Ice Machine Basics

With the abundance of manufacturers and models of ice machines, choosing the best machine for your particular situation can seem like a difficult task.  Ice machines are found in a variety of settings, but commercial ice machines are used predominantly in the food service industries, in restaurants & bars, hospitals & nursing homes, supermarkets and convenience stores.

Ice making systems essentially start with an exterior water supply that provides water, a refrigeration system that forms the ice, and a collection bin for storing the ice.

How Ice Machines Work

Water comes in from an exterior supply line and is fed by a pump into a refrigerated ice tray.  The water freezes one thin layer at a time, eliminating gases and microscopic bubbles that can make ice appear cloudy white like in your ice cube tray in your home freezer.  The cubes or other ice shapes form as more water is poured onto the tray.

When the ice shapes are fully formed, a heating coil loosens the ice from the tray so they can fall into the collection bin.  An internal switch or sensor will prevent the ice machine from producing more ice than the collection bin can hold.

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Cubers and Flakers

Cubers are the most common ice machine type.  They create ice in a variety of cube shapes.  Many manufacturers have their own style of cube and other square, rectangular, or even cylinder shapes.  Cuber ice machines are popular in sit down and fast food restaurants, hotels, and convenience stores.

Flakers take the ice harvested from the ice tray and crush it into small pieces or flakes.  Some manufacturers have patented unique auger type evaporator cylinders that freeze the water and force it through an extruder at the top as flake ice. This makes the ice easy to pack.  Thus flakers are chosen by supermarkets to display fresh seafood and meats and by restaurants on salad bars.  Hospitals and other health care facilities also commonly use flakers.

Ice Machine Units

There are three basic physical forms that your ice machine hardware can have: modular ice machines with add-on ice storage bins, self-contained ice machines, and under counter ice machines.

Modular ice machines come in a large variety of physical sizes and ice production rates.  The ice collection and storage bin is a separate unit, also available in a variety of storage capacities.  Usually the ice machine is stackable and placed on top of the ice bin, creating the look of a single piece of equipment but allowing for maintenance or upgrade of each unit separately.

Self-contained ice machines actually include the icemaker and the ice collection bin within the same cabinet, creating a true single unit.  While taking up less physical space, ice production and storage capacity will also be lower than that of the modular units.  Self-contained ice machines are available in a variety of sizes and capacities and are a viable option when space in your facility is a concern.

Under counter ice machines are similar to self-contained machines since they place the system within a single cabinet.  However, under counter machines are short enough to be installed under the counter.  They have lower ice production rates and storage capacities than the larger self-contained units, but their compact design makes them ideal for smaller spaces.

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Water-cooled and Air-cooled

The coolant system that cools the ice tray and the heating coils can be a water-cooled or an air-cooled system.  In most water-cooled systems, the water used to cool the machine is used once and then sent out a drain.  This is called a once-through system.  This method of cooling keeps the heat from being vented into your facility and keeps air-conditioning costs down.  However, this uses a large volume of water and can be expensive in states and cities that have high water costs.  Some cities have banned water-cooled systems altogether because of water shortages and the environmental impact.  They offer rebates for installing air-cooled ice machines.  Check with your city or local utility company regarding bans or rebates.

Air-cooled systems use much less water and have a smaller impact on the environment.  The heat from the ice machine’s heating coils is released into your facility through the air discharge vents, but the increase in air-conditioning costs will be less than the water costs in a water-cooled system.

Generally, water-cooled machines use an extra 100 gallons or more of water per 100 lbs. of ice produced, compared to air-cooled machines of the same size.  Water-cooled machines use less electricity.   Electrical costs will likely be offset by increase in wastewater and water supply utility costs.

As a point of interest, environmental agencies such as ENERGY STAR will not put their seal on any water-cooled machines despite the electrical energy saved.  In the current business culture of “going green”, water-cooled systems will likely continue to be banned increasingly in more locations.

Where should I install my ice machine?

If possible install your ice machine where temperatures do not fall below 50˚ F and do not rise above 100˚ F.  Place them as far from ovens and other heat sources as physically possible.  Ice production rates will decrease as surrounding air temperature increases.

Make sure that the ice machine will fit into the space you have planned for it, including getting into the facility through doors, etc.  Also, be certain to allow for clearance around the ice machine as needed for air intake and discharge and also to allow for easier cleaning or maintenance.  See the individual manufacturer’s specification sheet for location of the machine’s intake and discharge.

Determine ahead of time where your electrical, water and drain connections are so that your ice machine will hook up with ease.  Leave enough space for your water filtration system if you will be including it.  Be certain your facility’s electrical system meets the model’s specifications and that there is a separate circuit, fuse and/or breaker for each machine.

Also pay attention to foot traffic through the space.  Are there going to be other kitchen activities in close proximity?  Plan ahead.

Lastly, be sure to keep the ice machine as far from dough preparation as possible.  Yeast floating in the space will contaminate ice machine and storage bins since it grows in moist dark environments.  Be prepared to keep a strict ice machine cleaning schedule.