packed ice formed on the interior surface of a barrel-shaped freeze chamber, then pushed out by an auger. The ice is moved to an outlet in the freezing chamber, where it exits into the storage bin. This ice has a high water content (up to 40% water) and can be shaped by hand. In foodservice, it’s used for fish on ice, salad bars and other display purposes.

Nugget, or compressed flake, ice is about 5%-20% water, so it melts a bit when the drink is poured, cooling it quickly. Favored for soft drinks, ice nuggets are beloved by customers because they absorb beverage flavors and are easy and safe to chew. They provide good displacement in beverages—more ice means less product and thus lower ingredient cost. Nugget ice also can be used for blended drinks and smoothies.

These small crescent cubes, unique to one manufacturer, combine the clearness and hardness of cube ice with good displacement in the cup, cooling drinks quickly without diluting them as nugget ice would. This type of cuber harvests ice differently in that each crescent cube drops from the evaporator grid one by one vs. in one large batch.

Use this hard, clear ice, typically 3/8 x 11/8 x 7/8 in., for soft drinks. It provides about the same displacement as crescent cubes. Use this type of ice for blending smoothies too.

Square or rectangular cubes come in a range of sizes, from about ¾ x ¾ x ½ in. to large cubes about 1¼ in. on each side. Small cubes offer good displacement in beverages as well as clarity and an attractive uniform shape, so they’re ideal for medium to large restaurants that serve both soft drinks and adult beverages. Full-size cubes cool premium drinks with little dilution and offer visual attractiveness. Cubes are slow to melt in an ice bin.

Top hat cubes offer a large surface area relative to their size, so they cool drinks more quickly than square cubes of equivalent size.

This large, cylindrical or eight-sided cylinder shape (the largest version is 2-in. long) consists of hard, clear, slow-melting ice, allowing premium liquors to retain their flavors and aromas for a long time. Ideal for high-end craft spirits as well as on-the-rocks adult beverages.

Top 5 Spec Tips: Ice Machines
A new ice machine is a major investment, so think carefully about your needs before talking to a dealer. Things to consider:

1. What are your ice needs? Your goals? For soft drinks from a dispenser, you’ll need nugget ice or the smallest cubes; for adult beverages, hard, clear cube ice; for icing seafood or for a salad bar, flake ice. You may need more than one ice machine. Some operators pair beverage dispensers with a dedicated ice maker, while others have only an ice bin, with employees refilling ice from buckets. An undercounter ice maker might be handy for the bar, but often an ice bin will do.

2. How much production will you require? On average, restaurants use 2 lb. of ice per customer per day; bars use 3 lb. Size for maximum summertime demand, not for average demand. (If usage varies wildly, consider a bigger ice bin.) If in doubt, size up.

3. Air-cooled, water-cooled or remote cooled? Air-cooled systems are the simplest and cheapest. Water-cooled systems work well for institutions such as supermarkets, hospitals or casino hotels that have a closed-loop water line. (These units use less electricity but because they require so much water, none have an Energy Star rating.) Remote air-cooled systems, with the condenser outside the restaurant (usually on the roof), minimize the ice maker’s heat and noise. Locating the compressor outside also cuts down even more on noise. However, remote systems are costlier and require working with the building owner and local building inspectors.

4. What physical limitations does your space have? Place your ice maker where it has breathing room at the back, sides and top and be sure to consult the manual to confirm the clearances. (Is your ceiling high enough for the unit you want?) Place it as far away as possible from the cookline, in a spot that’s out of employees traffic flow but close enough for convenience. Next, consider electrical supply. Some units which produce less than 700 lb. of ice a day can use 115V, but others require 208V-230V and can be single-phase or three-phase, three-wire or four-wire. Third, ensure an adequate incoming water supply, with a dedicated line, and filter the water to the manufacturer’s specifications. You’ll also need a floor drain. Remember, it’s extremely important that the ice machine be level. Finally, you can mix and match brands of ice makers and bins if needed, just measure well and make sure they pair.

5. How much do you want to spend? Now or later? Cubers cost more than nugget ice makers but tend to be longer-lasting. Remote units solve a lot of problems but cost more. Heavy-duty construction and convenience features also add to the cost, as will a maintenance contract, but it could be hugely worth it. Your dealer can help you balance upfront cost with ROI over the lifetime of the machine. One possibility: leasing rather than purchasing outright.

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