Ice bins vs. cold wells: Navigating energy efficiency in the modern kitchen

Increasing profits isn’t just about taking in more money — it’s about having more to keep once expenses have been paid. And when it comes to restaurants, energy is one of the biggest expenses.

From the heating and cooling system that keeps your guests comfortable to the electric appliances that support your kitchen, your operation likely uses five to seven times more energy per square foot than other commercial buildings. It can even be up to 10 times more if you’re running a high-volume, quick service restaurant (QSR).

Chilling out

The biggest energy drain on your operation is refrigeration. Foods need to be kept at safe temperatures to prevent the growth of dangerous bacteria, but constantly opening and closing your walk-in raises the internal temperature of the unit, making the motor work harder to reach its set point.

Taking quantities of frequently needed foods out of the walk-in and keeping them close to the stations where they’ll be needed means higher energy savings. It also increases operational efficiency by saving time operators would otherwise spend getting things out of the walk-in.

Two popular ways to safely keep foods at safe temperatures outside your walk-in are ice bins and cold wells.

Why use cold wells?

Cold wells are open refrigerated containers used to keep foods fresh for extended periods of time. They’re often seen in buffet lines and other places, where keeping foods cold and easy to get to is important.

While cold wells do a great job where food accessibility and merchandizing is important, they’re not as helpful in conserving energy. As refrigerated appliances, cold wells are dependent on electricity, constantly running to maintain their set temperatures.

In addition to the ongoing utility costs, they also have the same maintenance requirements as other refrigerators and always have the possibility of failure.

Ice cold savings

Ice bins, on the other hand, are a simple and easy alternative. They may not have the same customer-facing appeal of cold wells, but aesthetics aren’t a factor in back of house, and usefulness is a far more valuable trait. Unlike cold pans, they don’t require any electricity, making ice bins the clear winner in energy savings. Ice bins reduce the number of electrical appliances in use and provide a more sustainable solution.

A renowned fried chicken QSR took a bold step to enhance energy efficiency. Faced with the challenge of reducing energy consumption, they opted for a unique solution. The restaurant replaced all refrigerated open-top prep units with custom ice bath carts. This strategic move not only lowered energy consumption but also streamlined operational efficiency.

Materials matter

All ice baths are not created equal, though. Materials matter. If you want to maximize efficiency and make your ice last as long as possible, ice bins made of double-walled stainless steel, such as AyrKing’s food ice bins and ice bin carts, are the way to go. Compared with containers that use stainless steel on the inside and galvanized steel on the outside, the double-walled ice bins are superior insulators, keeping your food colder for a longer time, saving time and labor for your operators.

The right solution in the right place

True efficiency involves a variety of factors that balance the type of equipment with your operators’ optimal workflow.

In order to optimize energy-saving benefits, ice bins should be placed far enough from heat-producing equipment that the temperature difference of each piece of equipment does not adversely affect the other.

This is also true of refrigerated units. If refrigerators are placed close to heat sources, the temperature increases proportionally every time operators open the door, and their motors will be forced to work harder to reach set temperatures.

Ideally, cold items should be kept away from heat-producing equipment. If this isn’t possible, you will need to choose between the increased labor of frequent ice changes with ice bins or the increased electricity costs with electric cold wells.

Another QSR experimented with a food ice bath cart but faced challenges due to its proximity to a fryer. The cart required frequent icing, leading to potential labor inefficiencies. In a strategic decision, the restaurant opted for an electric station, prioritizing electricity expenses over potential operational hurdles. This choice underscores the importance of aligning energy-saving measures with operational workflow.

Cost of ownership

In addition to the equipment price points, if you’re trying to decide which cold storage option is best for you, you also need to consider the cost of using and maintaining your solutions.

Electric cold wells have ongoing operational costs. They need power to keep cool and have internal motors that need periodic maintenance and replacement. And if your kitchen has flour in the air that can get pulled into refrigeration fans, you may end up making more maintenance calls than you expect.

Ice bins are much simpler. AyrKing’s food ice bins and ice bin carts, for example, have a double wall of easy-to-clean, commercial-grade stainless steel with foam insulation in between. The carts also include a heavy-duty drain to easily empty melted ice. Because clean-up is a snap and there are no moving parts that require maintenance, the ongoing cost of using ice bins is next to nothing.

Saving space

Ice bins are the hands down winner when it comes to saving space in the kitchen. AyrKing’s ice bins, for example, can be paired with an automated Blender Breader Sifter (BBS) to add additional cold storage space without adding to the equipment footprint.

And the convenient casters on AyrKing’s ice bin carts make it easy to move them wherever you need in your kitchen.

Choosing the right ice bin for your operation

Your foodservice operation has unique needs based on factors, such as your operating procedures, available space and workflow. When you think about what ice bin is right for you, consider what would help you most.

Do you need to fit a single pan for a major ingredient? Or do you need two, three or four pans for optimal performance? Do you want to pair your ice bath with a BBS? Or would an ice bath cart provide you with much-needed flexibility?

You could also get the best of both worlds by purchasing small, refrigerated units and using ice bins for backup storage.

So which is better — ice bins or cold wells?

With no motors that need power to run and can break down at peak service times, ice bins are the more sustainable, reliable and cost-effective option. But the best solution is always the one that fits your unique needs and helps boost your operation’s performance.

Explore AyrKing’s cold storage solutions.

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