Restaurant Refrigeration

14 Ways Restaurants Can Save Money on Refrigeration

By Peter Biermayer

Square foot for square foot, restaurants use more energy than almost any other type of commercial business.1 Yet, due to the sometimes overwhelming time demands and various other burdens faced by restaurant owners and managers, lowering that consumption is rarely an easy task.

However, saving money on commercial energy can be much simpler than many restaurant owners and managers might imagine. Restaurant heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) units, and refrigeration are ripe areas for owners and managers who want to find easy ways to reduce energy usage and thus reduce restaurant costs.

There are numerous ways restaurant owners and managers can leverage their refrigeration products and practices to reduce energy usage. Some of them are incredibly easy and affordable. Others may be more work-intensive or expensive in terms of initial investment, but can pay off tremendously down the road.

Below is a list of 14 different energy saving tips, ranging from simple to difficult, that can help reduce restaurant costs through more efficient refrigeration. 

1. Turn off door heaters

Switching off door heaters can save a restaurant $75 annually.1 Unless there is significant frost on the door or water is dripping on the floor from the front of the refrigerator, it is probably unnecessary to leave the door heater on.

2. Allow for better air circulation
Installing or moving walk-in refrigerators and freezers so they aren't in tight spots allows for better air circulation and consumes less commercial energy. Heat will build up in those tighter spaces, making the refrigerator or freezer work harder.

3. Clean condenser and evaporator coils
Dirty condenser and evaporator coils block airflow, which drags down refrigerator efficiency and can lead to 90% more energy being used.2 Dirty coils also lead to more maintenance problems, which cost time and money.

4. Set defrost cycles

Kitchen employees sometimes make the mistake of running defrost cycles for far too long. In most cases, four 15-minute defrost cycles a day is enough, but that time can vary depending on the restaurant and the product that is being defrosted. To properly set defrost cycles, use the pins on the outside ring of the defrost time clock to set the number of cycles. Then adjust the center dial to determine the length of each defrost cycle.3

5. Insulate suction lines
Suction lines transport refrigerant to the compressor from the evaporator on refrigeration systems that use remote condensers. Keeping suction lines from absorbing heat during that process can make the entire refrigeration system run more efficiently and reduce energy usage. All it takes is adding some inexpensive insulation to the suction lines.

6. Check refrigerant charge
When walk-ins suffer from having too little refrigerant, extra strain is put on the compressor. To track refrigerant levels, look for the small window on the condenser that shows the refrigerant line (also known as a sight glass). If there are visible bubbles while the system is running, it is time to call a qualified restaurant HVAC technician to recharge the refrigerant.

7. Replace old gaskets
Replacing cracked or warped refrigerator or freezer gaskets can significantly reduce restaurant costs by eliminating wasted energy. Some restaurant HVAC technicians will do a turnkey replacement for all worn gaskets in a restaurant.

8. Use automatic door closers on walk-in refrigerators
Automatic door closers are among the least expensive ways to reduce energy usage, and businesses in Northern California may be eligible for a $75 rebate per closer. They are also incredibly easy to install. Simply attach them to walk-in door hinges and keep the cool inside the refrigerator or freezer.

9. Add night covers to refrigerated display cases
While open-case refrigerator displays are an excellent way to showcase food, they can also be a major drag on energy, especially when the establishment is closed. Installing night covers traps the cold air inside the case so it doesn't have to run at full strength throughout the night. Businesses may also receive a rebate from PG&E of $3.50 per linear foot.

10. Upgrade to LED lighting
Light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs and fixtures are among the most energy efficient products on the market. LEDs have many benefits, but they are especially effective at reducing refrigeration energy usage. LEDs offer vast improvements over incandescents in refrigerators because they operate better in cold temperatures, last longer and give off less heat (allowing refrigerators and freezers to operate using less energy since they don't have to make up for heat emanating from light bulbs).

11. Install a high-efficiency ice machine

There are two things to keep in mind when purchasing a new ice machine: efficiency and capacity. To check the efficiency of an ice machine, go to (the Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute's website) and find the water and energy-use numbers for each model. Ice machine manufacturers voluntarily list this information with AHRI. Capacity is also important because larger ice machines are typically more efficient than smaller versions. A larger ice machine will allow you to make enough ice ahead of time, during off-peak hours, to avoid production when electricity prices are the highest.3 Incentives for ice machines range from $100 to $500 for Northern California businesses.

12. Install electronically commutated motors (ECMs) on evaporator fans
ECMs are more efficient evaporator fan motors than existing standard efficiency shaded-pole motors, and once ECMs are installed, rebates between $35 and $50 may be available to businesses that apply with PG&E. This simple add-on to walk-in refrigerators and freezers can reduce restaurant costs substantially over the long term, with lower monthly utility bills and less need for maintenance.

13. Add evaporator fan controllers to walk-in coolers and freezers
Evaporator fan controllers improve the energy efficiency of walk-in refrigerators and freezers by reducing airflow when the compressor cycles off and reducing fan motor power substantially during off cycles. This process allows walk-ins to operate at closer to peak efficiency, reducing power usage during times when they aren't being used. Evaporator fan controllers that meet the requirements of PG&E can qualify for a $75 rebate per controller.

14. Purchase ENERGY STAR®-certified commercial refrigerators and freezers
When purchasing any new restaurant equipment, it's always important to look for the ENERGY STAR label. ENERGY STAR-certified products generally reduce energy usage compared to competing products, and this is especially true with refrigeration equipment. Various rebate opportunities are also available for some ENERGY STAR-certified commercial refrigerators and freezers. These products can reduce restaurant costs significantly, with average annual savings of 30% on refrigerant electricity usage.

Contractors are a helpful resource when implementing more difficult energy efficiency projects. For more information on how to get started, download "The Complete Guide to Working with a Lighting or HVAC Contractor" eBook from PG&E. Explore product and incentive options with a contractor to improve system operation and further develop a long-term quality maintenance plan.

Referenced in article:
  1. Pacific Gas and Electric Company
  2. Food Service Technology Center
  3. Pacific Gas and Electric Company
  4. Food Service Technology Center

Need energy saving tips? Here are 14 ways restaurant owners can reduce energy usage.
  • SMB Blog Author
    Peter Biermayer
    Senior Product Manager at PG&E for commercial HVAC and refrigeration. Peter has a Master's degree in Mechanical Engineering and has over thirty years of experience in the energy efficiency field, including work at a research development and testing laboratory, a national laboratory performing analysis for energy regulations, a resource efficiency manager at a military base and now at PG&E.

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