Contributed by Mike Travis, vice president of sales at Ecolab Equipment Care\GCS Service

With the economy still struggling to recover and consumer spending down, keeping operating costs low can help ensure the survival of restaurants through both bad times and good. Proactive maintenance is one easy way restaurants can achieve peak performance, conserve energy and ultimately extend the life of kitchen equipment.

Foodservice kitchen equipment, in particular, is extremely energy intensive. However, operators can lessen that impact if they take a proactive approach to maintenance to keep everything operating efficiently and when only needed. The following tips can help you save as much as 25 percent on energy costs:

Keep it Clean. Kitchen equipment collects food in every crack and crevice, which can make it operate less efficiently over time as it works harder to achieve proper hot and cold temperatures. Clean broiler equipment every day to minimize collateral damage, such as clogged burners on a gas cook top. When refrigerator coils get dirty, they're less efficient at dispersing heat so the refrigerator has to use more energy to keep food cool. Keep the back side of refrigerators clear of dust and debris like cardboard boxes that reduce air flow.

Turn it Down. Fryers, broilers, steamers and other large cooking equipment like pasta cookers can consume large amounts of gas and electricity. That may be necessary when in use, but it's not during off peak hours. Training kitchen staff to turn down the thermostat when equipment will not be used can significantly reduce energy costs. For example, if a pasta cooker is on for 10 hours a day, selecting the lowest setting needed to produce a boil can reduce energy consumption costs by 20 to 50 percent at a single location.

Keep it Well Maintained. Beyond keeping equipment clean, operators can achieve significant energy savings by making sure that equipment is in proper repair, thermostats are calibrated, and there are no leaks or other issues impacting energy use. A spike in energy costs can actually be a sign of equipment that’s running down.

According to industry reports, the average repair call for a broken oven costs about $500. New equipment, meanwhile, can be very expensive and range from $600 for a new coffee brewer to $6,000 for a new double-deck convection oven. By comparison, spending a small amount of time each month to check that equipment is in good repair and operating at peak efficiency can help avoid expensive repairs or replacements.

The buzzes and whirs of a kitchen can offer the first hint that something is wrong--so pay attention if you hear the motor on the walk-in cooler rattling. Call for service before it gets worse. Simple maintenance repairs, such as replacing the gasket on a refrigerator or oven door, can make a big difference in reducing energy waste and costs.

Every restaurant should draw up a schedule for calibrating ovens, checking refrigerators and condenser fans and rescaling dishwashers. If followed consistently, you'll have kitchen equipment that uses less energy, performs better and lives longer.

(photos courtesy of Ecolab Equipment Care\GCS Service)