Maintaining Water Coolers: Back to the Basics
By Gary Battenberg
Water dispensers and coolers have been commercially available since the 1930s but bottled water has been a thriving business since before America declared its independence. Records of water bottled and sold from Jackson’s Spa in Boston, MA in 1767 was proof that people believed spring water yielded health benefits, bordering on medicinal value. In 1872, Vichy Spring (Saratoga, NY) started bottling water for sale and distribution and by 1856, over seven million bottles were being produced annually, selling for as much as $1.75 per pint. In more modern times, public health concerns have prompted many companies to provide home and office delivery (HOD) of bottled water and dispensers, as well as staff to maintain and service the dispensers to ensure safe water for drinking.
Bottled water today is big business, with major companies like Nestle fueling bottled water sales in excess of $12 billion. Manufacturers of water coolers are producing bottled water dispensers that not only dispense room-temperature water but also chilled and hot water from the same machine. More advanced machines of the bottleless variety include filtration for taste and odor issues and/or RO to provide a steady supply of clean and purified water. It is estimated that in 2017, worldwide consumption of bottled water in all its forms will be 103 billion gallons (389 billion liters).
There are several types of cleaning solutions available from cooler manufacturers, as well as chlorine and hydrogen peroxide. Strict discipline in sanitary procedures for maintaining water coolers and dispensers must be standard operating procedure every time service is rendered in order to maintain a hygienic environment in the cooler.
In the early and middle 1980s, part of my responsibilities as a service technician/installer was to service water coolers. This included checking the coolers for leaking gaskets, broken dispensing valves and checking the refrigeration system that cooled the water in the reservoir. Additionally, cleaning and sanitizing of the reservoir and other wetted components of the coolers was included in the maintenance program. It didn’t take me very long to realize that customer education in how to handle, store and replace the five-gallon bottles was seriously lacking in the business model. A meeting with the dealership’s GM was less than encouraging. When I asked if there was a standard operating procedure for cooler service, he told me to “just keep doing your job the way you were trained and everything will be fine.” The problem was the training—or the lack thereof. So, I made a copy of a product installation use and care guide from a new cooler to educate myself. I studied it that night and realized there was much more that I had not been shown in the care and maintenance of the coolers. A call to the manufacturer of the product was very reassuring in that they were very concerned about the proper installation, startup and maintenance of their product and encouraged me to call them at any time for assistance.
I shared my findings with the general manager after my route was completed the next day and he agreed that there was much to be done to ensure the public safety of the drinking water from these bottled water coolers. I was instructed to sit down with one of the secretaries and develop a standard check list that was to be included with every service order. The service and sales staff was assembled and I went through my newly created Hygienic Condition Report for Water Coolers with the other service technicians and sales staff. Along with this new form, a Cooler Field Manual was provided for each technician for reference. Finally, a Hygiene Procedure was left with each customer so their maintenance personnel would know what was required to ensure a sanitary cooler after each bottle replacement. Each truck always carried refurbished and sanitized rental units for the purpose of ensuring a sanitary cooler for the customers whose cooler required thorough cleaning and sterilization at the dealership. The results of this new policy were more rental customers and a much happier sales team. The sales staff had copies of the Hygienic Condition Report, Hygiene Procedure and a summary of the Field Manual to show prospective renters that their service provider took the health of their cooler and personal well-being very seriously.
Let’s take a look at the basics of the installation and start-up of a bottled water cooler. After unpacking the cooler and inspecting for damage, set the cooler in a location that complies with the manufacturer’s warranty. This means that the cooler and spare bottles must be located in a non-hostile environment, including outdoor installations or areas of high heat and/or humidity, direct sunlight, dust, chemical storage and the like. Inspect the reservoir for any packing material, dust or other debris and remove it. It is necessary to sanitize the reservoir and dispensing circuits upon startup to ensure a hygienically clean and sterile cooler. Follow the manufacturer’s startup procedures. If the cooler includes a chiller and/or heating kettle, make sure the power supply for the dispenser is a properly grounded and polarized circuit. Never use an extension cord to provide power to the cooler. If the electrical receptacle is not convenient to the location of the cooler, hire a qualified electrician to install a properly grounded outlet within reach of the power cord supplied with the cooler. Install the cooler on a level surface. If the cooler was laid on its side for more than an hour, let the cooler stand in the upright and level position for 12 hours before plugging it in and turning it on.
IMPORTANT! Always wash your hands thoroughly before handling the water bottle. Wipe down the protective cap, neck and top of the bottle with a clean cloth soaked in a weak solution of chlorinated water or a weak solution of hydrogen peroxide and water. Refer to the manufacturer’s recommendation for ensuring hygienic preparation of the bottle installation. Dry the tank and neck with a separate clean cloth. Wear latex gloves to prevent contaminating the bottle.
- Remove the empty bottle from the cooler. Clean the top of the cooler to remove any dust or spill residue around the bottle seal.
- Inspect the reservoir for any biofilm or bacterial growth, especially under the top rim of the reservoir. Note any unpleasant odor. Follow the manufacturer’s recommended schedule for cleaning and sanitizing the reservoir and entire flow path of the water. Let the sanitizing solution stand for 10-20 minutes (or manufacturer’s recommendation) to ensure complete disinfection. Drain the cooler of sanitizing solution.
- Remove the protective cap from the top of the bottle.
- Using the proper lifting technique, lift and quickly turn the bottle upside down onto the reservoir seal and allow the bottle to empty into the reservoir.
- Flush the dispensing valves with several cups of water to remove any remaining sanitizing solution.
- Check for leaks from gaskets or around the bottle seal of the reservoir.
Coolers equipped with filtration or RO systems generally are less prone to contamination due to their inherent closed-system design. Care must be used, however, when servicing the water treatment portion of the system because contamination can still occur due to improper handling of the filters, membrane and components of the system. The quick change (QC) filters and membrane modules of a filtration or RO system make short work of the maintenance of this type of water cooler, but there are fundamental service requirements for these treatment systems. Filters should be flushed to remove entrained air and carbon fines. Standard filter bowls must be washed with warm, soapy water and rinsed before replacing the filters. RO accumulator tanks (if supplied) must be drained, the air charge set and dosed with a sanitizer for proper operation—the same as an undersink RO in a residential installation. Sanitizing procedures still apply with these systems because when a standard filter or a QC module is replaced, the system is exposed to environmental conditions that could allow bacterial or airborne intrusion into the system. Placing a few drops of chlorine into the QC modules is generally recommended to ensure bacteriostasis of the filtration or RO system.
There are highly advanced coolers available that include a sanitizing feature of either UV or ozone that provide a very sterile system. These sanitizing systems require annual replacement of lamps for UV and ozone, depending on how the ozone is generated. While these technologies provide continuous disinfection, the level of service expertise is greater; therefore, the training required to ensure qualified service and maintenance is just as important as the basic systems. Advanced technology does not mean less training in installation, service and maintenance but rather a more in-depth knowledge of how the system works and how to repair a malfunction or multiple problems when they occur. It is the dealers’ responsibility to provide prompt and efficient service for the products they sell, rent, lease and service. This also means that the manufacturers of these advanced systems must provide the necessary training and technical support for the dealers who market their products.
Customer education is equally important in maintaining and operating the water cooler. When the installation is finished and the cooler is commissioned for use, be sure and take time to explain the operation of the cooler, especially the handling and storage of water bottles. An installation check list with the customer’s signature confirming training on operation and maintenance of their cooler should be a part of the job. It ensures that the installer has checked off all the specifics of the installation and more importantly, the customer cannot claim ignorance because nothing was explained regarding the interim operation and maintenance of the cooler between scheduled routine dealer services. Leave a copy of the completed form with the customer for their files. Place a contact label on the cooler with the dealer name, phone and address for quick reference. This is also a good way to advertise for referral business if someone who is considering a cooler needs a local source for products and services.
Maintaining discipline in all phases of water cooler service ensures good customer relations. Added to a good training program at the dealership, it virtually eliminates the frustration caused by insufficient product knowledge, installation and service procedures. Cooler manufacturers invest a great deal of time and money to produce high-quality systems for market. The certification costs involved are expensive, as well as training of technical support, marketing and sales staff. When in doubt, do not hesitate to call for assistance from your cooler supplier because their success and market share are directly related to your success and technical expertise.
About the author
Gary Battenberg is a Technical Support and Systems Design Specialist with the Fluid System Connectors Division of Parker Hannifin Corporation in Otsego, MI. He has 34 years of experience in the fields of domestic, commercial, industrial, high-purity and sterile water treatment processes. Battenberg has worked in the areas of sales, service, design and manufacturing of water treatment systems and processes utilizing filtration, ion exchange, UV sterilization, reverse osmosis and ozone technologies. He may be reached by phone at (269) 692-6632 or by email, firstname.lastname@example.org