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Boosting Restaurant Energy Efficiency – US Trends

19 February 2009
Boosting Restaurant Energy Efficiency – US Trends

In the interest of resource conservation and self-preservation, more restaurant operators are honing in on the intricacies of energy efficiency.

This article first appeared in the 1 February 2009 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.

By Christine LaFave, Associate Editor

cooking and cleaning equipment can yield some of the biggest and most impressive savings.

The Web site for the federal government's Energy Star program-a joint effort of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy-reports that as much as 80% of the commercial foodservice industry's $10 billion in annual energy spending reflects a wasted investment. Installing Energy Star-rated equipment is an easy starting point for operating in a leaner, meaner and greener way, especially given the wider availability of these items. Increasingly, too, operators are turning also to both advanced building-automation systems and the simple principles of common-sense equipment use in their effort to save money and energy.

James Davella, an engineering and design consultant, finds it less difficult now to persuade his foodservice clients that it's within their reach to find and buy more-efficient equipment. "It's approachable, and it's much more prevalent," he says. "Having the conversation of actually spending more capital in the onset of the project is easier than it's ever been."

He cites variable-speed fan controls for exhaust systems-controls that allow air uptake to be adjusted based on the needs of the range at any particular cooking time-as a technology that's an easy sell. "Recognizing that to heat or cool air is very expensive, and knowing that an exhaust hood in a kitchen obviously pulls out a very large portion of air during the day," he says, "something that regulates based on the demand of the cooking as opposed to just being an on/off switch just saves a great deal of energy over the course of the restaurant."

Operators looking for ways to get the most bang for their energy buck also do well to consider any system that promotes water savings-Energy Star-rated dishwashers, low-flow spray valves, sink aerators and more, Davella says. "Any way that you can get water and energy savings in the same footprint, you're going to see a great deal of savings," he says.

Induction cooking is another area in which Davella sees promise for unprecedented energy savings for operators.

"I think that's going to be huge," he says. Because the heat is so concentrated in an induction cook-top, he says, the transfer of heat from the cooking surface to the cooking vessel is 95%. With an electric cook-top, it's 70%, and with a gas cook-top, it's only 40%. And because the heat transfer with an induction system is so much more efficient, pans heat more quickly, further boosting the efficiency of the cooking process.

As induction cook-tops become more durable, and thus more suited to the level of wear and tear that most American cook-tops see, their use will expand greatly, Davella says. "In the next five years, I'm seeing it become more acceptable," he says.

And it's not just yet-to-open independent restaurants that are soliciting advice on how to run green.

"The chain restaurants, because they touch so many units at once, are really trying to figure out how to implement this stuff on a large scale," Davella says, and adds a prediction: "You're going to see fast-food national chains promoting, ‘This is a fully sustainable LEED-accredited building.'"

McDonald's Chicago
McDonald's Chicago
In fact, the biggest of the big chains already is taking that path: Last August in Chicago, Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald's opened its first stand-alone unit to apply for the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.

The store features a high-efficiency boiler and low-flow toilets and plumbing fixtures as well as reduced-energy LED lighting in the building's exterior signage. Skylights reduce energy use during the day, and day-lighting controls dim artificial lights automatically so that they only supplement natural lighting. A vegetated green roof reduces solar heat gain, thereby reducing the building's cooling costs and extending the life of the roof itself.

"It's the first corporately sponsored green restaurant," notes John Rockwell, sustainability manager at McDonald's USA. "It's a learning laboratory."

McDonald's Chicago
McDonald's Chicago
I One of the primary goals McDonald's has for the store is to have it serve as an indicator of which technologies will be easiest for other stores to implement. McDonald's joined the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) in early 2007 and is a member of the council's pilot program to establish guidelines for LEED accreditation for foodservice businesses.

Additionally, the Arizona Republic reported in January that the company has tested in a store near its Oak Brook campus building-automation systems that can shut off lights at specified times or in unoccupied areas as well as air-conditioning equipment that can monitor and set temperatures. The Arizona-based building-automation supplier estimates that its work, with other suppliers', will help McDonald's cut its annual energy costs by around 13%.

"To me what is most encouraging is … the familiarity on all levels of manufacturers," Rockwell says. "Back when I got started on [my] first project that led to LEED certification, most manufacturers had no idea what LEED guidelines were."

Not that the mandates of any one certification program represent the be-all, end-all of energy-saving initiatives. At Fresh Sourdough Express Bakery & Cafe in Homer, Alaska, energy-conscious operations have been a way of life since 1982.

The drive for energy efficiency reflects in part a commitment to green practices on behalf of Fresh Sourdough Express' owners, Donna and Kevin Maltz, and in part pure logistical necessity. "In Alaska, it's very difficult to get any kind of equipment without having it shipped-we don't have manufacturers near us at all," says Donna Maltz. "What we have done over the years as a conservation measure is we have bought most of our equipment used, in good condition, and maintained it to last for a very long time."

Careful analysis of spec sheets helps the Maltzes determine which not-quite-brand-new pieces of equipment will offer the best combination of energy efficiency and productivity for their 3,000-square-foot cafe and bakery, which is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner from April to October. "Last year we bought about $10,000 worth of equipment," Maltz says. "Eighty percent of it was used."

Fresh Sourdough Express also has its equipment calibrated at the beginning of every season. "The greatest way to have energy efficiency in your equipment is to keep it maintained so that it will last," says Maltz. The owners explain to all new employees-and reiterate to staff as needed-the need to prevent money-eating inefficiencies such as letting a faucet drip or preheating an oven too early. "Pennies add up to millions," Maltz notes.

Simple planning ahead plays a big role in boosting energy efficiency. If, for example, several items are set to go into an oven at different temperatures, the one with the lowest cooking temperature should go in first so that the oven is required only to continue warming rather than to cool. "If you're not conscientious of your timing and your schedule, no equipment is going to be energy-efficient," Maltz says.

Low-flow toilets, hand dryers, compact fluorescent light bulbs, aerated faucets and heavy insulation complete the efficiency picture for the cafe. "I think that anybody who wants to succeed needs to put the environment in line with the economy; they're the same thing," says Maltz. "We've been doing green environmental practices in a tiny little town, in Homer, Alaska-if we've been able to do it, anybody should be able to do it."

Seeing Stars

The six categories of commercial foodservice products that can earn the Energy Star classification:

  • Fryers
  • Hot-food holding cabinets
  • Solid-door refrigerators and freezers
  • Steam cookers
  • Dishwashers
  • Ice makers
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