Water Savings For Restaurants And Commercial Kitchens

It’s smart business to cut costs. Many successful restaurants and commercial kitchens strive to cut food costs, labor costs, heating & air conditioning costs, insurance costs, and even energy costs, but all too often they overlook dollars being washed down the drain in the form of water. Depending on what part of the country you’re in, water can represent a significant utility cost for your restaurant or commercial kitchen. Making good decisions about installing water saving equipment and fixtures is not only good for your bottom line, it’s good for the environment.

Commercial Foodservice Water Use

According to a commonly used industry estimate, a typical sit-down restaurant is believed to use between 3,000 to 7,000 gallons of water per day, with an average of about 5,800. That can be more than 2 million gallons per year. Although water utility rates vary widely from region to region, water costs for the typical operation can easily amount to many thousands of dollars per year. Cutting these costs is good for the bottom line, and conserving water helps insure that rates won’t go up.

Where To Cut Back

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 52% of water use in restaurants is associated with kitchen and warewashing operations. Another 31% is associated with restrooms. That represents 83% of your total water usage. So it makes sense to focus on those areas when trying to cut back.

Choosing Kitchen Equipment – Energy Star

Energy Star LogoThe Energy Star program is run by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy. It promotes energy efficiency, and many look for the Energy Star logo when seeking energy efficient equipment. But Energy Star also sets water usage standards for many types of commercial kitchen equipment including commercial dishmachines, ice machines, and steam cookers. So if your goal is to save water, a good place to start is with Energy Star approved equipment. In addition to energy and water savings, a Kitchen Spot Expert can help you determine if you qualify for Energy Star rebates available various jurisdictions.


Low Temp CMA Dishmachine
Low Temp CMA Dishmachine

In terms of water usage, there are two primary types of dishmachines: machines that drain and refill the wash tank after each cycle, and machines that recirculate water throughout multiple cycles. Drain and refill machines typically use up twice as much water and are configured as low temperature machines. Machines that recirculate their water are usually configured as high temperature machines.

Low Temperature Dishmachines – Low-temp dishmachines rely on chemicals to sanitize dishes. Low-temp machines can be less expensive to purchase, and many chemical companies offer favorable lease rates in exchange for lucrative chemical supply contracts. Water in the wash tank is drained and refilled after every cycle, and more chemicals are added to sanitize the dishes. Additionally, it is recommended that dishes be thoroughly scraped and rinsed prior to racking and loading.

While low-temp dishmachines use less energy for heating water, the energy savings can be offset by the cost of chemicals and higher water use. Further, low temperature dishmachines do not remove lipstick, and are less effective on animal fats. Major manufacturers such as Champion, CMA and Jackson offer low-temp models. Energy Star models are more efficient than their non-Energy Star equivalents.

High Temperature Dishmachines – High-temp dishmachines rely on hot water to clean dishes. They heat the water in the wash tank, and recirculate it through multiple cycles. They provide a low volume, high temperature rinse to sanitize dishes. Because they don’t stop to drain and refill after each cycle, high-temp dishmachines are faster and can do more dishes per hour.

High-temp dishmachines can cost more to purchase, and generally use more electricity to heat water. Additionally, due to steam and water vapor, they should be positioned under a Type 2 or ventless hood system, but they use much less water, reduce chemical costs, and do a better job on residues like lipstick and animal fats. This results in fewer racks of dishes that need to be run through the machine for a second wash.
While there are multiple factors to consider when making a choice, if water savings is your ultimate goal, then high temperature machines will use up to 50% less water. Major manufacturers such as Champion, CMA and Jackson offer high-temp models, and many are Energy Star rated as well.

Additional Dishmachine Technologies – Other features can further improve water savings. Look for these when purchasing or replacing a dishmachine.

  • Water Filtration – High-temp machines filter water to remove food scraps and keep water optimally clean through multiple cycles. Advanced water filtration means that a single tank of wash water can effectively handle more cycles between water changes.
  • Soil Sensors – This technology tests water cleanliness throughout the cycle and makes adjustments to achieve optimal cleaning with the lowest water use.
  • Improved Spray Jets – Manufacturers have engineered better water jets that distribute spray more effectively and at optimum angles for better cleaning with less water.

Pre-Rinse Units

T&S Brass PreRinse
T&S Brass Pre Rinse Faucet

Pre-rinse units are used to spray soil and food residue from dishes prior to loading them into the dishmachine. One study shows that a pre-rinse unit can be responsible for as much as one-third of all water used in warewashing operations. Low flow pre-rinse units save water by regulating the flow and force of the spray.

As of January 2019, the Department of Energy set a standard for all pre-rinse units manufactured in the U.S. The new standard was intended to improve water use by at least 20% with a maximum flow rate of 1.0 to 1.28 gallons of water per minute, depending on the spray force. However, some manufacturers offer units that exceed those maximums with units that use as little as 0.64 gallons of water per minute.
Low flow pre-rinse units are relatively simple to install, affordable, and will quickly pay for themselves in water savings. They are available from a variety of manufacturers including T&S Brass and Krowne.

Ice Machines

Ice-O-Matic Ice Machine
Ice-O-Matic Ice Machine

There are two basic types of ice machines: water cooled and air cooled. Air cooled machines use up to five times less water than water cooled machines.

Water Cooled Ice Machines – Water cooled ice machines have fallen from popularity. They use water lines that run along the condenser coils to remove heat from the system. The problem is that unless you have a modern building with a recirculating water system and cooling tower, all the cooling water from the machine simply goes down the drain. Older water-cooled machines can use 130 to 180 gallons of water to produce just 100 pounds of ice. Water cooled ice machines are being prohibited in some jurisdictions due to their high water use. The single advantage of water cooled machines is that they are not affected by high ambient air temperatures, so they can maintain ice output even in high heat areas.

Air-Cooled Machines –
Air cooled ice machines typically use only 15 to 25 gallons of water to produce 100 pounds of ice, and usually require less electricity to operate. They are generally easier to install as well. They rely on fans to blow air across the condenser coils and vent heat from the system. In very high heat climates, or enclosed high heat spaces, the already hot air blowing across the condenser coils will be less effective and the machine may struggle to keep up with ice production. But in adequately vented areas with typical ambient temperatures, they are the best choice for water savings, energy savings, and environmental benefits. In addition to the advantages of air cooled machines in general, manufacturers such as Ice-O-Matic, Scotsman Ice, and Manitowoc Ice all offer Energy Star models that use even less energy and water than their non-Energy Star equivalents.


Vulcan Countertop Steamer
Vulcan Countertop Steamer

Steam cooking is enjoying a resurgence in popularity due to high cooking speeds and the health benefits of steam over other types of cooking. There are basically two types of steamers: boiler based and connectionless.

Boiler Based Steamers – These rely on a boiler system to deliver food quality steam to the cooking compartment. Condensed steam simply flows down the drain. Boiler based systems can use up to 407 gallons of water per day, up to 30 times what connectionless systems use.

Connectionless Steamers – These do not require a boiler. They are called “connectionless” because there is no drain connected to the unit. They feature a closed system and a heated water reservoir that is manually filled to generate steam. The cooking compartment is typically insulated to retain heat. Very little steam leaves the cooking cavity and condensed steam remains in the system for reuse. Energy Star rated models are available. They use as little as 14 gallons of water per day. Connectionless units are usually easier to install, require less electricity to operate, and require less maintenance and cleaning than a boiler based system. Manufacturers such as AccuTemp, Cleveland Range, Market Forge, and Vulcan offer Energy Star approved steamers.


Restrooms account for a considerable amount of water loss in restaurants and commercial foodservice operations. Installing low flow water faucets, toilets, and urinals can save an enormous amount of water. When selecting restroom equipment and fixtures, look for the WaterSense label. WaterSense is a voluntary partnership program sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Products that earn the right to bear the WaterSense label use at least 20% less water.

Installing no touch faucets can make sure that water doesn’t continue to run when not needed. If already in use, it’s good to periodically check automatic sensors on faucets, toilets, and urinals to ensure they are operating properly.

Other Water Saving Tips

Although less of an immediate impact, there are other steps that can be taken to conserve water.

  • Repair leaky faucets, pipes, and plumbing fixtures promptly. Leaks can cost up to $700 per year in water loss.
  • Don’t thaw food in water. Instead, thaw food under refrigeration overnight.
  • Only wash full racks of dishes. Regardless of how efficient your dishmachine is, if you are washing half-filled racks of dishes, then you’re using twice as much water as necessary. Teach your staff to load (but not overload) racks before running them through the machine.
  • Turn water off. Constantly running faucets can waste water when not in use. Some equipment, such as dipper wells, require constantly running water. Remove the scoops for cleaning and turn the water off overnight, or even between shifts.
  • Serve water on request only. A restaurant that serves 250 meals per day, and provides each patron with a 10 ounce glass of water, uses more than 7000 gallons per year in water service. You can dramatically reduce that number, and perhaps boost other beverage sales, by withholding water until requested.

Water conservation is a growing concern for everyone. Some dryer areas of the country have limited water supplies to begin with. But even in water rich areas of the country, growing populations are putting a strain on existing water supplies resulting in higher water utility rates. Most restaurants and commercial foodservice operations use much more water than needed, and although many other cost-cutting measures may yield faster results, enormous amounts of money can be saved simply by making smart investments when you install or replace warewashing equipment, ice makers, steam equipment, and general restroom and plumbing fixtures. A Kitchen Spot Expert can help with your water reduction efforts.