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DIY Restaurant Equipment Repair

DIY Restaurant Equipment Repair

In General

There are many maintenance tasks that can safely be performed by restaurant owners that would save a substantial amount of money on service calls. Here are some of the things restaurant owners can do to keep service calls to a minimum.

Knowledge of a Technician

You might be surprised to find that many service technicians that routinely charge well over $100 a hour, have only a high school education… or less.  I don’t say this to displace anyone’s profession, but yet to inform the general public.

It’s not formal education that helps most technicians stand out from others, but years of experience that makes them experts.  The vast majority of technicians learned from other technicians or attended a community college program to attain enough knowledge to work as a technician on restaurant equipment.  Some have also attended a specialty course to be able to work with refrigerant (freon), but nonetheless, most learn by doing, and the longer they have been working in the field, the more they know.

Maybe you can do it yourself.

I have no way of knowing how “mechanically inclined” you or your staff may be, but I can tell you from experience that not everyone is.  With that said, most of the information you need you already have (or should have) in the form of the manual that came with the equipment. I know it’s a boring read, but you should read through these manuals when you receive any new piece of equipment. Some are just installation guides that will offer almost none of the information you need, but the user’s guide, on the other hand, can have a lot of very useful information – especially when it comes to equipment repair.

Most companies offer an additional manual that may (or may not) come with the equipment, and are full of good information that is useful in maintaining equipment – they are often called a “service manual” or “parts and service manual.” Most of the time you can download a copy free of charge from the manufacturer’s website. This is the most useful manual you can own for the repair of a piece of equipment. It will have a parts breakdown that will show you drawings of every part and how those parts fit together. Often it will have a troubleshooting section that will identify a specific problem and give you possible remedies to fix it.

I know of only two books available on restaurant equipment. These books were written years ago by a guy named Don Walker and are dated, but I still keep a copy of both.  He gives great general information that is timeless and does it in a somewhat humorous way.  One book covers gas equipment repair and the other one is about electric equipment.  If you are going to work on restaurant equipment, I suggest you buy one or both of these books.

DIY Restaurant Equipment Repair DIY Restaurant Equipment Repair

The last way to become informed on your specific equipment is by the use of the technical service line almost all manufacturers offer. I list this last because these lines are set up for service personnel, but I can tell you from experience that as an owner or manager you will not be turned away if you call. If it is a good company, the person you speak with will have worked on that piece of equipment before, and will know enough about it to understand what you are trying to explain, even if you don’t know the technical terms to use.

If you call, you will need the model number and serial number along with any other information you can get off the equipment. It is helpful to have a parts breakdown (drawing) of the equipment in front of you, so you can see what the various parts look like and be able to call a part by name. You should also be able to explain to the technician on the other end of the line what the machine is doing (or not doing). You can usually find an 800 number for tech service on the manual or by using the contact us section of the company’s website.

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Adventures In Restaurant Maintenance: Gas Equipment

This article will deal with common maintenance issues regarding commercial gas kitchen equipment. I will address issues with electric equipment in a future article.

It has been my experience that most commercial restaurant equipment is operated with natural gas. In general I believe gas equipment to be better than electric with regard to maintenance issues. Most of the systems used to deliver the gas to the burner are simple and easy to fix.

As I have said in previous posts, I don’t know how comfortable you are with working on this equipment but even if you are not comfortable at all, there are things you as a owner/manager can do to keep your service calls down and save you money on a service call if you have to have one.

In general, all gas equipment works the same way. The first thing you need to know is if your particular equipment is equipped with a “standing pilot” or “electronic ignition” (also called “spark ignition”).

The best way to determine this is by reading the service manual. If you don’t have a service manual you can determine the type of pilot system you have by visually inspecting the equipment. You will have to remove the cover that hides the burner. Once you have the cover removed look at the burner. Do you see a little fire (about the size of a lighter flame)? If you do this is what is called a “standing pilot.”

If you don’t see an actual pilot (actual flame) you probably have electronic ignition. If you have electronic ignition you will see a heavy wire that leads from the control module to the burner. A control module will look like a small box with a plastic cover and will have several wires going to it. The heavy one will look a lot like a spark plug wire (usually gray in color) that plugs into the module and leads to the igniter (this is the part that causes a spark very close to the burner when you turn the gas on).

OK, now you should know if your particular equipment has a standing pilot or electronic ignition (you might find both systems in the same kitchen).

Adventures In Restaurant Maintenance: Gas Equipment

An example of a thermocouple; get the model and serial number before purchasing to make sure you buy the right one!

If it is a “standing pilot” you will notice a small piece of metal that is about the size of a small pencil tip (about 2 inches long) that is in the flame. This is a thermocouple or a thermopile. It will have a tiny brass colored tube connected to it (most thermocouples) or a small wire coming out of it (most thermopiles). It might be flat on top (most thermopiles) or have a rounded point (most thermocouples).

This little piece of metal is the most likely item to go out and prevent your equipment from working. The good news is the cost of the actual part is not high.

Adventures In Restaurant Maintenance: Gas Equipment

An example of a thermopile; get the model and serial number before purchasing to make sure you buy the right one!

The labor cost, however, can be expensive. What a thermocouple or thermopile does is send a signal to the gas valve (or safety valve) to let the valve know that a fire is present before it allows gas thru the valve to ignite the burner. The reason these go out is because they run 24/7. Even when the equipment is off, there is still gas going to the pilot light to keep the equipment ready to operate. Most thermocouples or thermopiles are only screwed in to the valve (there are some that are actually built into the safety valve and can not be replaced without replacing the valve).

If I were you I would make a list of all the equipment I have that has a “standing pilot” system and locate the part number for the thermocouple or thermopile and keep a new one on hand. Please be aware that the manufacturer might use several different thermopiles or thermocouples on different equipment (even if made by the same company).

Get the model number and serial number off the equipment and call a parts supply to buy a replacement. This is without a doubt the most likely part to go out and cause your gas equipment to quit working. Even if you call someone in to repair the equipment; it is better to let them use the one you provide (the repair companies often “mark up” the parts they charge you for).

In any case they don’t cost much and it could mean the difference between having your equipment working or not. Some are easy to change, some are difficult (Vulcan fryers come to mind when I think of difficult thermopiles) but the equipment will not work without them.

In a future article I will talk a little about safety valves (the second most likely thing to go out), and whether it would be cost effective to stock some of these that is on your most critical equipment.

Electronic ignition (or spark ignition):

These systems use a small electric spark to ignite the burner. When you turn on the equipment and listen close you will hear a small “click” or “snap” that might happen several times before the burner ignites.

Adventures In Restaurant Maintenance: Gas Equipment

An example of a control module; get the model and serial number before purchasing to make sure you buy the right one!

That’s the igniter sending a small spark across two points. The most likely item to go out on this system is the control module (described above). These parts can be expensive but it could be worth keeping an extra one on hand for critical pieces of gas equipment.

These are good units and I don’t have many go out but it is another part that you HAVE to replace if it does go out (in other words, you can not fix a control module). Some of these come with a replacement wire (looks like a spark plug wire), some will not. If I replace the module I replace the wire. The wire plugs in and is easy to replace.

Before I end this entry, I need to warn you that working with gas can be dangerous!

You must always turn the gas off before working on this equipment!

There are things you as a owner / manager can do but you will have to invest the time to educate yourself on the safe way to do it. I will take this opportunity again to urge you to get the service manual for your equipment and buy Don Walker’s book Keeping Your Gas Restaurant Equipment Cooking. It has a lot more detail than I can give you in a short blog entry.

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I’ll sum this up by saying: you can save yourself a lot of money and down time by being able to do minor repairs on your own equipment.

Even if you pay someone to come out and fix the equipment you can save money if you have the right part “in stock”. In the case of the thermopile / thermocouple it is not a matter of IF it will go out, but WHEN it will go out (you can bet it will be on a Saturday of a very busy weekend if your restaurant is like the kitchen I work in).

Spend a few bucks and get the parts; it will save you a LOT of time and aspirin in the long run!

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Adventures In Restaurant Maintenance: Get A Toolbox

Adventures In Restaurant Maintenance: Get A ToolboxIn my last post I talked about a few select parts that you could keep on hand to repair your gas restaurant equipment. I would like to take this opportunity to talk about a few tools that could make a big difference in keeping your restaurant equipment up and running. The costs of these tools are minimal but it could have a BIG effect on some holiday weekend when something goes down at the worst possible time.

My job is to keep the equipment in the kitchen working! The chef I work for is a wonderful guy, but when he reaches to use the equipment, he expects it to work! I have a responsibility to do everything reasonably possible to make sure that happens. I have many thousands of dollars worth of tools and a large supply of parts to make sure I keep the chef satisfied. As a restaurant owner/manager you probably don’t have the tools I have or the parts I keep on the shelf to make every repair yourself.

I want to share with you a FEW tools you CAN have that will help you with the repairs you CAN make and you are most likely to need. This will represent a small investment of money for your restaurant, but most of all it will represent an investment of time for you to educate yourself about your equipment and how it works. If you are happy with your current system of calling someone in for every repair and paying the price in dollars, that’s OK. I am attempting with these articles to give you and your restaurant a few alternatives on the simple repairs. I don’t have to tell you that repair companies cost a lot and will not always be able to get your equipment up and working in a timely manner.

I recommend you put together an “equipment toolbox” that is customized for your kitchen equipment.

Tools: Tools are the easy part. You can buy them almost anywhere and the varieties are endless. Buy tools that are not the cheapest but are not the most expensive. Sears brand (Craftsman) are pretty good tools and you can take them back if you break them (you won’t break them, you will lose them—LOL). I would pick up a metal tool box with a lock that is big enough to hold parts and tools but also small enough to put in a convenient place that not everyone has access to. Although I have thousands of dollars worth of tools, I use only a small number of those tools everyday.

Here is a list of some of tools you will need to do simple repairs:

Hand Tools:

Adventures In Restaurant Maintenance: Get A Toolbox

Pocket knife: You can buy a “multi-tool” that has a knife blade like the Leatherman.

Adventures In Restaurant Maintenance: Get A Toolbox

Crescent wrenches: You will need a 4 inch (small) and a 6 inch (medium). Don’t buy the cheap brand; get Crescent brand or at least Craftsman.

Adventures In Restaurant Maintenance: Get A Toolbox

Channel Lock pliers: There is a small one made by Channel Lock that is 7 inches long.

Adventures In Restaurant Maintenance: Get A Toolbox

Wire strippers/cutters: Klein tools makes a good one that you can buy at Sears.

Adventures In Restaurant Maintenance: Get A Toolbox

¼ inch socket set with deep and shallow sockets: You can buy a complete set of these at Sears that comes in it’s own molded case for under $50. You will almost never need anything bigger than a ¼ inch drive.

Adventures In Restaurant Maintenance: Get A Toolbox

Allen wrench set: Get a set that has a holder or you will lose the small wrenches!

Adventures In Restaurant Maintenance: Get A Toolbox

Screwdriver set: You will use a #2 Philips head the most, and you will also need a good quality “jeweler’s” screwdriver.

Adventures In Restaurant Maintenance: Get A Toolbox

Small flashlight: I recommend a good brand like a “Mag-light” that holds AA batteries.

Note: Some of these tools will come in “standard” (or “inch”) and metric. Most restaurant equipment is in “standard.” I do run across metric from time to time and I have my tools in both but I have no idea if you will need metric. The socket set I recommend from Sears will have both standard and metric. The Allen wrenches are often sold in sets with standard and metric. You will have to decide if your equipment is metric (ask the salesman, he can find out).

Electric tools:

Adventures In Restaurant Maintenance: Get A Toolbox

Multimeter: This is a small meter that will read the amount of voltage you have on electric wires. You can use tool a lot, but if you are not going to read the small manual that comes with it and educate yourself on how to use it, don’t waste your money. This meter doesn’t cost much and has many uses but you will have to educate yourself on how it is used.

Adventures In Restaurant Maintenance: Get A Toolbox

Voltage Check (also called VoltAlert): This is a device you really must have. It looks like a pen and will tell you by just touching a wire if there is electricity going through the wire. These came out a few years ago and are great time savers. You can just touch it to the cord and find out if there is power to the equipment. I carry one of these with me while at work and can often diagnose a problem with just this tool. The one Fluke (a electric tool company) makes is called VOLTALERT. You can know almost nothing about maintenance and still use this tool. Easy to use and less than $20!

These are the BASIC tools I would recommend. There are a lot of other tools you might want depending on how far you want to go in repairing your equipment (and how much you like tools—LOL). Don Walker has a more extensive list he recommends in his book Keeping Your Gas Restaurant Equipment Cooking. You should buy and read what he has to say on the subject. You might be surprised to find out that working on equipment is something you actually enjoy doing. I work with one chef that I believe would make a GREAT equipment technician!

As always, if you have any questions, please leave a comment below and I will answer them as soon as possible.

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Adventures In Restaurant Maintenance Part 2

If I had one wish to be granted to make my job easier, it would be that the people I work with could somehow know what I know about restaurant equipment.

Adventures In Restaurant Maintenance Part 2As much as 50% of equipment breakdowns (possibly more) are due to equipment being misused by staff. Commercial restaurant equipment is “HEAVY DUTY,” so it’s designed for long use.

However, it will succumb to misuse in a lot of ways. I can’t tell you the hours I have spent making repairs that are worse than it had to be or wouldn’t have to be done at all if kitchen staff using the equipment were informed on the proper way to use and clean the equipment.

Before I start giving you actual examples, let me offer some suggestions on how to educate kitchen staff.

1. Find a way to inform your employees how much the equipment costs and how much you will have to spend on repairs. In the past I worked for a restaurant franchise with 30 restaurants in a huge area. I put together a newsletter article with a short piece about a particular piece of equipment. I would start off every article with an illustration as to the cost of the piece of equipment. I would say for example:

Adventures In Restaurant Maintenance Part 2“The commercial grade toaster you use every day costs $1,050 dollars to buy new! You would have to sell 420 hamburgers to replace it!! Now THAT is a lot of hamburgers!”

I would take a common menu item and divide it into the equipment price to form a real example (in the minds of the employees) related to the amount of WORK  required to replace a piece of equipment. It worked pretty well with the staff that read the newsletter.

Most employees are not negligent, they are just uninformed on the cost of restaurant equipment and the cost of replacement parts. The employee has to make a connection between what you can afford to pay them in relation to what it costs you to keep the equipment running.

Use whatever method you can devise to make them aware this equipment is NOT the stuff you see on the shelf at Wall Mart!

2. Set up a formal way for kitchen staff using the equipment to report when there is a problem. This “mentioning it in passing to someone” will NOT WORK. Have them put it in writing on a simple form so someone can address the problem BEFORE a complete breakdown occurs.

Your relationship with your employees and the way you have your kitchen set up will dictate to you how to do this best. It might be something as simple as a log that hangs on a clipboard listing the date and description of the problem.

You would be surprised how many times I could have fixed a problem for little or no money had I known about it. The result of not knowing will inevitably lead to the problem getting worse and a complete breakdown of the equipment. Make it a REQUIREMENT to report equipment problems. It will save you a lot of time and expense (and aspirin!).

3. In all kitchens, there are “key” pieces of equipment. The definition of “key” would be a piece of equipment you would have a very hard time doing without, or you just can’t do without. Identify that equipment and personally check it at least once a week.

If a handle is loose, tighten it. Are all the pilots burning? Are the burners/elements clean? Is there any unusual noises or sounds that it wasn’t making last week? Are the indicator lights all burning? These personal checks will prove invaluable in keeping dow time to a minimum.

Also read the manual on the equipment and educate yourself on what it should be doing and when.

I could tell many stories that would demonstrate the value of what I am talking about, but for the sake of time I will list only one:

I got a call to look at a gas convection oven that “would not cook.” I thought it was a problem with the gas supply so I took the parts I thought I would need. When I got to the oven it was hot. I checked the burner and gas supply and all was fine.

I did notice the fan was not running when the doors were shut. When I spoke with the operator I was told cakes were browning in an “uneven” way. He also told me it had been making a “sound” for some time.

I inspected the blower wheel that distributes the heat and found it was frozen in place. I took my pocketknife and tried to free it. It was encrusted with burnt food and under the food was a piece of tin foil that had become lodged in the fan some time ago. I questioned the operator and he said the oven had not been “right” for a couple of months.

I had to replace the fan motor at a cost of $400 dollars, a replacement blower wheel for another $75 dollars and several hours of labor.

Oh and by the way, the delay on the parts caused the oven to be down for over a week (it would have been longer but I paid almost a hundred dollars for express shipping). This oven was a KEY piece of equipment.

The sad part is, if the operator had notified me 2 months prior to the fan failure when the “noise” (tin foil on a fan will make a noise) started, I could have spent 15 minutes with a pocketknife and we wouldn’t have had a fan motor failure and over a week of down time!

Make it part of the culture of your kitchen to educate your employees!

Kevin Loving

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When It Comes To Equipment Repair, Be Prepared

In Kevin Loving’s last post he talked about how keeping a basic tool kit handy in your restaurant will make your life as an operator or manager alot easier. It’s almost certain you will use at least one of these tools everyday on the job. I spent over 5 years on the phones selling replacement parts to restaurants and at least half the times I asked a manger to measure something they either didn’t have a tape measure or didn’t know where it was. So if you haven’t started building your tool kit, now is as great a time as ever. That being said, you should also keep in mind having the tools is only half the battle when it comes to restaurant equipment maintenance.

When It Comes To Equipment Repair, Be Prepared

Keep your burners lit!

Another conversation I had again and again with restaurant managers was the frantic Friday night call. I’m sure you know that call, many of you have probably made a few of them. That’s the phone call to your parts supplier at about 4:30 PM on a Friday night right before they are about to close. You’re in a panic, your fryer is down and weekends in your bar are the busiest times for you. Long story short, without a fryer you can’t serve all those wings and mozzarella sticks so you end up paying $80 in shipping to have a thermopile delivered on Saturday. Sure would have been a lot easier to have a spare thermopile in your office huh? By now you should see what I’m getting at. Maybe while you’re filling that tool box it wouldn’t be a bad idea to keep some critical replacement parts on hand as well. Here’s some to consider:

  1. Thermostats – keep a spare on hand for all your cooking equipment from fryers to ovens. An infinite control for your countertop warmers would be handy as well, along with some replacement dials.
  2. Burner Valves – these should be a no brainer as they are inexpensive. You’ll find them in range tops, broilers and some griddles. You might as well have some extra knobs for these too so you don’t need to use pliers all weekend to turn on your range.
  3. Elements - you can find these all around your kitchen. Need a hint? Check your soup warmers, steam tables, cheesemelters and the heat strips on your line. If you have a dishwasher that uses a booster heater it’s critical to have a couple of extras on hand.
  4. High Limits – these are critical for your fryer, some warmers and your dishwasher’s booster heater. Have a coffee maker? There’s a little one in there too.
  5. Switches – there’s at least one on much of your equipment. Think convection ovens, steamers, coffee makers and warmers.
  6. Pilots – these comprise of  some pilot tubing and a pilot head. Some of these come together in a complete assembly. There are many different pilot assemblies so get the ones specific to your model. You can also keep some generic 18″ pilot assemblies on hand to use in a pinch.
  7. Ignitors – many times along with your pilot comes an ignitor. This is dependent on the type of equipment as the parts range from a push button spark ignitor to a flame sensor and ignition module.
  8. Gas Valves – there’s a variety of these as well. Depending on the equipment you can have a combination valve, a solenoid valve or any variety of safety valve.

You might need many of these or just a few. It depends on the size of your restaurant and how much equipment you have.  Don’t feel like you need to get every possible part there is either. To start, determine which of your equipment you really can’t live without and get the critical parts for those.

A perfect example is a national chain I dealt with for years.  They served biscuits with almost every breakfast, lunch and dinner they sold.  If their proofer went down nobody was having biscuits and that was a signature part of their meals. I’d say that the proofer was a critical part of their daily business wouldn’t you? I managed to convince quite a few of the area managers to keep an extra thermostat, power switch and a humidity switch on hand just in case. Believe me when I tell you they were very happy that they did.

So go ahead and compliment that set of tools with some common equipment replacement parts.  It’s one less thing you’ll have to worry about and you might just save yourself on some expedited shipping charges or an expensive weekend service call.  Next time I’ll go over some parts that are important to have around for fixing things other than kitchen equipment.

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