By Rita Daugherty

Heater failures, plugged orifices, cracked welds… why is my equipment under attack? How can I reduce my maintenance costs? What can be done to increase my equipment up time? Whether it’s a chain or local restaurant, cafeteria or hotel/resort, kitchen equipment and water can be a costly mix if the quality of both aren’t well maintained.

It’s been estimated millions of dollars per year are spent battling foodservice equipment failures caused by improper water quality. That’s a large amount of money committed to a problem that’s largely preventable. This money would be better invested in preventative measures. So why isn’t properly treated and balanced water always supplied to each and every piece of water-fed foodservice equipment? Unfortunately, the foodservice industry has traditionally been reactive rather than proactive in its approach to dealing with water quality issues.

Facing the enemy
The enemies of stainless steel (and other materials used to manufacture foodservice equipment) are well known in the water treatment community. Those enemies that cause obstructions—including sediment, particulate and foreign matter—can be wiped out by filtration. Others are more formidable, and require more attention. The most notorious foodservice equipment foes are calcium, magnesium, chloride, chlorine, sulfate, iron and silica. Each element wreaks it’s own havoc, exerting powerful forces that can lead to equipment damage and failure.

By far the highest ranking enemy in foodservice equipment is lime scale buildup. Softeners have been in the arsenal for decades, but hard water still has a foothold in the foodservice industry. When calcium and magnesium levels result in water hardness that exceeds about 4 grains per gallon (gpg), equipment like dishware washers, booster heaters, steamers, proofers and combi ovens can begin to develop characteristic whitish deposits on surfaces and components intended to be kept clean. If the deposit isn’t dealt with promptly, it’s an uphill battle. Damages inflicted can have serious consequences. For example, plugged rinse arm nozzles on a dishware washer reduce water flow and cleansing capability. Optimal performance is essential for assuring adequate rinsing and conformance to health regulations. The manufacturer’s original equipment warranty may not cover repairs resulting from neglect.

On the corrosion front, hardness can cause another problem. Equipment is vulnerable to corrosion in hard water because lime scale buildup tends to “smother” stainless steel. Stainless steel needs access to oxygen in order to keep its passive nature and will eventually corrode if left uncleaned. A less common but more severe cause of corrosion is associated with other enemies—chlorides and sulfates, since softeners may not combat these as effectively.

Besides scaling and corrosion, other assaults on equipment can occur when water isn’t properly treated. Free iron can result in staining (a condition aggravated by chlorine), which is often mistaken for corrosion. Manganese can cause blackening. Silica and other dissolved solids can contribute to filming if certain levels are exceeded.

And owners of foodservice equipment often fail to realize these enemies may lurk in municipal water supplies as well as private wells. Because municipally treated water is supplied as potable, it’s often presumed to be safe for equipment.

Preparing for combat
Many water treatment weapons are available to foodservice establishments, but consideration of water quality as it relates to equipment is still an afterthought. In fact, the water supply quality is often the last factor to be considered when trying to eliminate and prevent future equipment malfunctions. Exceptions to the rule seem to be coffeemakers, ice machines and soda dispensers in which the primary concerns are aesthetics such as color, taste and odor. These machines are commonly treated using filtration and adsorption cartridges.

Large “back of the house” commercial kitchen appliances, which often are the most expensive to repair, rarely get the same scrutiny as do the “front of the house” types of devices. Functional problems caused by scaling or corrosion are often given remedial treatments such as “de-liming” to remove scale and “de-rouging” to remove iron stains and rust. These treatments often involve the use of caustic and hazardous chemicals that can cause harm to workers, mandate additional paperwork and present potential liabilities for business owners. In addition, remedial treatments have to be repeated on a periodic basis and can be quite costly over time. Payback for water treatment is easily demonstrated by the “Payback worksheet” (see Figure 3).

First line of defense
Obtaining proper water quality should begin with the initial foodservice equipment specification process. A deli owner procures a steamer, a day care center purchases a commercial dishwasher or a bakery buys a new combi oven. All of these types of equipment require water to perform their intended functions. Yet, what’s frequently overlooked is these rugged, heavy-duty machines operate under severe service conditions. In addition, commercial kitchen appliances often don’t receive proper care due to the high paced and demanding nature of today’s foodservice industry.

Commercial kitchen appliances operate at temperatures well above those commonly encountered in the consumer market, and have duty demands that can keep them in continuous operation 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The continuous heat produced during service accelerates reactions of the minerals and other elements in the water that cause scaling and other problems. With the need for top-notch performance and minimal downtime, water related breakdowns and component failures are bad for business. In the highly competitive foodservice industry, there are few businesses that can afford repeated equipment breakdowns and frequent maintenance sessions.

Equipment manufacturers have been faced with increasing design challenges due to increasing reliability demands in the foodservice arena. Materials of construction have a profound impact on the tendency of equipment to experience scale buildup or corrosion. The equipment designer must weigh many factors—formability, machinability, corrosion resistance, surface properties, cost, availability, etc., and arrive at the optimal material for a particular component’s function. When it comes to water quality issues, materials of construction must be considered as a first line of defense.

Fortunately, foodservice equipment manufacturers are required to abide by strict NSF standards regulating the materials of construction (see The standards were created with sanitation and safety in mind.

Sounding the call to arms
Foodservice equipment owners should face the fact that corrosives and scalants are potential adversaries. To obtain optimal cleanability and corrosion resistance, properly treated water must be provided. Water treatment companies and foodservice equipment manufacturers should join forces, providing a united front. Manufacturers of foodservice equipment need to alert customers to the possible ill effects of poor water quality. Water treatment manufacturers need to learn the requirements of food service equipment and then sound the trumpet in advance of equipment specification. Unfortunately, even large, well-established water treatment companies don’t always understand the temperature, flow rate, pressure and plumbing requirements of large commercial kitchen appliances. Through technology partnering, the foodservice manufacturer and water treatment professional can offer the customer a jointly designed full system solution. The efficiencies gained by this type of unified approach would benefit the foodservice customer, the commercial appliance manufacturer and the water treatment industry.

A war on “out of balance” water could dramatically improve equipment up time and increase productivity. The best defense against equipment attack is to make sure customers are armed with knowledge about optimal water quality for commercial kitchen appliances. The primary barrier to overcome is explaining to the customer that water that’s safe to drink and aesthetically pleasing isn’t necessarily ideal for the operation of water-fed equipment. End-users need to inquire of manufacturers about specific water requirements and treatment recommendations. The battle begins here.

Plan of attack
So what’s the “best” type of water for water-fed foodservice equipment?
As a start, some basic guidelines and recommendations are listed below:

Can customers really expect water treatment professionals to produce “designer water” for their needs? With today’s technology, the answer is yes. While conventional ion exchange softening has been used in foodservice for years, a large number of operations still exist that don’t now soften or otherwise treat their water. Even the consumer market seems to be light years ahead as evidenced by the advent of under-counter, countertop or end-of-faucet devices and pour-through filter pitchers.”

Declaring victory
There are caveats to be respected (see Figure 5), but success stories can be found when all parties involved work together to achieve the proper balance necessary for years of trouble free equipment operation. Among options are:

Polyphosphate feeders, such as HydroBlend and ScaleStick, which combat both scale and corrosion, are a boon to the industry, particularly because they operate well in the range of 180°F necessary for proper sanitation. Elegant in their simplicity, these devices require no special expertise, are easy to install and maintain. They are small, compact, and uncomplicated.

RO is beginning to show up more frequently in the foodservice water treatment market due to better membrane technology, smaller footprint designs and more awareness of its unique capabilities. In addition, the desire for “spot free” glassware is on the rise. Large chains with a high commitment to quality are pursuing excellence in this area by addressing water conditions in the warewashing area. Quality control is getting a bigger voice in operations management, as foodservice patrons have become more quality conscious and less hesitant to send back the spotty glass.

Again, ion exchange has long been familiar to the foodservice industry. Softening is a viable option for scale control and improving system longevity. And using portable exchange deionization (PEDI) tanks can offer similar spot-free results. While this last option leaves foodservice operators without the burden of ownership, however, it can be more expensive in the long run.

While variability of water supplies will keep the battle fueled, cooperation between foodservice establishments, foodservice equipment manufacturers and water treatment professionals will promote education, savings and operational excellence. Each collaboration that results in solving a water related problem can be declared a victory. Hopefully, continued successes will advance the art of water treatment design for the foodservice industry to the point where it becomes as integral to the specification process as the question: “What voltage do you need?”

About the author
Rita Daugherty is a private consultant in Coldwater, Ohio. Daugherty earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Dayton in Ohio. Until recently, she was a foodservice quality engineer with Hobart Corp.’s Technology Center in Troy, Ohio. Hobart can be reached at (800) 960-1190, (937) 332-2624 (fax), email: h[email protected] or website:



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