Commercial Ice Machine

Commercial Ice Machine Buyers' Guide

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 demands to obtain the information you need to choose an ice machine that'll produce plenty of fresh, clear ice for soft drinks, cocktails, frozen specialty drinks, and other applications.

Which Type of Ice Do I Need?

Though they often distinguish them with unique names, commercial ice machine manufacturers offer many of the same types of ice. Whether your operation requires a machine capable of producing classic cubed ice, soft nugget ice, upscale gourmet ice, or another type of ice depends on how the ice maker will be used in your business. Deciding which ice type is required for your specific application can help you narrow down your options.

Soft DrinksCasual Restaurants
Bagged IceBagged-ice Operations
Dispensed Ice3 lbs. per person
Quick-service RestaurantHotel Ice Machines

Full-cube Ice Makers

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 is often used to chill cocktails and liquor on the rocks in neighborhood bars because its large dimensions prevent it from melting too quickly to 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. Because 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 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.

Shopping Tip

Full-cube ice melts slowly, so it won't water down your drinks. Choose this if you need ice that lasts.

Soft DrinksCasual Restaurants
Blended Frozen DrinksQuick-service Restaurants
Bagged IceConvenience Stores
Dispensed IceSmoothie Bars

Half-cube Ice Makers

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

Half cubes are, as the name implies, typically about half the size of full-cube or dice ice but share the same rhomboidal shape. The exception to that is Hoshizaki's crescent cube ice, which measures 1-12 inches by 1-18 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 enables it to freeze into hard ice cubes. Half-cube ice is the most versatile ice type and is 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.

Shopping Tip

Half-cube ice is the most commonly purchased ice type. If you're looking for "just ice," this is the type you want.

Soft DrinksQuick-service Restaurants
Frozen CoffeeConvenience Stores
Frozen CocktailsHealthcare Facilities
SmoothiesCafes & diners

Commercial Nugget Ice Makers

AKA Nugget ice (Scotsman, Manitowoc, U-Line), cubelet (Hoshizaki), Chewblet® (Follett), and Pearl Ice (Ice-O-Matic)

What's the scoop? 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 such as 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, possibly saving money on utilities.

Shopping Tip

Nugget ice is best for chewing and filling up a cup. This ice displaces the most liquid and absorbs the flavors of your drink. If you want chewable ice, get nugget.

Chilled Food in a BuffetBuffets
Seafood or Meat in a DisplayGrocery Stores and Markets
Blended BeveragesSmoothie Bars
Cups of Ice for Medical UseHealthcare Facilities

Commercial Flake Ice Makers

AKA Flake ice or flaked ice (all manufacturers)

This commercial ice type's greatest value is in food presentation applications such as 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 choose to use it in grab-and-go displays, where packaged foods such as 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.

Shopping Tip

Flake ice is commonly used for displays and in hospitals. If you want ice to display and chill items or you're concerned about consumers choking, get flake ice.

High-end liquorsUpscale restaurants
Craft cocktailsBars and lounges
Premium drinks at
specialty venues
Event and banquet halls

Commercial Gourmet Ice Makers

AKA Gourmet cube (Scotsman, Manitowoc), large cube (Kold-Draft), gourmet grande ice (Ice-O-Matic), top-hat style cube (Hoshizaki), and cocktail cube (Maxx Ice)

No matter what they're called or how they're shaped, an individual piece of gourmet ice is larger than other types of cube ice. It also has the highest ice-to-water ratio, making gourmet ice the slowest-melting type and uniquely suited to serving high-end cocktails and specialty beverages.

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. Because 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 types. They also displace the least amount of beverage per volume. Invest in a gourmet ice machine for upscale bars and event venues, but consider other options if your business is primarily serving water, soft drinks, and other standard beverages.

Shopping Tip

Gourmet ice is best for fancy drinks, such as high-end liquors and other specialty uses.

Which type of ice machine do I need?

Once you've determined what type of ice your new ice machine needs to produce, it's time to decide which ice machine format will serve your operation 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 plan to use your ice each day.

Head and Bin Combos

An ice machine head and bin combination is the right choice if you're looking for a machine that'll 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 storage 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'll 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 that can hold an entire day's worth of the machine's production. A large bin may also be useful for venues that host meals only once or twice a week, such as a church kitchen that's only open on Wednesday and Sunday.

I'll use my machine to:

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

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.

Ice Dispensers

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, equipping 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.

I'll use my machine to:

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

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

Shopping Tip

Ice dispensers are great for self-serve stations, but head-and bin combos are best for high-volume applications. If you need to stock your whole establishment with one machine, head-and-bin combos are the right type.

Undercounter Ice Machines

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'll provide smaller quantities of ice for your specialty products. An undercounter nugget ice machine, for example, can produce ice to blend frozen drinks, while an undercounter machine that produces gourmet cubes can serve as the ice source for premium cocktails and liquor served on the rocks.

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
Undercounter Ice Machines
Shopping Tip

Undercounter ice machines provide less ice but also take up less room than a full machine. Choose these if you need ice at a bar.

How much ice do I need?

The next step in choosing the right commercial ice machine is to determine how much ice you'll need in each 24-hour period. Because every establishment is unique, 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. If you're considering a machine from Scotsman, one of the leading brands in the industry, you may also want to use the Scotsman ice machine sizing and selection tool to find the right model for your operation.

Business Type Average 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.

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

The listed production is what the machine can make in ideal circumstances and constant use. Aim a bit higher than what you think you'll need to make sure you have enough.

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

Air-cooled Condensers

Water-cooled Condensers

Water-cooled Condensers

Remote Condensers

Remote Condensers

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 because the entire condensing unit is inside the ice machine itself and doesn't require 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.

Shopping Tip

Air-cooled condensers are the cheapest and most common. If you don't want the cost or hassle of installing a remote-cooled unit, choose air-cooled.

Water-cooled Condensers

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. Because it requires hundreds of gallons of water each hour, water-cooled equipment is unfeasible for most establishments.

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 example of this efficiency is that this setup typically requires less electricity.

Shopping Tip

Water-cooled units use a lot of water – only choose this if you have a self-contained water system or are unable to use air-cooled.

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's 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'll 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.

Shopping Tip

Remote-cooled condensers outsource the noise and heat but are more expensive and difficult to install. If you can afford it, remote-cooled units have some significant benefits.

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's 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. If 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'll 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.

Pure water freezes faster and creates clearer ice. A filter will also improve the longevity of your ice maker and remove foul-tasting chemicals. We recommend getting a filter with any ice machine.

Commercial Ice Machine InfoGraphic
  1. Select your ice type. Commercial ice machines may produce full-cube, half-cube, nugget, flake, or gourmet ice. The type of ice you need will depend on your application or, when an application is suited to multiple ice types, personal preference.
  2. Pick your configuration. Decide between head and bin units, which produce high volumes of ice; ice dispensers, which let customers serve themselves and may also dispenser water; or undercounter ice machines, which are compact and often used in bars and beverage stations.
  3. Calculate your production needs. The average customer will require between 112 and 3 pounds of ice. However, your ice requirements can be impacted by your application for the ice machine, peak business hours, and other factors. Ensure your unit can meet your production needs during your busiest time period.
  4. Choose your condenser. Weigh the benefits and costs of air-cooled and remote-cooled condensers. Most businesses will use an air-cooled ice machine, which vents the heat and noise into the area around it, but those who can afford it may want to install remote-cooled machines to take heat out of spaces frequented by employees or customers. Water-cooled units are only used in specific situations.
  5. Find your filter. Before purchasing your unit, check to see if your machine comes with a water filter or if you'll need to add a compatible filter.