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Restaurant Ventilation: Best Practices

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Most restaurants have multiple areas with distinct HVAC needs; here's how to meet those challenges
By Dale Allen September 2014 Expert Insights

Having proper ventilation for your restaurant is imperative for employee and customer health as well as food sanitation. Improper ventilation can result in safety violations, higher utility bills, decreased employee productivity, and even flaring tempers from customers as well as employees. It can also result in loss of traffic due to unpleasant odors or uncomfortable conditions.

Restaurants have unique ventilation needs. Besides the need to control food odors and minimize smoke and fumes from the cooking process, most restaurants have multiple distinct areas, each of which presents its own HVAC challenges. Here are some top tips for meeting these challenges and making sure your restaurant gets the proper ventilation it needs.

Make Sure You Have Enough Makeup Air

It’s very important to be sure that you are bringing in enough outside air—“makeup air”—to compensate for the amount of air being exhausted. Not enough makeup air can cause a negative pressure condition in your building. This can lead to all sorts of problems, including areas that are drafty or stuffy, doors that slam, poor air quality, reduced energy efficiency, and back-venting of combustion gases from HVAC equipment.

If you are experiencing problems like these, it would be a good idea to discuss your situation with your HVAC professional. You may need to introduce more makeup air into your system, or less commonly, you may be exhausting more air than is necessary. Your technician can assess your situation and provide you with suitable options that meet OSHA standards for workplace ventilation.

HVAC for the Restaurant Kitchen

The kitchen is the heart of your restaurant—and it is also the area of greatest need for ventilation. Restaurant kitchen HVAC needs include:

Cooling

Most restaurant kitchens feature several pieces of high-intensity cooking and dishwashing equipment packed into a relatively small area. This can quickly raise kitchen temperatures to unbearable levels, especially in hot weather or during very busy periods. High kitchen temperatures are not just an inconvenience for employees—they can significantly affect your restaurant’s profitability.

Studies have shown that employee productivity peaks at just over 71˚ F, and drops off above 77˚. (This is consistent with OSHA’s recommendation that workplace thermostats be set between 68-76˚.) Outside of optimal temperatures, workers exhibit a higher rate of mistakes. In a kitchen, this can lead to anything from botched orders to personal injury.

An overly hot kitchen also wreaks havoc on your utility bills. Compressors on refrigerators and freezers must work overtime when they are located in a hot environment.

The challenge, of course, comes in keeping the kitchen at a reasonable temperature without freezing out the rest of your establishment. Putting the kitchen on a separate zone with its own thermostat can help. The existing HVAC system, however, may not be up to the task of maintaining the needed heat differential. In that case, installing a portable air conditioning unit in the kitchen for busy times or in hot weather can help keep everyone comfortable.

Air Quality

Cooking releases grease, smoke, and particulates into the air, which can be both unpleasant and unsafe for respiratory health. Health department regulations typically require that ventilation hoods be installed over cooking appliances. Codes vary from one state and municipality to another, so check with your local health authorities to make sure you are using the proper size and grade of ventilation hood for your equipment.

You can maximize your hood’s efficiency by setting your appliances as close to the wall as possible. This will ensure that the entire cooking area is covered. If you are preparing greasy food, it’s also wise to make sure that the hood you install is designed to filter grease—not all of them are.

Fire Suppression

Your building codes may also require that your ventilation hoods are equipped with fire suppression systems. These may utilize either dry chemicals or inert gas (such as CO2) to douse any fire that may occur. To keep fires from occurring in the first place, it is a very good idea to make cleaning the hoods a part of your kitchen employees’ regular routine.

Don’t Forget to Ventilate the Other Areas of Your Restaurant

Each area of your restaurant has its own ventilation and temperature control challenges. Here are some things to look for in each area:

Dining Room

  • Is the dining area consistently a comfortable temperature, or are parts of it drafty or stuffy?

  • Is the dining area free of strong or unpleasant cooking odors?

  • Is the air in the dining room clear?

Restrooms

  • Do the restrooms get overly cold or hot?

  • Is the restroom air free of unpleasant odors?

Lobby

  • Are waiting guests protected from air and temperature fluctuations?

Outdoor Dining Areas

  • Is the patio overly hot or cold?

  • Is kitchen exhaust air directed away from outdoor diners?

Proper makeup air regulation can go a long way toward optimizing ventilation and temperature throughout your entire establishment. However, you may still need to tweak the system for individual rooms and areas. If you are still experiencing problems in a particular area, have your HVAC technician assess it for pressure, air flow, and temperature. A well-placed ventilation or exhaust fan may be all that is needed. Or—especially for seasonal comfort—a portable fan, heater, or air conditioning unit can be an easy and inexpensive way to keep any area of your restaurant comfortable and inviting.

The opinions of contributors are their own. Publication of their writing does not imply endorsement by FSR magazine or Journalistic Inc.