Commercial Ice Machine Cleaning and Maintenance

Steps to cleaning a commercial ice machine

Has your commercial ice maker been acting up? Strange odors or tastes, cubes or nuggets that are smaller than they should be, cloudy-looking ice; these are signs that your ice machine could really use a good cleaning. A dirty ice machine will also run inefficiently, produce less ice, and waste energy. Even worse, the buildup of tiny lifeforms on the inside of your ice maker can make your patrons sick.

Customers have become serious about the cleanliness of their ice, asking, with a straight face, whether restaurant ice is any cleaner than toilet water. To put your customers’ minds at ease and avoid a maintenance nightmare, it’s best to establish a regular cleaning and maintenance routine and keep your machine in top shape, rather than wait till disaster strikes before you take action.

There are a couple of factors that contribute to a filthy ice machine. Each has different causes, and different but equally simple solutions.

Install an Ice Machine Filter

The first factor that can foul your ice machine comes from the ground. Hard water contains dissolved minerals, naturally-occurring compounds like calcium carbonate, which are dissolved into water as it flows through the ground. These deposits are harmless to human health, but ice with too many dissolved solids also comes out cloudy and soft, instead of in the hard, crystal clear cubes that customers expect.

When these deposits are left behind on equipment, it forms a hard, chalky residue known as limescale which can wreak havoc on your ice machine. Left unaddressed, limescale will reduce the efficiency of your machine, making it run harder and longer than it should to produce a batch of ice. Eventually, limescale can do permanent damage to your equipment, destroy components, and require costly service calls or a full replacement of your machine.

The first step toward alleviating the effects of impure water is a preventive one: the installation of a water filter. Using a combination of methods, filters will trap many common impurities in water, including dissolved minerals, and can neutralize the ‘chlorine’ taste of treated tap water. Filtered water can help increase the production volume of ice because ice machines can make ice more quickly with pure water.

Filters are rated according to the number of gallons of water they can treat before needing to be replaced. They’re also sized by the volume of water they can treat per hour, so the right one will depend on the production volume of your ice maker. Failure to use a filter or using the wrong one can void the warranty of your machine, so be sure to follow the manufacturer’s guidelines when it comes to choosing one. Ironically, an ice machine filter can promote the growth of organisms in your ice machine because they remove chlorine, which is used to sanitize water.

Cleaning and Sanitizing your Machine

Organic substances like mold, mildew, fungus, algae and bacteria cause problems in your commercial ice machine. Those little troublemakers all like to collect in the dark, moist environment inside. Aside from being an eyesore, these organisms can get into ice, affect the taste, and some can potentially cause sickness. Your ice machine should be cleaned and sanitized regularly to avoid these problems. Cleaning and sanitizing are actually two separate but related functions. Cleaner will remove the buildup of limescale and other deposits from impure water. Sanitizer is designed to eliminate organisms like algae, slime, and bacteria.

Most manufacturers suggest cleaning your machine at least once every six months, but you should perform a visual inspection every few weeks to make sure everything looks OK. Varied water conditions and environmental factors can necessitate cleaning more frequently. If you find yourself having to clean your machine more frequently than every 6 months, you should consult a service professional. You may have worse-than-normal water quality issues that should be addressed.

Cleaning and sanitizing procedures vary by manufacturer, and no two are identical. Review your use and care manual or the manufacturer’s website for step-by-step directions for the process. Some manufacturers print the instructions on the inside covers of their machines.

The process is typically the same for both procedures. The majority of ice makers have a ‘Clean’ button that puts the machine into a state where water continues to circulate, but the evaporator plate does not freeze to create ice. The operator typically adds cleaner or descaler first and lets that solution circulate for several minutes. Then, the system is purged of the cleaning solution and the procedure is repeated with sanitizer.

At some point in the process, the operator will remove parts like the water distribution tube, evaporator cover, and certain tubes for a manual deep cleaning that sometimes involves soaking those components in a cleaning solution. This is to remove stubborn, built-up deposits.

Allow yourself plenty of time to perform the procedure, ideally a couple of hours after your restaurant is closed for the night so that the machine will have time to replenish its supply of ice by the morning. The first couple of batches of ice produced after a cleaning and sanitizing are not safe to serve and must be discarded, so make sure someone will be present to handle that step.

Auto-cleaning features are becoming more common on commercial ice machines. These eliminate much of the day-to-day labor of keeping your machine clean. Most require that the operator simply top off the cleaning solution reservoir, and select ‘Clean’ on the unit’s control panel. Sometimes these cleaning systems come as an accessory that must be installed separately, while others are built in.

Precautionary Measures

Use caution when handling ice machine cleaning and sanitizing solutions. They often contain strong chemicals like citric and phosphoric acid to break down lime scale and destroy pathogens, so they are also harmful to the skin and eyes. Wear rubber gloves and safety goggles. A rubber apron can also come in handy to protect your clothes.

Most cleaners come in a heavily-concentrated form, and they must be diluted with water before used in the machine. Failure to do so can damage the components of the machine. Using the wrong chemical or failing to dilute it properly can also void the manufacturer’s warranty.

Cleaning the Rest of Your Ice Machine

It isn’t just the wet areas of the ice machine that need cleaning. Dust and grease from the air can get inside the machine and affect its performance as well. Ice machines all include air filters to trap dust and debris before they enter the machine. Check your air filter once a month for dust and grease. Some are reusable, so they can simply be rinsed clean, and replaced. Others must be disposed of and replaced periodically.

Dust that makes it through to the inside of the machine should be cleaned out periodically as well. Pay close attention to the condenser coils. Even if they look clean on the surface, there can be a lot of dust between the tiny metal fins. Use compressed air or a soft, fine-bristled nylon brush to clean in those tight spaces. Fins are thin and delicate, and they can be bent easily, so use caution when cleaning them. Brush in the direction of the fins to avoid damaging them.

The exterior of your machine should be cleaned with a soft cloth and a gentle cleaner whenever you feel it’s appropriate.