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A commercial ice machine is crucial for just about any restaurant. Not only are they required to keep up with constant demand, but they must do so under extreme temperatures and with many moving parts. Here are a few factors to consider if you're in the market for a restaurant ice maker.

While ice makers may seem complex, their fundamentals are quite simple. First, an external water inflow draws water into a refrigeration system where ice is produced. Unlike units you may have in your home, a commercial ice machine freezes ice layer by layer, removing bubbles and trapped gas that make ice look cloudy. Water is slowly poured onto the tray, forming cubes or other shapes. When formed, a heating coil helps separate the finished ice from the freezing system. The final product falls into a storage bin and is constantly monitored so the tray is not overfilled.

Cubes are the most common shape, often found in restaurants and other establishments where drinks are sold. Because of their shape and density, cubes cool beverages quickly and melt slowly. Another type of commercial ice machine generates flakes, which is typically used in situations where objects or food are being packed. Choose the cube style if you're simply serving drinks. If chilling items on a buffet, such as salads or seafood, the flaker style will better serve your needs.

Another common ice style is the nugget, a spherical shape that preserves qualities of both cubes and flakes. It works well in drinks, absorbing the taste of beverages through gas pockets in its interior. It is also easier to pack, and the brittle interior makes it easier to chew.

The method by which water is cooled is another important consideration in choosing the perfect restaurant ice maker. Ice is either water-cooled or air-cooled, and which method you choose depends heavily on cost, climate and local regulations. Water-cooled systems cool ice by keeping it near chilled water, and while they do keep excess heat from venting into an air conditioning system, they can waste up to one gallon of water per pound of ice. It is for this reason that some local regulations prohibit water-cooling, and offer rebates for air-cooled systems. While air-cooled makers don't waste water, they do vent heat into buildings which raises air conditioning costs. Even if electric costs do increase, they are generally less than the expense caused by waste water from water-cooled ice makers.

Once you've chosen an ice style and cooling method, you must also select a form factor. Which you pick depends heavily on the space available in your kitchen, and the appliances it can accommodate.

As their name implies, modular ice makers are the most flexible. Separating their functionality into distinct units for production and storage, modular ice makers are easier to maintain and upgrade. Modules typically stack, giving the appearance of being a single unit.

Self-contained ice makers combine all functions into a single unit. These designs sacrifice maintainability and upgradability for increased space efficiency.

If your space is severely limited, consider an under-counter commercial ice maker. Resembling self-contained units, these ice makers can be installed under counters and are ideal for cramped spaces. Unfortunately, the production and storage quantities of these units are typically even less than their self-contained counterparts.

Production rate is another key factor to consider. Ice makers are described by the pounds they can produce in a 24-hour period. These values vary based on ambient air conditions, so ice makers should be placed as far as possible from sources of heat. Since manufacturer specifications are based on optimal conditions, anticipate a 20% reduction in production for water-cooled units, and 30% for air-cooled models.

Anticipating how much ice is needed is challenging. Not only does this vary from business to business, but season and time of day are also factors. In general, determine ice needs based on peak hours, keeping excess in storage for later use.

Prices for restaurant ice makers vary widely. A self-contained ice maker producing a minimal 130 pounds per day and 80 pounds of storage costs around $1,500. On the higher end, expect to pay $5,000 for additional storage and production capacity. In general, water-cooled machines cost slightly more than do their air-cooled counterparts.

While purchasing your ideal ice maker may seem difficult, much of the complexity can be removed by answering a few simple questions. By estimating peak ice needs, examining your space and choosing the best ice shape, the field of choices is vastly reduced.