Making Restaurants Efficient – Simple Energy Fixes Increase Profits

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As restaurateurs struggle to keep their business afloat with fewer customers, some are turning to greening as a way to stand out from competitors, from serving local foods to making deliveries in hybrid electric vehicles. When greening includes energy-saving strategies, the benefits can increase profits in addition to helping the environment.

By implementing simple energy and water use changes, many restaurants can expect a couple of thousand dollars a year or more in savings, according to Richard Young, senior engineer and director of education at the Food Service Technology Center in San Ramon, Calif. He admits the recommendations are basic, however, his experience is that about 90 percent of the restaurants he visits during energy audits fail to put one or more of these fundamental practices to work.

Young outlined a process to “find and fix your energy leaks” during a workshop on maintaining efficient restaurants at the California Center for Sustainable Energy in San Diego. He focused on low-hanging fruit that can be picked from lighting, refrigeration, HVAC, water use and food preparation – fixes that commonly qualify for rebates from state and federal governments and local utility programs.

Light for Less

The place to start is the back of the restaurant, where all incandescent lights can be replaced with CFLs for immediate cost savings. Specially made, durable CFLs are available that stand up to harsh conditions in walk-in refrigerators. Check the overhead fluorescent lighting for the old-style, fat T-12 lamps. It’s cheaper to replace T-12 lamps and magnetic ballasts with energy-saving T-8 lamps and electric ballasts that save energy and produce better light.

Even though the front of a restaurant has specific lighting design considerations, there are savings. Install CFL flood lamps for illuminating menu boards and aluminum reflector CFL PAR lamps for general track lighting fixtures. Even better, though more expensive, are long-lasting LED flood lamps. Using dimmers where possible will add savings.

Keep It Cool

Making refrigeration units more energy efficient is about keeping seals tight and setting proper temperatures. Inspect and replace worn gaskets on ice machines, under-counter coolers, refrigerators and walk-ins. Ensure that doors align and that automatic closers pull firmly shut. Properly installed strip curtains or plastic swing doors for walk-in units will reduce compressor run times and could save $125 to $200 annually in energy use.

If you see ice buildup, you have a problem. However, many refrigeration units defrost too often. Set the defrost clock to the minimum time needed and to run during non-peak energy use periods. One restaurant that was defrosting their freezer four times a day for 70 minutes per cycle reduced their defrost times to 15 minutes and saved $800 per year. Clean evaporator and condenser coils will save too.

Move the Air

Achieving optimal energy savings for HVAC requires professional service, but savings will be worth it. A tune-up will maximize removal of smoke and heat while reducing fan and AC energy consumption. Before the HVAC pro arrives, visually inspect duct work, fan belts, water lines and pumps – a quick repair can produce significant savings. Consider a newer model motor or fan to achieve greater energy reduction. In larger kitchens, a demand control system can be installed to slow exhaust fans down when cooking activities are reduced.

Improving the effectiveness of the kitchen exhaust hood is crucial. Push appliances against the back wall to close the gap. If gas lines or other fittings prohibit closing the gap, install a metal plate to block off the space and keep air moving upward. Adding side panels to the exhaust hood also optimizes its performance.

Watch the Water

Most water used in restaurants is hot, so reducing costs means using less and controlling heat loss. Instant savings result from installing low-flow hand sink aerators (0.5 gpm or gallons per minute) and pre-rinse spray valves (1.6 gpm or less). Replacing an older 4.5 gpm spray valve will save about $1,000 a year. Simply turning down the flow in dip wells (used to soak utensils between uses) can save another $1,000. Fixing leaks, of course, lowers water costs.

Tankless and high-efficiency hot water heaters cost more, but offer great long-term savings. Regardless of hot water system type, insulating all accessible hot water lines, maintaining proper tank temperatures (typically 140 degrees F.) and using a timer to turn off the re-circulating pump at night will improve efficiency.

Cook for Less

Like cooling, cooking demands regulated temperatures and well-sealed spaces. Regularly calibrate temperature controls and check gaskets and filters on ovens, steam tables, hot boxes and other appliances. Reduce preheating and maintain precise start up and shut down schedules. The rule is to shut off when possible – one restaurant saved $2,250 annually by turning off six heat lamps for three hours a day. Big savings come from buying energy-efficient equipment that qualify for ENERGY STAR and utility rebates.

Where to Start

Young recommends tracking the use of electricity, natural gas and water to discover baseline use and monitor ongoing consumption. Then as fixes are made, they can be noted and analyzed as part of an overall business strategy to increase profits with energy savings.

For more information:

Commercial Kitchen Package for Businesses and Operators, ENERGY STAR fact sheet

Boosting Restaurant Profits with Energy Efficiency, Flex Your Power booklet

Energy Tips, Food Service Technology Center

Conserve: Solutions for Sustainability, National Restaurant Association

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