Investing in efficiency

Equipment manufacturers and consultants are pushing the sustainability agenda; so the pressure is on to make saving energy a habit rather than a burden. Jim Banks investigates

The business community has been talking about energy efficiency for the last decade and the foodservice sector is no exception. However, it can be hard for owners and operators of commercial kitchens to follow through, not least because of the change in the economic climate in recent years and the short-term costs associated with going green.

“In new-builds and refurbishments there is a real intention to use the most efficient and sustainable solution because it ticks the corporate social responsibility box and there is growing recognition that operational costs decrease as energy bills decrease. But the danger comes during the course of the project when cost pressures increase,” says Ed Bircham, an associate member of FCSI and project consultant for Humble Arnold Associates in the UK.

“Five years ago quoting a good return on investment figure would persuade people to install efficient equipment, but now it has become a ‘nice-to-have’ rather than a ‘must-have’. We have to educate clients that efficient solutions have a cost impact, but new equipment does mean higher capital investment,” he adds.

The day-to-day operators of commercial kitchens, who may not be responsible for paying the utility bills, may understandably have a short-term view of how their kitchens function, but is only when viewed in the long term that the ROI of energy-efficient equipment becomes clear.

“Sustainability is always important until the cost is mentioned. It is like football – if winning is the most important thing then you may not be as efficient with the money you spend when signing new players. Kitchen operators need to sustain the business model first of all. Being green costs money and energy-efficient equipment saves money over time, but most new restaurants fail within the first year. So, the payback may be too long for many,” says Len Bundy FCSI, principal of restaurant management consultancy George E Bundy & Associates in Washington State, USA.

“The long-term, holistic view is best for business. Here in California energy costs are high because of the temperatures that put strain on ventilation and air conditioning systems and energy prices, which have risen a lot in the last 10 years. Conservation of energy can have a big impact, and in areas like HVAC and refrigeration you need to have the best type of equipment, but cooks and other staff are focused on their immediate needs,” says Bill Bender FCSI, consultant and founder of WH Bender Associates, co-host of a new web series called Rock My Restaurant.

Foodservice consultants are certainly trying to push the energy efficiency message, as are equipment manufacturers. “I look at the environmental impact food preparation has on our ecosystem, which must be an important focus for the industry,” says John Turenne FCSI, president of Sustainable Food Systems. “The rank and file are not there yet, but they will get there. They face the pressure of producing meals in a set time, over and over so I have to fight that mind-set and get them to take a step back.”

Trust in technology

The most obvious way to cut energy use is to invest in new, more efficient equipment, and the timescale for payback is shortening as manufacturers put sustainability at the heart of innovation.

“It depends on whether you are replacing existing equipment or investing in a new-build. There is a high premium for energy-efficient equipment. But for a new-build the extra cost is incremental, so payback may come in five or even three years,” says David Zabrowski, director of engineering at Fisher Nickel and the PG&E Food Service Technology Center.

“The single largest energy spend is the water heater because of the sheer volume of water needed in a kitchen. It could use as much as the entire cook line. In the cook line itself an under-fired broiler is a massive energy consumer, so is a steam cooker. Ventilation is expensive, too, and the best technology to improve efficiency is demand control ventilation,” he adds.

A growing trend is to use exhaust air heat recovery to preheat incoming water, which could take some load off the water heating system and enable smaller water heaters to be installed and used. “That is part of our best practice for a new-build facility,” notes Zabrowski.

Using demand control ventilation is another strong trend. It ensures cost-effective ventilation by using sensors to monitor ambient conditions and adjust fan speeds with real time feedback.

“Optical or temperature sensors can detect when a plume of smoke or heat is at its largest and run the fan at full speed, turning it down to as little as half-speed as the plume subsides. There can be an energy saving of two-thirds to three-quarters on the fan, and a reduction in the make-up air that needs to be heated or cooled. No new facility should be designed without such a ventilation system,” says Zabrowski.

“Broilers have such a big heat plume that the hood must run at 100%, so one energy-saving approach is to isolate them and give them their own hoods, so that the rest of the cook line can operate at a lower ventilation rate,” he adds.

Refrigeration is a massive cost, consuming up to 28% of a kitchen’s total energy needs, but manufacturers have worked hard to improve energy ratings for kitchen chillers and front of house refrigeration.

“It is a big cost because it is running 24/7, 365 days a year. Energy efficiency is not really about the connected load of a machine, but how it is used and how often,” says Steve Loughton CFSP, managing director of Jestic and a management committee member of the European Federation of Catering Equipment Manufacturers (EFCEM) which represents the interests of 10 nations in Brussels.

Blast chilling, which is increasingly common in commercial kitchens, has also become more environmentally friendly. New blast chiller models hitting the market can run from standard 13amp sockets, as opposed to 16amp, and feature advanced control technology that reduces the demand for power. Energy-saving fan technology also cuts the fan’s power consumption by up to 30%.

Dishwashing typically uses between 10% and 13% of a kitchen’s total energy, so is another key focus for manufacturers. New models with heat pump systems to capture heat and reuse it to heat water in the machine are a big step forward.

“Energy efficiency is exactly the issue for us, and the AC3 has a new patented rinse system that uses just 500ml of water per rack,” says Joakim Granfors, managing director of Comenda. “It uses a heat pump that was first used in 1976, but didn’t take off in the market. Now it is very important for cutting energy use, which is the biggest cost in a professional kitchen. We can reduce the energy used in dishwashing to one-third.

“The money saved could be used to invest in other energy-efficient technology. Generally, capital expenditure is being cut and there is little interest in long-term operating costs, but we can clearly show reductions in energy and water use,” he adds.

The cook line is another hotbed of innovation, though the increasingly popular induction technology has been around for quite a few years. “Cooking equipment can use up to 40% of the energy in a kitchen and there is a big move towards electric equipment rather than gas, particularly induction technology,” notes Keith Warren CFSP, director of the Catering Equipment Suppliers Association (CESA) in the UK.

Another innovation has seen waste management become more energy-efficient. Rendisk’s latest waste vacuum system, for instance, dehydrates food to reduce the volume of waste by up to 80%.

“We have developed a sustainable way to manage food waste,” says Hans Hammer, sales and marketing manager at Rendisk. “Our previous system used water to transport the food waste but regulations are moving the industry towards zero waste concepts. Traditional vacuum systems require 150mm pipes and compressed air in a complex piece of technology. We have made a system that is compact, simple and accessible to many more customers.

“The system uses 50mm pipes, is easy to retrofit and has a footprint of only 2m sq, rather than 20m sq or 50m sq. With smaller pipes carrying waste at slower speeds, because there is less waste once the water has been taken out, the system needs less energy to run,” he adds.

Intelligent control systems are also vital tools in the battle to cut energy use. “The real innovation is in controls,” notes Zabrowski. “For instance, an automatic sleep mode on an oven can switch it off if it has not been used for a given period of time. We are seeing that kind of thing on many appliances.

“There is also innovation in insulation. Most equipment is under-insulated to keep costs down or to minimise the space it takes up, but new materials mean more efficient and thinner insulation. Together, insulation and advanced controls can dramatically reduce energy costs.”

Beyond technology

Equipment manufacturers and consultants are keen to stress that new technology can pay for itself through energy savings.

“It is truism that if equipment is over five years old then new equipment will be more efficient,” says Warren. “The UK’s Carbon Trust’s ‘Cut Costs and Carbon Calculator’ shows that by switching to equipment that is 10-20% more efficient you can expect payback on the capital investment in under two years, making it acceptable to pay up to 25% more in upfront costs. You have to look at the bigger picture. Energy efficiency is a competitive differentiator for manufacturers that have a brand proposition of improving energy and cutting costs.”

Nevertheless, there are savings to be made through processes and procedures, as well as through new equipment. “Equipment is not the only solution,” says Bundy. “Management can find ways to operate kitchens that are more efficient. If space were not an issue then pulling everything needed for the day out of the walk-in cooler and putting it in a smaller compartment so people don’t have to go in an out dozens of times each day might be an option.

“Similarly, a full dishwasher is more energy efficient than one that is run half full, although there is an issue about timing. How many dishes can be allowed to stack up? Do you put through a half-full rack or wait for it to be full? Do you spend on an energy-efficient dishwasher or create more space to stack dishes?” he adds.

Simpler innovations in tools that are neither electric nor electronic will also play a big part in saving energy. For instance, pans with finned bottoms for use on open burners are greatly improving efficiency. Flat bottom pans make use of only 30% of the energy applied to them, but adding moulded fins increases the surface area that is heated by the burner thereby reducing heating times.

However, it does require the user to regulate the burner accordingly, so the skills and competencies of the staff are absolutely vital. “A big energy saving would be made by changing people’s behaviour in the kitchen,” says Loughton. “They must understand not to turn on equipment before it is necessary and to put equipment on standby whenever they can. Intelligent control is one thing, but staff training can’t be ignored.”

“You can have the most energy efficient equipment but it is a waste of time and money if people don’t know how to use it well. Energy efficiency is a combination of equipment and process,” agrees Turenne.

The most important element of any drive to cut energy use is knowing where to start. “In California, the power utility PG&E does energy audits so people can know whether it is lighting, refrigeration or HVAC, for example, that drives the cost, so they can base their decisions on that data. Knowing where the energy is used is the first step in making a plan to save energy. Maintenance is also important to ensure that equipment is running as efficiently as possible,” says Bender.

There are some trends in cooking that seem to fly in the face of the sustainable agenda. “Ventilation systems are one of the big users of energy, particularly if a restaurant wants display cooking,” says Bundy. “In fact, if you want to use wok ranges then it is an incredible waste of energy. It is inefficient, but it has the flash and bang some customers want. Overall, ranges are less efficient than oven cooking, so in some cases people may not want the most efficient option. The menu and the marketing are always the priorities, and voices from back-of-house will always tell you that reliability trumps energy efficiency. Nevertheless, CSR is making a big enough impression to bring together the links in the energy efficiency chain.

“Manufacturers are increasingly designing equipment that is more energy efficient and consultants want to use it in their designs to meet clients’ CSR goals. It is ultimately about whether the owner or whoever pays for the equipment or the energy it uses. In the most switched-on companies the people responsible for capital expenditure and operating costs will talk to each other about the payback period,” says Loughton.

A brighter future?

In the US, sustainability initiatives like Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and Energy Star have had a big impact on building and equipment design. In the UK, the BRE Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) has similar goals, but could put more emphasis on kitchens.

“The kitchen is such an energy hungry part of any commercial building, but it is not included as prominently in BREEAM as it should be,” says Bircham. “It could give points for reducing ventilation loading or heat recovery from dishwashing. That would have a lot of sway as people really want BREEAM accreditation. LEED and Energy Star have had a huge effect in the US.”

“The new version of LEED includes kitchens, and rising utility costs have focussed people on the need to control energy use. Energy Star has increased awareness among manufacturers and operators, who know there is a choice in terms of energy performance. That is part of the reason why the idea of energy efficiency is blossoming,” says Zabrowski.

Jim Banks


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