Commercial Ice Machine Buyers' Guide

Commercial Ice Machine Buying Guide

Ice is a food item that should be treated with the same attention to detail you'd give your signature entrées. Keeping a constant supply of clean, fresh ice is crucial to protecting the health and satisfaction of your customers, since it is often the only product served to every guest who walks through the door. When you're shopping for a commercial ice maker, 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 down into answering a few simple questions. Answer these questions based on your establishment's unique needs to obtain the information you need to choose an ice machine that will produce plenty of fresh, clear ice for soft drinks, cocktails, frozen specialty drinks, and other applications.

Ice Types Explained

Full-cube Ice

I'm serving:

  • Soft drinks
  • Cocktails
  • Bagged ice
  • Dispensed ice

Perfect for:

  • Casual restaurants
  • Bars
  • Bagged ice operations
  • Hotel ice machines

AKA Full-cube ice (Ice-O-Matic), dice cubes (Manitowoc and Scotsman), and kubes (Koolaire)

The largest cube option aside from those in the gourmet category, full-cube ice measures 78 inch by 78 inch by 78 inch. You're likely to find these rhomboidal ice cubes chilling your favorite cocktail or liquor on the rocks in your neighborhood bar because this format's large dimensions let it melt slowly and preserve the full flavor of the drink.

The drawback to full-cube ice is that it doesn't have the cooling power of smaller cubes as its surface area is relatively small compared to its volume. Since it doesn't displace liquid as well as smaller cubes, drinks poured over full-cube ice are likely to cost the operator more to serve than drinks poured over smaller cubes. However, the solid build of full-cube ice makes it easy to serve attractive drinks to impress guests with craft beverages and pours of premium liquor or elevate the look of otherwise standard beverages.

Full-cube ice's slow-melting properties make it popular in Hispanic eateries, which serve a type of cuisine developed in hot climates where slow-melting ice is essential, and in bagging operations or hotels, where ice needs to stay frozen as long as possible.

Full-cube Ice Machines
Half Cube Ice Machine Buying Guide

Half-cube Ice

I'm serving:

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

Perfect for:

  • Casual restaurants
  • Quick-service restaurants
  • Convenience stores
  • Smoothie bars

AKA Half-cube ice (Ice-O-Matic), half-dice ice (Manitowoc and Scotsman), crescent cube (Hoshizaki), and half-kube (Koolaire)

Measuring 38 inch by 78 inch by 78 inch, half cubes are typically half the size of full-cube or dice ice but share the same rhomboidal shape. The exception to that format is Hoshizaki's crescent cube ice, which measures 112 inches by 118 inches by 12 inch and takes the shape of a rounded crescent.

Like full cubes, half-cube ice offers a high ice-to-water ratio that allows it to freeze into hard ice cubes. Half-cube ice is also the most versatile ice type, great for everything from serving soft drinks to blending into smoothies and frozen cocktails, making it the best-selling type of ice maker machine.

Because half-cube ice has smaller dimensions, a higher ratio of the cube's volume is exposed as surface area. This means a glass full of half cubes will cool a drink more quickly than a glass filled with full-cube ice. These smaller cubes will also nest more densely in the glass than larger cubes and will displace more of the liquid to save operators on costs per drink. Half-cube ice tends to melt more quickly than full-cube ice, so it isn't the best choice for cooling cocktails and other drinks that are intended to be sipped slowly.

Nugget Ice

I'm serving:

  • Soft drinks
  • Frozen coffee
  • Frozen cocktails
  • Smoothies

Perfect for:

  • Quick-service restaurants
  • Convenience stores
  • Healthcare facilities
  • Cafes and diners

AKA Nugget ice (Scotsman, Manitowoc), cubelet (Hoshizaki), chewblet (Follett), and Pearl Ice (Ice-O-Matic)

Many fans of this small, soft ice type know it as Sonic ice for its association with the drive-in chain that helped make the form famous. Those who love to chew ice have fallen in love with nugget ice because it soaks up liquids and creates a cold, crunchy snack that some customers go out of their way to find. Operators with nugget ice machines can sell this ice by the bag to capitalize on customers' desire to have it available at home or at private events.

Beyond being chewable, nugget ice is drier than flake ice, so it can be served more reliably from dispensers. Like half-cube ice, nugget ice is recommended for blended beverages because it 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. However, that may require you 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, potentially saving money on utilities.

Nugget Ice Machine Buying Guide
Flake Ice Machine Buying Guide

Flake Ice

I'm serving:

  • Chilled food in a buffet
  • Seafood or meat in a display
  • Blended beverages
  • Cups of ice for medical use

Perfect for:

  • Buffets
  • Grocery stores and markets
  • Smoothie bars
  • Healthcare facilities

AKA Flake ice or flaked ice (all manufacturers)

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 being marketed to customers. The soft, moldable ice is easy to form to fit the contours of everything from fresh fish to chilled fruits and vegetables, without bruising or damaging the product. You may also wish to use it in grab-and-go displays, where packaged foods like yogurt, fruit, and milk cartons need to stay cooled.

Flake ice is rarely served in drinks, with one big exception: It's popular in healthcare institutions, where its small size is perfect for serving and cooling drinks without posing 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. Flake ice melts quickly, so it's rarely the right ice for serving restaurant drinks; however, the soft texture does make it a safe choice for blending into frozen drinks.

Gourmet Ice

I'm serving:

  • High-end liquors
  • Craft cocktails
  • Premium drinks at specialty venues

Perfect for:

  • Upscale restaurants
  • Bars and lounges
  • Event and banquet halls

AKA Gourmet ice (Scotsman, Ice-O-Matic, and Manitowoc) or top hat cube (Hoshizaki)

Manitowoc's gourmet ice comes in a unique octagonal shape, and Scotsman's gourmet ice machines make top-hat cubes. Both Hoshizaki and Koolaire gourmet cubes come in the form of actual cubes that look nearly perfectly square. Ice-O-Matic makes two gourmet cubers: one produces cylindrical top-hat pieces, and the other is the Grande cuber that makes extra-large cubes measuring 1 14 inches by 118 inches by 78 inch.

In each case, an individual piece of gourmet ice is larger than other types and has the highest ice-to-water ratio, making gourmet ice the slowest-melting type.

Drop one or two gourmet ice cubes into a hi-ball glass with well-aged Scotch for a premium presentation customers will love. Put a few pieces into a larger glass, typically with ice tongs when using fine crystal or glassware that could break, for 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.

However, 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. They also displace the least amount of beverage per volume.

Gourmet Ice Machine Buying Guide

Ice Machine Configurations

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

Commercial Ice Machines Head and Bin Combos

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. The majority of these machines will produce a few hundred to more than 1,000 pounds of ice each day. The capacities of the combo's bin component can range from a modest 80 pounds of ice to an impressive 800 pounds of ice.

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. This ideal range 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 with a capacity that can 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, such as a church kitchen that's only open on Wednesday and Sunday.

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 to provide staff quick access to the ice they need to prepare drinks. The majority of undercounter ice machines produce 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 produce ice to blend frozen drinks, and an undercounter machine that produces gourmet cubes can serve as the ice source for premium cocktails and liquor served on the rocks.

Undercounter Commercial Ice Machines
Commercial Ice Dispensers

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 serving ice from a bin to a cup, making it the obvious choice in self-serve applications. Dispensers work well at nurse stations in healthcare facilities to equip staff to conveniently dispense ice for patients' drinks and prepare ice packs to treat wounds.

The drawbacks to using an ice dispenser are that it's slower than scooping ice directly from a bin, the additional equipment introduces an extra set of mechanical components, and the associated upfront costs and maintenance requirements. For these reasons, an ice dispenser is rarely the best back-of-house ice solution. An exception to this is ice dispensers that are installed in drive-thrus, where employees can conveniently pour customers' beverages immediately before handing off their orders.

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, a dispenser, and bin assembly. Another option is a standalone dispenser without an ice machine, requiring staff to manually fill the bin from a separate ice source.

A Note on Ice Machine Head and Bin Adapter Kits

If you opt to purchase an ice machine head and bin or dispenser separately, or if you're replacing a component 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 a separate adapter kit 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 needed to connect the two components.

Sizing Your Commercial Ice Maker

The next step in choosing the right commercial ice machine is to determine 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 your business will need. For an in-depth guide, consult our article on how much ice your commercial kitchen needs.

Business TypeAverage Ice Needs Per Day
Restaurant1.5 lbs. per customer
Cocktail Lounge3 lbs. per customer
Hotel5 lbs. per guest room
Self-serve3 lbs. per person
Quick-service Restaurant5 oz. per 7- to 10-oz. cup
8 oz. per 12- to 16-oz. cup
12 oz. per 18- to 24-oz. cup
Salad Bar/Seafood Display35 lbs. per cubic foot

What Causes an Increase in Ice Demand?

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.

  • A growth in your business that brings in more traffic
  • 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
  • Seasonal factors (warmer climates and seasons can increase demand for cold drinks)

Air-cooled, Water-cooled, and Remote Condenser Ice Machines

One critical component that all ice machines share is a condenser – the piece that rids the machine of excess heat. There are three types of ice machine condensers, and you'll need to choose a machine with the one that best matches your venue.

Air-cooled Condensers

The most popular type, air-cooled ice machines are equipped with fans that move fresh air across their condensers to cool the equipment. When installed as a self-contained unit, they are the simplest to install and maintain, since the entire condensing unit is 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 a self-contained, air-cooled machine is whether you can accommodate its 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 run smoothly.

An air-cooled machine with a self-contained condenser is the right choice for most 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 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.

Air Cooled Commercial Ice Machines
Water Cooled Commercial Ice Machine

Water-cooled Condenser

The next type of ice machine uses a water-cooled condenser. As with a self-contained air-cooled machine, a water-cooled ice maker's condenser is enclosed within the machine. 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. This method involves 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 each hour.

The establishments that benefit the most from water-cooled ice machines often have water-circulating chiller systems to 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 typically requires less electricity.

Remote Condensers

For certain establishments or configurations, ice machines with remote condensers that are air or water cooled are great alternatives to self-contained equipment. Instead of being contained within the ice maker itself, a remote condenser is housed 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 a remote-condenser ice machine won't put an extra burden on your HVAC system like a self-contained machine will. It will also help limit the noise level in your establishment, which can be important if the equipment is within earshot of guests. 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 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 by the quieter environments and increased ice production that remote-condenser units can bring.

Remote Cooled Commercial Ice Machines

Ice Machine Accessories

Finding a machine that will produce 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 they need 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 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 to keep an ice scoop on hand to comply 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 prevent the user's hand from touching the ice.

An ice scoop caddy is a sanitary way to store your ice scoop within the bin, which is particularly important because health codes prohibit scoops from 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.

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 makes it easy to grab them from the bin.

Ice machines and bins are designed to empty spent water through a floor drain, but not all facilities and installation locations are equipped to 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.

Commercial Ice Machine Accessories

A good number of ice machines mount on legs, which are almost always adjustable. Adjustable legs enable the equipment to be installed so that water can flow through the machine as 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 premature failure.

As 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 enable 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. In this case, you can install an ice level control kit, a device that lets you 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.

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 such as an outdoor bar, where there's no ice machine. That's where a bar ice bin will come in handy. These stainless steel bins hold several pounds of ice so staff can make and serve drinks 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 enable you keep liquor, wine, and mixers chilled in the ice while still being compliant with food codes.

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. In these cases, an ice tote will prove indispensable. Small ice totes transport as little as 20 pounds of ice and large ice buckets can 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 reduce the chances of staff members becoming injured while handling these containers, and totes are designed to keep germs on employees' hands from contaminating ice.

If you need to transport extra large volumes of ice, consider 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.

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

Clean Water and Filtration

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

An ice machine water filter serves several purposes. First, it reduces the concentration of dissolved minerals that make it into the ice machine. These minerals are present in nearly every water supply across the country and are in especially high concentrations in areas with hard water. While generally harmless to people, these minerals can wreak havoc on ice machines, since the ice-making process causes mineral 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 still need to clean an ice machine regularly to remove mineral deposits, a water filter reduces 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 that will last longer in your customers' drinks.

A second advantage to installing a water filter system is that it removes the taste of chlorine from water for ice that tastes fresh and clean.

When choosing 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 can tell you which filter you should purchase.