Americans consume lots of ice. We consume it in fountain beverages, slushes, and smoothies, and kitchen staffs use it to prep, hold and display food. We use ice for displays and we use it to chill products.
Commercial ice makers are also a big user of water and electricity in most operations. Finding the right ice maker means not only finding a machine that makes the correct type of ice but also one that produces enough ice for your needs. It should also be one that is going to save you money in ongoing operating costs. Here are some tips for choosing the right equipment.
Technology is advancing
In recent years, ice makers have become one of the more technologically advanced kitchen equipment items. Innovations have been made in sanitation, energy savings, serviceability, and reduced noise levels. More advancement are expected in the near future.
Many ice makers are now featuring sanitation improvements. Look for more covered corners inside the bins for easy cleaning and new automatic or manual cleaning and sanitizing technology. Some parts are treated with antimicrobials manufactured directly into components.
Energy and water saving innovations have been implemented in many new-generation ice makers and can help you manage rising water and electricity costs. One way manufacturers reduced ice maker power consumption is by using new types of refrigeration compressors and by "harvesting" ice cubes without the use of electricity. Reductions in waste water have been designed into machinesas well.
The payback for investing in energy efficiency is improving, too. California and at least one or two other states have implemented rebate programs for purchasing certain energy efficient models. Look for more efficient machines later this year and possibly more rebates from local utility companies.
Serviceability has been improved on some manufacturers' models by the addition of computer chips with self-diagnostic displays. Much like your car, some models now let a service technician make a quick diagnosis of problems for repair or, in some cases, even alert you to future problems.
Some machines have the ability to transmit data to a technician who can diagnose problems from a remote location.
Noise has always been a consideration that influenced where an ice maker could be located. As a general rule, it is not a good idea to locate most near to or on a wall adjacent to guest areas because noise from the compressor and from ice dropping inside the machine can sometimes be pronounced.
Some manufacturers have begun to address these concerns by providing additional sound deadening insulation in the machine panels around mechanical components. Some machines also have state-of-the-art quiet fans and compressors which are designed to run more quietly than most of the equipment operators are used to.
Cubes, flakes or nuggets
Let's consider the basics of ice maker selection. First, it's important to consider the type of ice that's needed and the kind of machine that will produce it.
There are basically three ice types that are made by different machines. The classic ice type for beverages is cube ice. Cube ice is clear and appealing for beverages. Commercial ice makers produce ice in a somewhat different way than you do at home for better quality and much higher production. Most machines spray water into chilled cube size compartments. Unfrozen water drips away taking water impurities with it, leaving those crystal clear cubes you get in a good looking drink.
Flake ice is another main ice type. Flakes are ideal for rapid cooling but tend to water down a drink too much and not be a good choice for beverages. However, flaked ice is effective for use in cold pans or displays where the ice can be packed and mounded to merchandise well. Flaked ice is also excellent for icing downfresh seafood or chickens in your kitchen prep area. The cube tendsto melt more slowly than flaked ice because it has less surface area,another reason it is superior for use in beverages.
There is also a new and exciting type of ice available, a hybrid type known as compressed nugget ice, that seems to be gaining in popularity. This ice is not as crystal clear as cubes but is hard and slower to melt than flaked ice. Although you may not want to use this ice for mixed drinks, nugget ice is great for soft drinks. In fact, many operators have begun using nugget ice at their self-serve beverage bars with favorable customer responses. (Many customers like to chew this type of ice because of its size and shape.)
Compressed nugget ice also does well in back of the house applications, like chilling meats and fish. The process used to make the ice uses less water and significantly less electricity than cube production does, thus reducing operating costs. The machines are also a bit more compact and are said to require less maintenance.
Evaluate production demands
Sizing ice makers is always difficult because there are so many variables. Ice needs are rarely the same in any two operations. Requirements fluctuate depending on day of the week and season. Still, here are a few guidelines.
A good rule of thumb is that you will need at least three-quarters of a pound of ice production capacity per beverage served. For example, if you serve 100 beverages, your ice maker production capacity should be about 75 pounds.
This usage factor includes ice melting in the bin and some waste but does not include other ice uses or chilling soda lines in ice bin cold plates, which will need to be accounted for separately. If you are in a very warm climate or there are a lot of other ice needs, you may want to increase this ratio.
Once the amount of daily ice production is determined, you need to match this production need with a machine. Some production claims can be misleading if you don't know what to look for.
Be careful to note that many manufacturers' ice-making claims are based on a 50°F water temperature and 70°F air temperature at the ice maker. These temperatures are often unrealistic, since in many areas incoming water temperature exceeds 50°. This is especially true in the summer when ice needs are greatest and the air temperature in your facility may be higher than 70°F. Exceeding these design temperatures causes the machine's production capacity to decrease.
When sizing your ice maker, be sure to take into account the air and water temperature to be sure enough ice can be produced. As a rule of thumb, a 10°F air temperature increase may reduce daily ice production by 10% when using an air cooled machine. In addition the higher room temperature will melt ice in the bin quicker, requiring more ice making capacity to replenish and fill the bin.
The choice of an air-cooled or water cooled machine is an important one. Ice makers use either air or water to cool their refrigeration compressor and condenser system. Each has advantages.
An air-cooled condenser is cost-effective and involves no added water costs. On the other hand, water-cooled ice makers, can reduce the amount of heat an ice maker adds to a kitchen, especially if it is one of the larger models. The amount of heat generated by an air-cooled machine can be significant, especially if it is located in a small, confined area or a space you may be trying to air-condition for the comfort of kitchen staff.
In most areas, water-cooled machines must be on a closed loop system, meaning no water can be dumped down a drain. A closed loop and cooling tower may or may not be feasible in a smaller operation. In addition to dispersing less heat than an aircooled machine, a water cooled system has another significant advantage in that it is typically more efficient. Water-cooled units are also quieter for areas where noise is a factor. If water cooling is practical in your operation, it is usually best to use it.
Finally, do not underestimate the importance of a good water filtering system for your ice maker. Water filters condition incoming water, reduce the machine's necessary cleaning frequency, allow top equipment performance, and improve the quality of your ice. Lime and mineral build-up will be greatly reduced inside your maker if you use a filter. Use a good quality water filter and follow the directions to change when needed.
Summed up, the most important things to remember in choosing an ice maker are to select a machine that supplies the kind of ice you need, in the amounts that will be required, and with operating costs in mind. Beyond that, look for ease of maintenance as that will be critical to ensuring productivity, food safety, and quality ice.
If you notice that the size of ice cubes is smaller than normal, or the ice is soft, mushy or cloudy, these are indications that an ice machine is overdue for cleaning. The most important thing to keeping an ice machine running well is to keep it clean – this includes:
Information provided by Mike Travis, GCS Service, the Equipment Care business unit of Ecolab. Travis can be reached at 651-293-2233 or mike. [email protected] More information about ice machines and other foodservice equipment maintenance is available online at http://www.GCSparts.com 
Dan Bendall is a principal of FoodStrategy, a Maryland-based consulting firm that specializes in planning foodservice facilities. A member of Foodservice Consultants Society International (FCSI), Bendall can be reached at 240-314-0660.