Commercial Ice Machine Buyers' Guide

Commercial Ice Machine Guide

Ice is as much a food as any item on your menu, so it should be treated with the same attention to detail you'd give your signature entrées. Keeping a supply of clean, fresh ice on hand is crucial to protecting the health and satisfaction of your customers, since ice may be the only product served to each and every guest who walks through the door. When you're shopping for an ice machine, it's important to choose one that will not only keep up with the demand for the cool commodity, but will also create the best type of ice for its intended application.

We've broken the process of buying a new ice maker machine down into answering a few simple questions. Answer these questions based on your establishment's unique needs and you'll have the information you need to choose an ice machine that will churn out plenty of fresh, clear ice for your soft drinks, bar beverages, and frozen specialty drinks.

Ice Types Explained

Full-Cube Ice

Full-cube ice

I’m serving:

  • Specialty soft drinks
  • Cocktails
  • Bagged ice
  • Dispensed ice

Perfect for:

  • Bars
  • Baggers
  • Casual restaurants

Who calls them what?: Ice-O-Matic calls it "full-cube" ice. Manitowoc's entry in this category is "regular" or "dice" cubes. Scotsman calls its version of this ice "dice cubes." Koolaire machines produce "kubes."

The scoop on the ice maker: You're likely to find these larger, rhomboid-shaped ice cubes chilling your favorite cocktail or liquor on the rocks in your neighborhood bar. That's because this format's large dimensions let it melt slowly and preserve the full flavor of the drink. Its slow-melting properties also explain why full-cube ice is popular in Hispanic eateries: that type of cuisine developed in hot climates where slow-melting ice is essential.

The solid build of full-cube ice makes it an attractive presentation piece, so its a good choice when you need to show off a craft beverage or a pour of premium liquor. The drawback to full-cube ice is that it doesn't have the cooling power of smaller cubes since its surface area is relatively small compared to its volume. Full cube ice doesn't displace liquid as well as well as smaller cubes, either, so a drink poured over full-cube ice is likely to cost the operator more to serve than one with smaller cubes.

If you know a cube ice maker is the right ice machine for you, skip ahead to learn about picking the right size. If you're ready to shop for one of these machines, see KaTom's selection of full-cube commercial ice makers. Or, read on to continue comparing ice machines.

Half-Cube Ice

Half-cube ice

I’m serving:

  • Soft drinks
  • Blended frozen drinks
  • Bagged ice
  • Dispensed ice

Perfect for:

  • Casual restaurants
  • Quick-serve restaurants
  • Convenience stores

Who calls them what?: Manitowoc and Scotsman call theirs "half-dice" ice, and Hoshizaki machines produce a unique crescent cube that fits into this category. Ice-O-Matic comes in with a "half cube" commercial ice machine, while Koolaire offers the "half-kube" machine.

The scoop on the ice maker: Half cubes are called that because they’re typically half the size of full cube or dice ice, but they share the same rhomboidal cross-section. The exception to that format is Hoshizaki's equivalent cube, which takes the shape of a unique rounded crescent. Half-cube ice is used for many of the same applications as full-cube ice, but brings its own advantages to the table.

Half-cube ice is the most versatile type, great for everything from serving soft drinks to chilling cocktails. That's why half-cube machines are the best-selling type of ice maker machine. Like full cubes, half-cube ice offers a high ice-to-water ratio, meaning it forms into hard, crystal-clear chunks.

A half-dice cube's smaller dimensions mean that a higher ratio of the cube's volume is exposed as surface area, so a glass full of half cubes will cool a drink more quickly than a container of full-cube ice. Half-dice cubes will also nest more densely in the glass than larger cubes and will displace more of a beverage to save operators on costs per drink. One disadvantage of half-cube ice is that it does tend to melt more quickly than full-cube ice, so it isn't ideal for cooling cocktails and other drinks that are intended to be sipped slowly.

If you know a half-cube ice maker is the right ice machine for you, skip ahead to learn about sizing your machine, or you can go straight to shopping KaTom’s selection of half-cube ice makers. Read on to continue comparing ice machines.

Commercial Nugget Ice Makers

Nugget ice

I’m serving:

  • Soft drinks
  • Iced coffee
  • Frozen cocktails
  • Smoothies

Perfect for:

  • Quick-serve Restaurants
  • Convenience stores
  • Healthcare facilities

Who calls them what?: Hoshizaki has "cubelet" ice maker machines, Scotsman, the brand that introduced the world to this ice type, calls its chewable ice "nugget ice," and Ice-O-Matic bills its as "Pearl" ice. Manitowoc offers both "nugget" and "tubular" nugget restaurant ice makers, and Follett pops into the roster here with its "Chewblet" ice makers.

The scoop on the ice maker: These crunchy little chunks go by many different names, but many of its fans know it as "Sonic ice" for its association with the drive-in chain that helped make the form famous. Millions of folks who love to chew ice have fallen in love with nugget ice because it soaks up the drink it's in and creates a cold crunchy snack that people will go out of their way to find. Operators sometimes sell this ice by the bag to capitalize on customers' desire to chew the ice at home.

Beyond being chewable, nugget ice is drier than flake ice, so it can be served more reliably from dispensers. Nugget ice also blends smoothly and quickly into frozen drinks like margaritas and smoothies.

Customers typically expect more ice when they’re getting this chewable type, so you’re able to save money on drink costs when you serve it. However, that can mean you need to oversize your machine to ensure you can meet potentially high demand. Many of the commercial ice machines that produce nugget ice also run more efficiently than other types, meaning you save money on utilities.

If you know a nugget ice maker is the right ice machine for you, skip ahead to learn about which size will work best for you. If you've decided that this is the right form for your needs, browse our selection of nugget ice machines. Keep reading to continue comparing ice machines.

Commercial Flake Ice Makers

Flake ice

I’m serving:

  • Chilled foods on a buffet
  • Seafood or meat in a display
  • Blended frozen drinks

Perfect for:

  • Buffets
  • Grocery stores
  • Fish markets
  • Produce displays
  • Healthcare facilities

Who calls them what?: Ice-O-Matic and Manitowoc both call theirs "flake" machines, while Scotsman says they’re "flaked" ice makers. Hoshizaki prefers the name "flaker" for its machines. Follet also makes an appearance in this category with its "flake" ice makers.

The scoop on the ice maker: This commercial ice type's greatest value is in food presentation applications like buffets and produce displays, where chilled food needs to be kept cold while it's being shown off to customers. The soft, moldable ice is easy to form to fit the contours of everything from fresh fish to chilled fruits and vegetables, all without bruising or damaging the product.

Flake ice is rarely served in drinks, with one big exception. It's popular in healthcare institutions, where its small size makes it perfect for serving and cooling drinks without it becoming a choking hazard. Its 73 percent ice-to-water ratio makes it light and chewable, and a high air-to-volume ratio softens the crunch. With that said, flake ice melts quickly, so it's rarely the right ice for serving restaurant drinks. Its soft texture does make it a safe choice for blending into frozen drinks, though.

If you know a flake ice maker is the right ice machine for you, skip ahead to learn about the next step in picking the right commercial ice maker machine. Or, you can go straight to shopping KaTom's selection of commercial flake ice makers. Read on to learn about gourmet ice machines.

Commercial Gourmet Ice Makers

Gourmet ice

I’m serving:

  • High-end liquors
  • Premium drinks at upscale venues

Perfect for:

  • Upscale restaurants
  • Event and banquet halls
  • Bars

Who calls them what?: "Gourmet" is pretty much the industry's standard name for this type of ice, though "top-hat ice" is also a popular moniker, earned because gourmet ice cubes often look like tiny top hats.

The scoop on the ice maker: For Manitowoc, gourmet ice comes in a unique octagonal shape. Ice-O-Matic makes two gourmet cubers. The first produces those cylindrical "top-hat" pieces. Their other, newer model is the Grande cuber that makes extra-large cubes that measure 1 14 in. W x 118 in. D x 78 in. H. Scotsman's gourmet ice machines also make top-hat cubes. Both Hoshizaki and KoolAire gourmet cubes come in the form of actual cubes that are nearly perfectly square. In each case, the individual piece is larger than other types of ice and has the highest ice-to-water ratio. That makes gourmet ice the slowest-melting type.

Drop one or two gourmet ice cubes into a hi-ball with some well-aged Scotch and you’ve got a premium presentation that well-paying customers love. Put a few pieces into a larger glass - typically with ice tongs when using fine crystal or glassware that could break - and you’re ready to serve a black-tie dinner at the city’s classiest eatery. Since they’re too large to chew on, you won’t be making repeat trips to the table to replace ice that was munched. Gourmet cubes aren't the best option for serving soft drinks because the dense cubes won't cool the drink as quickly as smaller formats and displace the least amount of beverage per volume.

If you know a gourmet ice maker is the right ice machine for you, continue reading to learn about sizing your ice maker machine. If you're ready to shop, you can go straight to shopping KaTom’s selection of gourmet ice makers.

Sizing Your Commercial Ice Maker

The next step in choosing the right commercial ice machine is to figure out how much ice you'll need in each 24-hour period. Each establishment is unique, and the amount of ice it requires will vary based on many factors, but the following table can help you estimate how much ice you'll need based on the type of business you run.

Business TypeAverage Ice Needs Per Day
Restaurant1.5 lbs. per customer
Cocktail Lounge3 lbs. per customer
Hotel5 lbs. per guest room
Convenience Store8 oz. per 12- to 16- oz. cup
Quick-Service Restaurant10 oz. per 20- to 32-oz. cup
Salad Bar/Seafood Display30 lbs. per cubic foot

Factors That Will Increase Your Demand for Ice

The following factors may increase the volume of ice you'll need each day. Be sure to take these into account as you choose an ice machine.

  • Adding new types of drinks to your menu, especially blended frozen beverages including smoothies
  • Using ice for applications other than serving drinks, such as cooling food for storage or cooling equipment
  • A growth in your business that brings in more traffic
  • Seasonal factors (warmer climates and seasons can increase demand for cold drinks)

Ice Machine Formats

Once you've determined how much you'll need your new ice machine to produce, it's time to decide which ice machine format will serve you best. Commercial ice maker machines come in three main formats: head-and-bin combos, ice dispensers, and undercounter ice machines. Your decision will be based on how you'll use your ice day-in and day-out.

Ice Machine Combo

Ice Machine Head-and-Bin Combos

I'll use my machine to:

  • Serve ice to an entire dining room
  • Fill satellite bins located around my facility
  • Fill fresh-food displays

An ice machine head and bin combination is the right choice if you're looking for a machine that will provide enough ice for an entire dining room's worth of drinks. The majority of these machines will produce ice in the range of 300 to 500 pounds a day, while some can produce nearly 2,000 pounds. The bin component of the combo will store a couple hundred pounds of ice at the ready to be scooped into cups or totes.

A general rule of thumb is to pair an ice machine head with a bin that will hold half to two-thirds of the machine's daily production volume. That's an ideal range because it will help keep you well stocked with ice to handle sudden spikes in traffic. Nothing has the potential to cause panic like a server opening an empty ice bin during a busy Saturday night shift. Most head-and-bin combinations sold adhere to that rule.

An exception to the above rule may apply if your establishment tends to see a good deal of its traffic in short bursts. In those cases, it may be beneficial to choose a combination with a larger bin, one with a capacity large enough to hold an entire day's worth of the machine's production. A large bin may also prove beneficial in venues that host meals only once or twice a week. A church kitchen that's only open on Wednesday and Sunday is one such example.

Undercounter Ice Machine

Undercounter Ice Machines

I'll use my machine to:

  • Provide ice to bartenders
  • Equip server stations with a convenient source of ice
  • Provide smaller quantities of ice for specialty beverages or applications

A smaller alternative to a full-size, head-style ice machine is an undercounter ice machine. These units are designed to fit underneath countertops, so they can be tucked neatly behind bars and server stations where they can give members of staff quick access to the ice they need to prepare drinks. The majority of undercounter ice machines produce from 50 to 300 pounds of ice daily. Undercounter ice maker machine bin capacities range from a couple dozen to more than 200 pounds of ice.

You may also choose to invest in an undercounter ice machine that will provide smaller quantities of ice for your specialty products. An undercounter nugget ice machine, for example, can give you the ice you need to blend frozen drinks. An undercounter machine that produces gourmet cubes can serve as the ice source for your premium cocktails and liquor served on the rocks.

Ice Dispensers

I'll use my machine to:

  • Dispense ice at a self-serve drink station
  • Dispense ice at nurse stations in healthcare facilities

For any application where you need to dispense ice directly into cups, pitchers, or buckets without having to scoop it from a bin, you'll want an ice dispenser. Dispensers provide the easiest and most sanitary method of delivering ice from a bin to a cup, making it the obvious choice in applications where guests will serve themselves. Dispensers work well at nurses' stations in healthcare facilities to equip staff to conveniently dispense ice for patients' drinks and to prepare ice packs to treat wounds.

The drawback to using an ice dispenser is that it's slower than scooping ice directly from a bin, and the equipment itself introduces an extra set of mechanical components and their associated upfront costs and maintenance requirements. That's why an ice dispenser is rarely the best back-of-house ice solution.

Smaller ice dispensing units are comprised of an ice machine built into a bin-and-dispenser assembly. Higher-capacity dispensing setups come in the form of separate, modular equipment - a full-size ice machine head and a dispenser and bin assembly. Another option is a standalone dispenser that contains no ice machine. The latter solution will require staff to manually fill the bin from a separate ice source.

A Note on Ice Machine Head and Bin Adapter Kits

If you should opt to purchase an ice machine head and bin or dispenser separately, or if you're replacing one component or another in your existing setup, be sure to choose pieces that can be paired together. Even components from the same manufacturer may not be compatible. Some combinations may require that you purchase a separate adapter kit in order to interface the two parts together. The equipment's spec sheets or owner's manuals can tell you which combinations can be made and whether a particular combination requires an adapter kit. Any head and bin or dispenser combination you order from KaTom will include the pieces need to connect the two components.

Choosing Between Air-Cooled, Water-Cooled, & Remote-Condenser Ice Machines

Ice Machine Condensers

One critical component that all ice machines have in common is a condenser. It's this piece that's responsible for ridding the machine of excess heat so it can continue to freeze water into ice. There are three types of ice machine condensers, and you'll need to choose a machine with the one that best matches your venue.

The most popular type, air-cooled ice machines are equipped with fans that move fresh air across their condensers to cool the equipment. These machines are the simplest to install and maintain. The entire condensing unit is contained inside the ice machine itself and requires no additional wiring beyond the machine's main electrical connection. An important point to consider when you buy an air-cooled machine is whether you can accommodate the machine's clearance requirements. The machine may need to be installed with a certain amount of space between it and surrounding objects to receive the airflow it needs to keep running smoothly.

An air-cooled machine is the right choice for the majority of operators, but there are some exceptions. If your machine will be installed in a room where ambient air temperatures regularly exceed 80 degrees Fahrenheit, you'll probably want to consider a machine with a water-cooled or remote condenser. High ambient temperatures will reduce the volume of ice that a machine can produce, and regular exposure to high temperatures can cause a machine to fail.

A popular alternative to air-cooled ice machines is equipment with remote condensers. Instead of being contained within the ice maker itself, a remote condenser is housed in a piece of equipment that is installed in a separate location, usually on the building's roof. Refrigerant is piped from the ice machine to the condenser, where it is cooled and sent back to the machine.

Remote condensers bring a number of advantages, the biggest being that they move the noise- and heat- generating components of an ice machine outside the building. That means that a remote-condenser ice machine won't put an extra burden on your HVAC system like an air-cooled machine will. It'll also help keep the noise level in your establishment down, which can be important if the equipment is placed within earshot of your dining room or bar. This type is especially preferred in large locations with a high number of refrigerated equipment and in hotels, where it can keep the noise and heat of the ice machine out of the guest areas.

The advantages of owning an ice maker machine with a remote condenser come at a higher equipment cost and more expensive installation. However, those costs may be offset with the energy savings and increased ice production that remote-condenser units can bring.

A third category of ice machine is the water-cooled type. As with an air-cooled machine, a water-cooled ice maker's condenser is enclosed within the machine itself. The difference is that instead of blowing air across a condenser to remove heat, a water-cooled machine pumps cool water by the condenser coils to achieve that cooling. This method requires a constant source of cool water in addition to the machine's potable water supply. This requirement makes water-cooled equipment unfeasible for most establishments, since it requires hundreds of gallons of water an hour to be sent down the drain.

The establishments that benefit the most from water-cooled ice machines are ones with water-circulating chiller systems that they can tie their ice machines into. Because the water used is typically cooler than the ambient air, these machines are often significantly more efficient than other types, which is why they're generally used to show the highest possible output from a given model. Another product of this efficiency is that this setup is likely to require less electricity.

Clean Water & Filtration

No matter which type or size of ice machine you ultimately choose, you'll more than likely want to connect that machine to a water filter system when the machine is installed.

An ice machine water filter serves several purposes. First, it will reduce the concentration of dissolved minerals that make it into the ice machine. These minerals are present in just about every water supply across the country and are in especially high concentrations in areas with hard water. While those are generally harmless to people, they can wreak havoc on ice machines. The ice-making process causes those minerals to be left behind in the form of deposits that build up over time on internal ice machine surfaces. Left unchecked, those will reduce the output and energy efficiency of your machine and can eventually cause the equipment to fail. Although you'll still need to clean an ice machine regularly to remove mineral deposits, a water filter will reduce the amount of minerals that get into the machine.

Purer water also freezes faster and creates harder, clearer ice that melts more slowly than ice with a high level of dissolved minerals. That means your machine will be able to produce a higher volume of ice each day and that ice will last longer in your customers' drinks.

A second advantage to installing a water filter system is that it will remove the taste of chlorine from water, giving you a supply of ice that tastes fresh and clean, and won't impart off-tastes and odors to your drinks.

When you choose a water filter system for your ice machine, make sure it's compatible with your equipment. Manufacturers typically offer their own filter systems and replacement cartridges, both of which are sized to match specific models. The ice machine's spec sheet or user manual will tell you which filter or filters you should purchase.

Ice Machine Accessories

Finding a machine that will give you enough ice is just one step in the process of building an efficient ice production system. It's also important that you equip your restaurant crew with the accessories it needs to get the most from the equipment. Here's a list of the essential ice maker machine accessories that you'll likely want to keep handy.

Ice Scoop

Ice scoops are by far the most common ice maker accessories - and they're often the most important. If you have an ice machine with a bin, you'll need an ice scoop on hand to stay compliant with health codes, since it's against the rules to scoop ice directly from an ice bin with the cup you'll be serving it in. It pays to take every precaution possible when it comes to protecting your patrons' health, so choose an ice scoop with guards that will prevent the user's hand from touching the ice.

Ice Scoop Caddy

An ice scoop caddy provides a sanitary way to store your ice scoop within the bin. Health codes prohibit scoops form being stored on top of or in the ice. A caddy mounts to the inside of the bin and helps prevent germs from the user's hands from contaminating ice.

Bin Bottle Rack

Food codes and general best practices prohibit bottles being stored directly in ice that will end up in drinks, but wine bottle caddies provide a workaround. These accessories mount to the inside wall of an ice bin to separate bottles from the ice while still keeping them cool. This setup also keeps bottles dry and easy to grab from the bin.

Bar Ice Bin

You may need a container other than your machine's ice bin to hold fresh ice, especially if you want to serve it at a location where there's no dedicated machine like an outdoor bar. That's where a bar ice bin will come in handy. These stainless steel bins hold several pounds of ice handy so staff can make drinks and get them to guests quickly without having to run to the ice machine. This equipment is sometimes built with cold plate technology that keeps soda chilled as it's pumped to a soda gun mounted nearby. Some ice bins are equipped with bottle holders that let you keep liquor, wine, and mixers chilled in the ice in a way that the health inspector will approve of.

Ice Tote

Staff in certain establishments need to transport quantities of ice from one location to another, such as from a main bin to an auxiliary bin or from the kitchen to a bar. It is in these cases where an ice tote will prove indispensable. You'll find small ice totes to transport as little as 20 pounds of ice and large ice buckets to handle a few dozen pounds of ice. Many of these buckets are equipped with hangers that attach them to the sides of ice bins so they're easy to fill. Ergonomic grips and handles help reduce the chances of staff members becoming injured while handling these containers, and totes are designed to keep germs from employees' hands from contaminating ice.

Ice Caddy

If you need to transport extra large volumes of ice, look into buying an ice caddy. These mobile, wheeled bins are available in capacities ranging from 50 to 200 pounds of ice. They come in handy for transporting ice to off-site events, outdoor bars, and large satellite bins.

Ice Bin Drain Pump

Ice machines and bins are designed to empty spent water through a floor drain, but not all facilities and installation locations can provide that utility. If that describes your situation, you'll need to install a drain pump on your ice machine that moves waste water from the ice machine bin into a suitable nearby drain.

Ice Bin Legs

A good number of ice machines mount on legs, which are almost always adjustable. Adjustable legs allow the equipment to be installed so that water can flow through the machine in the way the manufacturer intended. In the case of nugget and flake machines, a unit that's not installed level will experience uneven wear on its auger bearings and run the risk of failing prematurely.

Ice Bagger

Selling ice by the bag is a nice way to bring in a little extra profit, especially if you can find a customer base that regularly needs ice, like festival-goers or picnickers. An ice bagger is an investment that can pay off. These systems mount to the side of ice bins and provide a way for staff to quickly fill and tie bags of ice.

As we mentioned above, you can elect to buy ice machine heads and bins separately or shipped together as a combination unit. If you opt to order the two components separately, you may need an additional accessory called an ice bin top kit or adapter kit that will allow the two pieces to fit together properly.

If the amount of ice you need varies from day to day, you may not always need a full bin of ice on hand at all times. This is where an ice level control kit may come in handy. This device allows you to set the maximum amount of ice you need to keep on hand. The machine will shut off once the bin reaches that level. To prepare for a busier daypart, you can increase that level.