For food businesses that may not be strictly beverage-oriented, a dedicated commercial ice machine may not be the first item on your dream list of equipment. After all, they make…ice, right? Frozen water?

But after a few weeks with limitless supplies of perfectly-formed, always ready-on-demand ice cubes, you’ll wonder how your kitchen ever survived so long without one.

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Commercial ice machines come in many different shapes and sizes, with different levels of ice production scaling with the size and cost of the unit (more on this later). But for now, let’s take a look at the three main categories of commercial ice machines: Modular, under-counter, and countertop.

Modular ice machines are the Sherman tanks of the commercial ice machine business. These machines (which you may also sometimes see referred to as “ice machine heads”) aren’t self-contained; instead, this type of ice machine sits on top of a separate ice machine bin, which typically needs to be purchased separately. These machines are capable of producing between 250 and 1,000 pounds of ice per day, which makes them best suited for large commercial foodservice applications, including hospitals and cafeterias, or for businesses that are packaging ice in bags for standalone retail sale.

Under-counter ice machines combine an ice machine head with a storage bin, in one ready-to-go unit. They’re designed to fit under 40″ countertops, and are capable of producing up to 350 pounds of ice per day, making them an important part of any efficient bar, restaurant, or hotel.

If you operate a smaller business, that may not have the square footage needed for a freestanding commercial ice machine, a countertop ice maker may be the solution you’re looking for. Many of these units can produce up to 400 pounds of ice per day, making them a good fit for use in cafes, diners, and bars.

What Kind of Ice Can I Make?

Used commercial ice machines.

A better question might be: What kind of ice CAN’T you make? If you’re going to expand the production capabilities of your kitchen to include potentially hundreds or even thousands of pounds of ice per day, choosing the kind of ice cube you want is an important decision. Do you value an ice cube that melts more slowly? Or would you like an ice cube that’s easy to crunch up and chew? The possibilities are nearly endless, but here are a few of the more common options available:

Cube ice is the most common type of ice typically produced by commercial ice machines for restaurant use, because it tends to melt more slowly than other types of ice. Because of its slow melt, you can reduce the amount of ice consumed by customers, which translates into saving money. This type of ice cube is broken down further into sub-categories: Full cube, half cube, and regular cube.

Nugget ice isn’t just the name I use in my freelance career as a hip hop artist; it’s also the name given to the smaller pellets of ice (sometimes referred to as “chewblets”) that you’ll often find in hospitals and health care facilities. Like regular cubes, it is slow to melt but easier to chew.

Flake ice is almost exclusively found for use in display coolers, including meat, salads, or fish, but can also be used for blended drinks. This type of ice is soft, with small flakes that cool quickly and can mold to any shape.

What Type of Compressor Should I Choose?

After you’ve settled on the volume of ice you’ll need each day, as well as the shape of ice cube you’d like to produce, it’s time for the next important question: The compressor.

Air-cooled ice machines are the most budget-friendly option for small or new businesses, as they don’t require any extra expense for additional water. Air-cooled condensers need 6″ of clearance around the air intake and exhaust, but their relative value makes them a good choice for the majority of customers.

If you’re planning to install your ice machine in a location with average temperatures greater than 80 degrees, or where there are a lot of airborne contaminants (such as grease or smoke), a water-cooled ice machine may be a better choice. Check with your local code enforcement office before purchasing, however; because of the amount of water they consume, they are not allowed in some municipalities.

Remote cooled commercial ice machines use roof-mounted, air-cooled condensers located outside of the building itself, with refrigerant lines running from the condenser to the machine. While operation is nearly silent compared to regular air-cooled or water-cooled machines, setup and maintenance tends to be much more expensive.

How to Evaluate a Used Commercial Ice Machine

How to use a commercial ice machine.

After you’ve settled on the production level, cube shape, and type of compressor you need, it’s time to start evaluating potential candidates.

Check the seals around the top of the ice bin, looking for missing chunks or tears that could affect the efficiency and performance of the unit. You should also look for large dents or damage to the outside of the unit, which won’t affect performance, but may lend some insight into the care the ice machine was shown in a commercial environment. It’s safe to reason that ice makers that look like they fell off the back of a truck, probably didn’t have a lot of care and attention spent on cleaning and regular filter changes.

While comparing prices is important, you should also spend some time carefully considering how much ice machine you actually need. There’s no reason to spend big bucks on a behemoth that cranks out 1,000 pounds per day, if you serve primarily bottled beverages.

If you’re starting a new business, do your best to estimate your actual use (you can typically assume 8 ounces of ice per 12 ounce drink sold), leaving room for your ice machine to scale production as business demands. If you’re an already established business replacing a broken ice machine, take some time to consider whether your old unit was adequately keeping up with demand, and consider upgrading to a higher-production model. Consider how much more ice you need during peak service times, and find a unit that will ensure you always have extra ice on hand during unexpected spikes in business.

Consider the existing layout of your plumbing. The funny thing about making ice, is that it requires a constant supply of water. Failing to match your used commercial ice machine with your existing plumbing can lead to undersized cubes, leaky inlet valves, or a long, disapproving look from your local health inspector (or worse). Remember also that your ice machine will need to be located near a floor drain, to allow for drainage of excess water.

While it’s always nice to buy an inspection-ready, sparkling clean unit, don’t be distracted by mold, grime, or mysterious spilled, sticky messes. Everything on a commercial ice machine can be cleaned, and we’ve seen some truly disgusting pieces of equipment restored to a sparkling shine. If the unit is particularly dirty, try using that as a negotiating point for a better price.

A Final Word About Cleaning

One final note: Please keep your ice machine clean. If you’re investing in clean, great-tasting ice for your customers, it’s up to you to make sure your machine stays spotlessly clean. Invest in a commercial-grade water filter and descaled for your new unit, and don’t cut corners on maintenance products; spending money now will save you hundreds or thousands of dollars down the line. In an effort to prevent limescale and mold, clean your water system, air filters, and water filtration system thoroughly, and sanitize the interior of the bin regularly.