What is a Pilot Light in Restaurant Equipment?

Gas heat is a favorite resource for chefs who love the immediate response it provides and the ease with which gas equipment is maintained. Despite those advantages, traditional gas equipment generally has one major feature that many consider a huge drawback. That's the pilot light, the tiny gas flame that provides a ready source of ignition when a gas burner is turned off.

A standing pilot light prevents users from having to manually provide a flame each time their equipment needs to be fired up. The advantages are that these can save time and provide a safer alternative to manually lighting the equipment, which often involves stooping low and reaching into small spaces with a match or lighter.

The convenience that a pilot light provides comes at a pretty major cost. Pilot lights are responsible for consuming as much as 80 percent of the total volume of gas that a piece of gas equipment burns.

Pilot Light Alternatives

Equipment manufacturers have developed alternatives to the standing pilot light. These technologies allow gas to be shut off completely when a burner isn't being used, conserving the gas that would otherwise be needed to fuel a pilot flame.

  • Battery spark ignition. If you've pressed the starter on a piece of gas-burning equipment like a range or a grill and heard that familiar "click, click, click" in the moments before the gas flame appears, then you've used a battery spark ignition. This method uses a common AA or AAA battery to generate an electric spark that ignites the gas flame. That battery will periodically need to be replaced, but changing it out is typically an easy process.
  • Piezoelectric ignition takes advantage of the ability for some materials to generate a tiny pulse of electricity when subjected to mechanical stress. These electric igniters employ a tiny crystal that's struck when a button is pressed, releasing a spark powerful enough to ignite gas.
  • Hot surface ignition is often included on equipment that has an electrical connection for other components. Convection ovens are often equipped with hot surface igniters that share an electrical connection with their fan motors. This method employs a small heating element located near the gas valve that is energized and glows red hot to ignite the gas flame.

Adjusting and Troubleshooting Pilot Lights

If you use equipment with a pilot light, it's good practice to keep the flame properly adjusted. A service technician can check to make sure that the flame is burning gas at the proper rate and using only the amount of fuel necessary and no more. A flame that's burning too much gas can run up your gas bill without providing any benefit.

A pilot light should be a small blue flame. If the flame is yellow or orange, it may be burning too much gas.

If your restaurant staff are constantly having to relight a piece of equipment's pilot light because it keeps going out, there may be a problem with the gas valve or one of its components. Schedule routine equipment checkups with a factory-certified technician to keep your gas equipment properly tuned.

A Different Type of Pilot Light

The term "pilot light" usually refers to the constant gas flame that we described above, but it's less commonly used to describe a completely unrelated component. Some manufacturers use "pilot light" to refer to the electric light that indicates whether a piece of equipment is powered on. Other times the same type of light is used to signal when a piece of equipment's element is heating.

Don't let these two dissimilar components confuse you. If it's gas equipment you're dealing with, a pilot light is the steady gas flame that ignites the equipment's main burners. When it's part of electric equipment, a pilot light is an electric component that will give some visual cue as to the status of the unit.