Patrick White 0000-00-00 00:00:00
<b>Pundits suggest that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” </b> This common saying references units of measurement that school nutrition professionals should be well acquainted with. But how well do you follow that wisdom—attributed to Ben Franklin—in your own school kitchen? There’s ample reason to take this advice to heart. Preventive maintenance, or PM, say the experts, is essential to keeping equipment running properly, efficiently and for the long haul. Most school nutrition operations today run lean. Even with higher reimbursable meal participation rates driven by a sluggish economy that has increased the number of free/reduced-price applications in many communities, the costs of food, fuel and other meal program expenses also are going up. There’s not a lot of “extra” revenue to earmark for equipment repair and replacement. Nor can a school nutrition operation afford to lose even the temporary service of an essential piece of equipment while waiting on a repair. You need to do whatever you can to maximize the productive life of your tools of the school nutrition trade. Don’t take your PM responsibilities lightly. <b>Keeping Steam Supreme </b> John Craft is an equipment technician with Norfolk Public Schools in Virginia, and he supervises the maintenance of all non-refrigerated kitchen equipment in the district’s 50 schools. The numberone maintenance item? Steamers. “That’s the one area where preventive maintenance is probably the most important,” he explains. “Because they boil water, which turns into steam, there is a buildup that requires de-liming or de-scaling the steamers.” And the local water conditions—how much sediment and minerals are in the water—can have a big impact on how much cleaning and PM is required, he adds. Newer boilerless convection steamers, which aren’t plumbed to a water source, demand fewer preventive maintenance visits, Craft reports. To keep these units running smoothly, the staff in the kitchen can simply add a vinegar-water mix at designated intervals, let it sit for 30 minutes and then drain. “Basically the kitchen staff is doing what I would have to come in and do on a boiler steamer,” he explains. New features make even traditional-style steamers easier to maintain today. For example, Craft notes that many steamers include built-in systems that alert operators to appropriate cleaning intervals. That means after, say, 200 hours of use, an indicator light will tell users that the steamer needs to be de-scaled. Nonetheless, Craft says he usually tries to go “a step beyond” the manufacturer’s recommendations for PM. “If we have a steamer that’s down for repairs, I’ll go to find out what’s wrong. At the same time it’s being repaired, I’ll go ahead and de-scale it, even though it may not be due at that time. I’m already there and working on it, so I’ll just move the interval up.” <b>Prevention Is Primary </b> Preventive maintenance is not just about following the manufacturer’s guidance of steps to keep equipment functioning at peak performance. It’s also about staying aware of potential problems. That’s why Craft takes advantage of repair opportunities to examine the entire piece of equipment, not simply the component that is malfunctioning. “If there’s a switch broken on a warmer, for example, when I replace that switch, I’ll also look over that entire piece of equipment at that time,” says Craft. There are two reasons to do this kind of PM, he explains. The first is for the sake of efficiency: The technician is already there and working on the equipment. But the second is about preventing future problems: Examining the entire piece of equipment might help to explain why one component of it failed. “Maybe I’ll see wiring that is crumbling; maybe that’s what shorted the switch out,” Craft continues. “In other words, we don’t just look to fix what is broken, we’ll also project what might be causing the problem or what might fail next.” <b>Inside Job?</b> This availability to take such a thorough approach with equipment is one advantage of a school nutrition department that can afford to employ its own internal maintenance staff. “If you call in an outside [repair] company to fix an oven, they’ll fix that problem. But they probably won’t look down the road,” Craft asserts. Even if an independent technician spots a potential problem, he or she might fail to bring it to the attention of department staff for a host of different reasons. It might be an assumption that the department won’t want to pay additional repair costs. Or, more cynically, the potential problem might be seen as additional income in the form of a future repair call. For an inhouse team, however, “We look at it like, ‘If I fix it today, that’s a service call I’m not going to get three weeks from now,’” explains Craft. “And that increases efficiency, because it means that equipment is going to be in service three weeks from now, rather than down again for repair.” Of course, many smaller districts may not have the funds—or the need—for their own dedicated kitchen equipment repair staff. In those instances, searching out a trustworthy vendor to handle the job is the next best alternative. At Brandon Valley School District in Brandon, S.D., Child Nutrition Director Gay Anderson has great enthusiasm for the honest and productive relationship she has with one local vendor. “He is the kind of person who will not sell me something if it is questionable…we talk about the advantages and disadvantages of repairing or replacing equipment,” she says of Tom VandeVoort with Institutions Services, a Sioux Falls-based restaurant supplies and equipment dealer. “He has built his reputation with schools through a very honest approach and is very straightforward if he knows of something we should do for preventive maintenance.” <b>Company for the Maytag Repairman?</b> VandeVoort, a kitchen designer, specifies equipment for foodservice kitchens and boasts experience and expertise that has given him a keen sense of some of the critical maintenance needs of different pieces of equipment. He says that schools typically are “far, far better” than most other foodservice segments at keeping up with PM. “The people who run school kitchens typically take great pride in keeping [equipment] clean,” he credits, also noting that there is less K-12 staff turnover than in commercial foodservice, which means the school team has a solid understanding, based on long experience with the equipment. VandeVoort finds that some PM is made easier in schools, because they usually don’t have the type of grease build-up found in many commercial foodservice kitchens. “Typically, school kitchens aren’t as greasy. So, for example, you don’t get the grease build-up [that occurs] on the condensing coils [of refrigeration equipment]; it’s mostly just dust,” he explains. Still, says VandeVoort, cleaning the condensing units is a “very frequently” overlooked PM item in schools, and one that can lead to huge repair and replacement costs if motors burn out. “What happens is that the unit runs more, because it is working harder, and the compressor is only built to last so long. If it runs 30% more just because the condenser is dirty, that’s less life you get out of the unit,” he explains. Failing to perform this basic PM function also can lead to greater energy use, because the compressor is less efficient and running so much, further driving up the costs. There are some basic PM steps that any school nutrition operation—even one without staff technicians—can take to ensure their equipment works well and long. “At the beginning of every school year, you [should] have all of the condensing units on any piece of refrigeration equipment cleaned—blow them out—and make sure the fans are working inside the condensing units,” advises VandeVoort. He explains that this type of PM doesn’t require a high degree of technical knowledge. “It’s actually pretty easy—it’s common sense stuff. The condensing units are located either down low or up high. If you can take a screw driver and remove the cover, you can vacuum it out. Then turn the fan on and make sure you have good air movement over the coils.” Kitchen staff also can check the filters on ice machines and clean out the inside of the ice machines to prevent build up of calcium and other materials. Just keeping up with basic cleaning is often preventive maintenance by itself, stresses VandeVoort. <b>Cold, Hard Truths</b> Not all PM on refrigeration equipment will be quite so simple to conduct and track. Indeed, refrigeration can be one of the most complex—and important—areas of PM in a foodservice kitchen. “Here in Florida, our biggest push for preventive maintenance is with refrigeration,” reports Dan Reese, who heads the school nutrition maintenance department at Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa, Fla. “With the heat and humidity down here, it’s just imperative that our refrigeration is at peak working conditions all of the time.” Reese explains that all refrigerated equipment in the district is put on a preventive maintenance schedule; the work is performed by two outside refrigeration vendors, and Reese watches carefully to ensure that maintenance steps are carried out. “Every day, they are visiting sites doing preventive maintenance. When they go into a kitchen, they’re doing preventive maintenance on anything and everything [that features] refrigeration: walk-in coolers, milk boxes, frost-top or cold-pan units on the serving lines, ice machines, reach-ins, you name it.” “In school kitchens, you should have a certified refrigeration specialist come out at least once every two years,” recommends VandeVoort from Institutions Services. For walk-in refrigerators, he recommends regular checks of the sight-glass on the refrigeration lines to be sure the fluid is at the correct level and that there are no air bubbles present. This helps ensure that the equipment is operating at peak efficiency, he states. Dan Reese agrees. “We clean coils, change out the filters and make sure there are proper pressures in the compressors,” he says. “We try to have our vendors touch every kitchen every four months, but no less than twice per year.” Norfolk’s school nutrition operation is fortunate to have its own refrigeration maintenance team, headed by Stanley Riddick, who, with the assistance of one staff member, oversees the maintenance of a wide range of equipment. They handle everything from milk coolers and small countertop refrigerators to walk-in refrigerators and freezers—even large warehouse-size refrigerators and freezers. Regardless of the size of the refrigeration equipment, it’s important to take a very thorough approach, Riddick asserts. He begins by following the manufacturer’s recommended schedule (or at least every six months) for PM, while also accounting for environmental factors, such as kitchen location. For example, a kitchen in a building beside a highway or located in some other high-traffic or dusty area may require more frequent PM, because the condensers can become dirty more quickly. Beyond cleaning the condensers, Riddick says he also checks electrical connections. “A lot of problems with refrigeration are actually electrical,” he explains. “We check to make sure that connections are tight and that there is no worn insulation or damaged wires.” He also looks for evidence of discoloration around connections (which can be a sign of excessive heat) and checks relays. “We check our safety controls and high-pressure switch, to make sure they are functioning properly—this shuts the unit off automatically if it begins to overheat,” Riddick explains. Temperature controls are verified for accuracy, and the oil levels in compressors are checked. As a general rule, the sight glass should be about half-full of oil, he states. Finally, he checks the crank case heater, which separates the refrigerant and oil, as well as the defrost controls, refrigerant levels, the refrigerant lines and insulation. This type of technical maintenance is undeniably time-consuming, and it requires the skills of a trained technician, but Riddick says it’s well worth the investment. Without these types of regular checks, refrigeration equipment can run inefficiently, with longer run cycles and a short life for the equipment. “You would also see higher expenses in repair costs,” he says of scenarios when PM is not done regularly. <b>Keeping up With PM</b> With all of the day-to-day demands of school nutrition, and the number of sites in any medium- to large-size school district, it can be easy to let routine preventive maintenance tasks slide. So it helps to create a schedule to keep on top of this never-ending job. At Norfolk Public Schools, John Craft schedules PM based on the type of equipment (rather than by kitchen or serving site), and each type of equipment has its own interval. For example, he will schedule site visits to each school to service steamers on a set interval. That said, Craft adds that there usually is time that can be built into each visit to look around the kitchen at other equipment, as well. “If I’m there to do preventive maintenance on a steamer, I’ll need to let the cleaning chemicals set for a couple hours. If it’s not during a time when they’re using the kitchen, I’ll give the kitchen a once-over and do things like grease drawer slides,” he explains. Craft typically schedules PM visits for afternoons, after lunch has been prepared and served. If there is a reason the PM must be conducted earlier in the day, he works with the manager in that kitchen to schedule a day when the menu composition means a particular piece of equipment might not be in use. According to Craft, one way to expedite preventive maintenance is to standardize the equipment that is procured throughout the district. There are four to five major brands used in Norfolk’s school kitchens, he estimates. This reduces the number of parts that need to be stocked and ensures that technicians are very familiar with a particular piece of equipment when they go to perform PM on it. Another way to reduce the burden of preventive maintenance is to purchase equipment that boasts a simple, straightforward operating design, Craft advises. “My recommendation to anyone buying foodservice equipment for a school system is to keep it simple, simple, simple,” he states. Not only do many of the additional high-tech features go unused in a school nutrition setting, he asserts, but they also can increase maintenance costs and the complexity of repairs. With the exception of refrigeration, preventive maintenance on all other kitchen equipment is handled inhouse at Hillsborough County Public Schools. Dan Reese leads a staff of seven that service some 215 sites. At the eighth-largest district in the country, there’s plenty of equipment to keep working properly! In contrast to Norfolk’s approach, in Hillsborough, PM is scheduled by site, with a team showing up to go through all of the equipment in a given school kitchen at one time. “We try to go to all the school sites at least two or three times a year. We’ll clean boilers, clean out the combi ovens, oil the bearings in motors, check the clearances with fan blades,” details Reese. Small equipment also gets the once-over from Reese and his team. For example, slicers are cleaned and sharpened. This ensures that they produce a proper yield (without waste from tear and rippage) and improves worker efficiency. While no one knows the equipment in a kitchen better than the staff using it every day, the slow rate of deterioration can make it hard for prep staff to observe incremental losses of function. But Reese reports that after a PM visit to fine-tune the performance of different equipment, most kitchen staff tend to notice the improvement instantly! “If there’s one thing that any school system should put on a preventive maintenance schedule, it’s calibrating oven temperatures,” says Reese adamantly. “It doesn’t matter what kind of oven it is, temperature calibration is critical.” He explains that the accuracy of temperature settings tends to deteriorate over time, leading kitchen staff to compensate by either increasing the temperature setting or adjusting cooking times. Holding cabinet temperature calibration is equally important, adds Reese: “If it’s too cold, you’re going to run into problems with HACCP and the health department. If it’s too hot, you’re going to run into problems with the quality of the food.” Reese believes that, for the most part, manufacturer recommendations for PM should be followed. “But sometimes they might be a little bit of over-kill,” he concedes. “Sometimes, it will say that a piece of equipment needs to be adjusted once a month. Well, if a piece of large kitchen equipment needs to be adjusted once a month, it’s probably going to be off of my equipment bid, because I don’t have the luxury of spending that much time on it!” Reese is a big fan of PM recordkeeping—to know when to schedule the next maintenance visit, as well as to identify any brands/models/types of equipment that appear to be requiring an unusually high amount of maintenance work. With so much equipment to maintain in a large district, such records are especially important. “I would say that every day probably 10 sites [in our district] are going to be visited for preventive maintenance,” he estimates. To help work around the scheduled tasks of kitchen staff, the maintenance technicians often will begin doing their PM steps on the serving line equipment, while cooking is going on in the kitchen, and then move to the back of the house once cooking is complete and serving begins. “We really try to schedule the maintenance around what the folks in the kitchen are doing at the time,” Reese explains. <b>Time to Call It Quits?</b> Sometimes, all the PM in the world isn’t enough to keep a piece of equipment running the way it should. In those cases, it may be a better investment to purchase a new model than to keep continually tinkering with an older one. “That’s the million-dollar question,” asserts Tom VandeVoort, of the difficulty in knowing when to throw in the towel on kitchen equipment. “People used to say that if you made it to 12 years, you were living on borrowed time. But it really depends on the type of equipment. A dishwasher typically will last 12 years, but you can do better than that on, say, a six-burner range.” Any appliance that has water going through it—especially hard water—must be watched more carefully, he adds. And no matter the type of equipment, preventive maintenance can help ensure that it works better and lasts longer. The school nutrition team in Norfolk uses plans projecting out 10 years to help predict the life-span of its kitchen equipment. Of course, some pieces make it longer than expected, while other units need to be taken out of service earlier than anticipated, usually based on maintenance concerns. “If a piece of equipment needs a repair that would cost about 60% of what we could buy a new model for, then it’s time to start looking at replacing it,” calculates John Craft. Purchasing a newer unit might reduce the amount of PM required, and it also will carry a warranty to cover any repairs for a year or two, he reports. In Hillsborough County, Dan Reese observes that PM can be particularly effective at extending the life of equipment in school kitchens. “Restaurants, particularly national chains, can tear up a piece of kitchen equipment in just two or three years. In schools, we use the equipment only about one-third of the days and only one-third of the hours per day,” explains Reese, who has begun asking manufacturers to extend the timeframe of warranties on new equipment based on the comparatively little use they get in comparison to other foodservice segments. “And our employees in the schools really take care of the equipment,” he adds. “They don’t slam doors, they’re gentle with the equipment and they clean it much better than they do in restaurants.” <b>No Maintain? No Gain!</b> Whether it’s cleaning, adjusting or just generally caring for all the different pieces of equipment you rely on in your school nutrition kitchen, the time invested in this kind of preventive maintenance will pay off. It will allow you to keep doing what you do best: serving students healthy, delicious, high-quality meals.
Published by School Nutrition Association. View All Articles.