Repair or Buy: How to Get the Most Life Out of Your Commercial Kitchen Equipment

By Shayne Varnum, Director of Consultant Services at Hobart-Traulsen-Baxter

Deciding when to fix or replace a piece of kitchen equipment can be stressful. How much will it cost? Is it in the budget? Who do we use to fix it? Can we make do without it? How or where do I purchase a new one? I suspect you have asked yourself some of those questions over the course of your career.

The average life of a commercial piece of equipment is highly dependent on three key factors: employee training, daily operation and care, and regular preventative maintenance. In this article, we will look at two very important pieces of equipment: dishwashers and refrigerators/freezers.

Dishwasher Maintenance

Turnover in the dish room is typically the highest of any position in foodservice establishments. Employee training is critical to ensure that the dishwasher is operated and maintained in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommended operating procedures. 

Daily cleaning and maintenance of the machine will extend the life of a dishwasher. Regular cleaning of key items such as sump heaters, floats, and actuators will prevent buildup of food soil and lime scale, which may improve efficiency and life of critical components. Operators that inspect the wash arms, strainers, and baskets can also identify bent or broken parts that can be replaced before a larger issue causes machine downtime. Water quality to the dish machine should also be considered and, in most cases, a water softener is recommended to prevent lime scale buildup. This will help prevent the dishwasher going down on Mother’s Day!

Regular preventative maintenance (PM) programs are recommended on commercial dishwashers to replace wear parts. PM programs typically will replace o-rings, curtains and, in some cases, pump seals to prevent breakdowns at inopportune times. A regular PM program will also identify opportunities to replace or repair parts that are not broken but require immediate attention to prevent a future breakdown. For example, a damaged strainer basket will not prevent the machine from operating, but may allow a utensil to be ingested by the wash pump, causing a significant expense. These PM’s can also be scheduled at a convenient time and not during a busy meal period because it is “down.”

When considering machine replacement, the facility should consider a couple of key factors. Most manufacturers offer new technology in machines that offer significant operating energy and labor savings over machines that are 8-10 years old. Depending on the hours of operation, a new machine can pay for itself in two years or less.  The yearly service costs for a machine should also be considered when looking at a replacement in addition to the downtime of the machine.

Refrigerator/Freezer Maintenance

Deciding whether to repair a broken commercial refrigerator/freezer or buy a new one often feels like an expensive guess. In the case of commercial refrigerators, they either stop working altogether or work poorly. If you don’t keep temperatures within the safe zone, it can lead to indirect expenses such as waste of produce and customer safety. As you know, it also happens when the health inspector walks into your kitchen!

So, when a commercial refrigerator breaks down, here’s what you need to consider:

If your product is under manufacturer’s warranty, you’ll need to use a factory-authorized repair servicer or risk voiding the warranty. Warranty period and coverage vary by manufacturer, so reading the fine print is of the essence. When products aren’t covered by a warranty, calling a trained servicer that is well-versed in servicing your equipment is needed. A good rule of thumb would be:

  • Don’t spend more than 50 percent of the cost of a new commercial refrigerator in repairing an old one
  • If your refrigerator is over 10 years old and has already broken down twice over the past 90 days, replacement may make more sense

The best way to prevent a repair is to take the following steps:

  1. On a monthly basis, check whether the condenser coil needs cleaning.
  2. Make sure airflow is properly being circulated in your refrigeration unit. Double-checking that there are no obstructions in the way of air circulation will ensure the prevention of food loss and unnecessary repairs.
  3. On a monthly basis, clean gaskets and make sure to always replace loose, torn, or cracked gaskets.
  4. Always inspect shelves and interiors for cracks, and wash shelves on a regular basis so that spills don’t cause cross-contamination, resulting in food waste.

Maintaining food quality is vital to a smooth kitchen operation. A refrigerator that is properly cared for will last longer, keep food fresh, reduce food loss and expense, ensure food safety, and keep prep lines running smoothly.

It is always a good idea to contact the manufacturer early in the process to help you identify your best plan. They can help suggest service companies in your area. You will also be able to get competitive bids, comparing apples to apples. I would recommend getting as many of the decision makers around the table as possible to help determine whether to continue servicing an existing piece of equipment or purchasing a new one. Planning out the lifecycle of an important piece of equipment will be easier if you have budgeted for what works best for you or your facility.