The Science of Cool

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A refrigerator is a vital component of a restaurant’s success and current trends in foodservice cooling units have the refrigeration industry digging deep into R&D. From vending machines to refrigerated self-serve cabinets, the marvels of commercial refrigeration and its critical role in the food chain are on abundant display in the modern restaurant.

There is particular focus, at the development end, on improving technology in a way that increases both its efficiency and environmental friendliness. The result is a serious push for refrigerant chemistry that doesn’t promote global warming — an evolution compelled by international legislation requiring all existing fluorocarbon refrigerants be phased out because of its ozone-depleting properties and global-warming potential. As such, refrigeration in the last three to five years has migrated from traditional hydrofluorocarbon models to appliances utilizing hydrocarbons.

Hydrocarbon refrigerants are natural, nontoxic, have no ozone-depleting properties and negligible global-warming potential. Indeed, hydrocarbons are among the five acknowledged “natural” refrigerants (along with air, water, carbon dioxide and ammonia) considered the most efficient and environmentally safe in the world. And, the bonus fallout from this enviro-friendly shift to an alternative cooling chemistry is these new refrigerators demand less power from the appliance’s component parts. The units don’t have to work as hard to shed heat, have quicker recovery times and don’t place as much stress on the system.

“What we’ve learned with hydrocarbon refrigerants, as opposed to the traditional refrigerants, has been the incredible efficiency and performance gains,” says Steve Proctor, director of Sales and Marketing at Missouri-based True Refrigeration. His company is at the vanguard of this movement — 90 per cent of the core models at True have been converted to hydrocarbons.

While Proctor acknowledges the switch-up requires an upfront investment, True’s customers have reported between 15- and 25-per-cent energy savings per unit. “We’ve seen better recovery times, colder temperatures, longer lives,” he says. “Even in a hot kitchen where the door is being opened 60 or 70 times an hour, our tests show the units perform better than 10 years ago.”

Other reports peg hydrocarbon refrigerants at as much as 54-per-cent cheaper in electrical costs than fluorocarbon refrigerants. They are also said to be 50-per-cent more efficient conductors of heat than their predecessors and the operating pressures are about 20-per-cent lower — reducing the work the compressor has to do and extending its lifetime, along with that of pipe work, joints, hoses and fittings.

REFRIGERATION ON DISPLAY
Another trend in commercial refrigeration takes place along the aesthetic lines. Today’s refrigeration units are more self-conscious about their appearance than ever — a response, largely, to the increasing visibility of the restaurant kitchen. Whether in a quick-service application, a pizza operation or a high-end establishment, open kitchens are increasingly up front about their fridges and designed in a way that brings residential clean lines and high-end style to commercial kitchens.

True, along with other manufacturers, has introduced different hues and finishes to its products in lieu of stainless steel. Front-of-house design now features black, white and red powder coatings, on both appliances and hardware.

HOW FOOD FUELS FRIDGES
The food people eat has a predictable impact on the refrigeration equipment that stores it and the current obsession with healthy eating has triggered a corresponding response in cooling units. Restaurants such as Toronto-based Freshii are spearheading demand for refrigerated prep tables with ingredient stations and lots of backup storage. Mississippi-based Master-Bilt’s product line includes under-counter refrigerators for storing meats, vegetables and other ingredients that can be integrated into counters and chef bases.

Similarly, a growing interest in fresh- and cold-pressed juices has produced a call for new vertical display merchandisers to hold the beverages at food-safe temperatures in grab-and-go locations. “The cost of the ingredients that go into these

is so high, it’s important to have safe storage,” says Proctor.

SHOPPING AND MAINTENANCE TIPS
The flurry of technological development in this space means refrigeration units are more efficient than ever — but also potentially more complicated to purchase. Think electronic-controller systems for walk-in refrigeration systems, for instance, which offer precision and save energy. Demand-defrost features only initiate a defrost when it’s necessary, which saves energy. And electronic controllers offer installation savings because so little wiring is required between evaporator coils and condensing units. Internet connectivity allows users to monitor a system’s performance remotely, without having to climb onto a roof or enter a walk-in.

Restaurant owners seeking new refrigeration equipment should work with known foodservice-equipment dealers and trusted brands and avoid buying used. “Look for equipment that’s simple to operate and think about adding options that will make operation more convenient,” says Lynn Burge, Advertising and Promotions manager for New Hampshire-based Standex Refrigerated Solutions Group. Durability is critical when shopping for this department and he recommends operators seek out prep tables, reach-ins and undercounters constructed of stainless steel to hold up to daily abuse.

“Look for a prep unit that includes standard pans,” Burge recommends. “Depending on your menu, you may want to use larger-sized pans for frequently used ingredients such as lettuce. For that reason, it’s helpful to have locking adapter bars running front-to-back and side-to-side to allow mixed-sized pans. Mega-top units also give you an extra row of pans for added capacity.”

Operators also need to consider workspace layout and what equipment best utilizes existing space. For example, refrigerated chef bases can fit underneath ovens for storage and undercounter refrigerators, freezers and prep tables can be built into existing counters for a smaller footprint. Single-door undercounters can also be stacked on top of one another and pass-through refrigerators make it possible to remove or add contents from either side — without having to walk all the way around. Units with front-breathing refrigeration-system designs allow for zero-clearance installation on sides and back, saving space. And refrigerators with glass doors make it easy to see what’s inside — a timesaver in a busy kitchen.

Once in place, the appliances need constant maintenance. That means keeping the condensing coil clean — so the heat can continue to dissipate through it without the mucky holdup of dust and debris — and regularly wiping down gaskets with soap and water.

It’s also prudent to ask about a brand’s after-sales support. “Everybody assumes these things are going to last forever,” says Proctor. “But, at the end of the day, they’re machines and they will break down. Make sure you have a strong warranty and network of service companies that can support the warranty — that’s critical.”

Written by Laura Pratt 

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