By John Lawn
It's a safe bet the energy efficiency of your kitchen and servery is nowhere near the top of the list in terms of your most pressing concerns. Nevertheless, in today's "cost-cutting" environment, utility costs remain an area where a little attention can often go a long way.
This is particularly true in organizations where foodservice directors now share more of the overhead burden of a facility, or where directors have taken on responsibility for other departments. Being able to make constructive, money-saving suggestions about overall operations emphasizes your ability to contribute to the team effort, and can help take the attention off other cost-cutting targets in your department.
The fact is, utility costs are an area that haven't received the attention in recent years that they had back in the early 1980s, when energy was on everyone's mind. In a typical restaurant, they represent only two to seven percent of the cost of doing business, and much more attention goes to labor and food costs, which often run 30 to 40 percent each.
On the other hand, as savings in this area accrue every day over the course of a year, they can really add up.
No article will make you an energy expert overnight, but you can learn to understand the major energy wasters in a typical foodservice environment.
Start by paying close attention to when equipment is turned on and off. Significant savings can often be had by identifying startup and shutdown times, managing "warmup" periods and by keeping grills, fryers and other equipment clean and well-maintained.
The 10 tips at the end of this article will give you several other areas where you can look for immediate energy savings. Often, the biggest causes of energy waste can be addressed by low or no-cost operational changes that don't require major investments.
If you want to go beyond the basics, you'll probably need to have a consultant help you perform a wide-ranging-energy audit of your facility. Such help is often available from local utility companies.
Bring in the energy auditors
An audit will include an examination of your energy bills, with a particular look at how different forms of energy are used and charged for. This is also a good idea if you're planning to replace equipment in a renovation.
Energy costs vary regionally and by type, sometimes creating large operating cost differences between using electricity or gas for the same purpose. For some tasks, like water heating, gas is almost always the less expensive fuel. For others, electricity's versatility is unbeatable.
Knowing how electricity is charged for is also important. There can be time of day rate differences, so-called "demand charges" and other rate variables that significantly affect the overall bill. Demand charges in particular can complicate the accuracy of "estimated" costs of operation for electrical equipment. Strategies in this area almost always will be organization-wide and will involve load-shedding energy management controls, building HVAC systems, etc.
Particularly when it comes to kitchen equipment, energy is important but it is never the only issue. First cost is also important and must be balanced against longer term operating costs.
Learn how payback periods are calculated. Simply put, it's not smart to save $50-100 dollars on a fryer if the cost of operating a more efficient unit will pay back the initial price difference in six months. As a general rule, longer paybacks can be justified for equipment that will remain in place for longer periods of time.
At the same time, recognize that "energy efficiency" is often touted the same way "light" foods are, with the hype sometimes exceeding the actual savings. And for most operators, production reliability will always be more important than efficiency.
Some equipment with the highest efficiency ratings may have unacceptable recovery times, letting you down during peak periods. Define kitchen production needs first and then establish levels of efficiency that are appropriate.
Efficiency isn't the only issue
Payback must be evaluated in light of actual usage. It often pays to keep older, less efficient equipment available for periods of peak demand or backup purposes. An inefficient fryer that's used for only an hour or two a week is probably not worth replacing.
Versatility of equipment also affects the energy equation. Some newer equipment is able to combine multiple use and high efficiency.
A combi-oven, for example, in one footprint can provide the advantages of a steamer, an oven and a combination steamer-oven. This can give you more room for an expanded pantry area or another piece of equipment. Electric appliances tend to be more flexible in the way they can be placed. Consider such advantages when making purchase decisions.
Finally, it's a good rule to be cautious about implementing energysaving techniques when they may compromise systems that are used to preserve food or will seriously affect customer comfort.
For example, letting a cooler's inside temperature fluctuate outside of the preferred range shortens product shelf life, increases waste and can encourage food spoilage. At the same time, an energy audit is the perfect time to make sure that temperatures are being maintained in the right range.
Often, procedures for saving energy (like installing cooler door thermal curtains, or emphasizing that frozen and cooled items should be put away immediately after delivery) both save energy and help maintain cooler temperatures.
"Daylighting" strategies in servery perimeter areas help reduce the use of lights and minimize heat gain.
Significant energy savings often come from low or no-cost changes in everyday operations. Here are some opportunities to look for:
- Establish equipment startup and shutdown schedules.Kitchen equipment like broilers, fryers and grills are large consumers of energy and are often left turned-on even when they're not needed. Warm-up, start-up and shut down times should be established and posted. When more than one griddle is needed for peak periods, an operator should establish the point at which one or more can be shut down.
- Examine cooking procedures.When alternate cooking procedures are possible, make sure the most energy-efficient techniques are used. For example, a bag of "heat and serve" sauce can be prepared in boiling water, but can be heated up at a lower cost in a steamer or combi-oven.
- Watch out for heat gain.HVAC systems account for up to half of an operation's energy use. Anything that adds extra heat or moisture increases energy consumption. Make sure employees follow schedules for turning equipment off. Efficient building insulation can reduce heat gain from the sun; so can window awnings and doorway alcoves. Well-designed hood exhausts can keep it from building up near cooking areas.
- Keep HVAC systems well maintained and investigate energy management systems.Change air filters regularly. Keep refrigeration coils clean and free from obstructions. Setback thermostats can help you maintain comfort levels during critical periods, but let temperature levels "drift" when there is little or no customer traffic. More complex systems can shed electric loads during periods of peak demand and perform other "optimization" functions. Electric utility experts can provide more information on these systems.
- Don't forget the lights.Lights add to a building's heat gain and should be turned on according to a schedule. In storage rooms, replace incandescent bulbs with bulbs of lower wattage or with fluorescent fixtures.
Time clocks, photo cells and motion-detectors can help ensure that lights are not left on when they're not needed.
In serveries with windows, allow seating areas to be "daylighted" where possible. Use " tasklighting" (lower wattage spotlights) to illuminate specific work areas rather that trying to light an entire room at the same level.
- Pay special attention to water use. Heating water is one of the more energy intensive aspects of an operation. Reducing hot water usage almost always pays off, although care has to be taken in areas like dishwashing, where there are both operational and sanitary trade-offs to lowering water temperature. Make sure the hot water heaters have insulation jackets on them and that hot water lines are insulated.
- Study an operation's electric demand schedule. It usually takes a consultant to properly evaluate electric demand charges and the strategies that will reduce them. (They will have to look at overall power usage at your institution across departments and operations). But the payoff can be high.
Especially watch for electric water heating and dishwashing during peak demand periods. A gas hot-water booster can sometimes make a big improvement, since an electric booster adds to the demand charge but the gas booster does not.
- Keep equipment calibrated.Regular thermostat calibration by a service technician helps ensure that grills cook batch products evenly and that fryers and other equipment provide consistent results. It also saves energy.
- Keep equipment clean.Every particle of grease or food on a grill, griddle or range surface reduces efficiency. Keep frying oil clean and filtered. Rinse and flush steam kettles and pressure cookers daily. Keep burners adjusted. Make sure oven spills are cleaned up immediately, before residue carbonizes.
- For more information.The NRA has an energy management kit available that details energy-saving strategies as well as instructions for analyzing utility bills, scheduling equipment, etc. Phone 1-800-526-6662 [N.Y. residents should call 516-674-3250]. The American Gas Association and The Electric Cooking Council also publish information to help operators reduce energy waste.