What’s Cookin’?

By John Stoddard, Health Care Without Harm's (HCWH) Healthy Food in Health Care Program on March 5, 2013

Energy and water efficiency in health care food services offer big cost savings and environmental impact.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the health care industry is the second largest commercial energy user in the U.S. The first largest? The food services industry. That’s a double whammy for a commercial kitchen located inside a hospital! A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimated the health care sector contributes approximately eight percent of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions.

Furthermore, health care facilities are often a community’s largest consumers of water, and Food Services account for approximately nine percent of that water use. Water and energy use are linked because increased water use often means increased energy use: About eight percent of the U.S. energy demand is used to treat, pump, and heat water. This information, of course, doesn’t mean that hospital kitchens have to be bigger energy users than other commercial kitchens.

The Role of Hospital Food Services

The Food Services department can play an important role in enacting changes that will increase water and energy efficiency in hospitals. Some of these changes are simple policy, such as training staff to turn off appliances or ensuring that water leaks are fixed in a timely fashion. In other cases, a relatively low investment in equipment can yield big monetary savings, with a typical return on investment (ROI) of one year or less.

Monitoring Use and Savings in Health Care

According to the EPA, health care organizations spend nearly $8.8 billion on energy each year to meet patient needs. Every dollar a nonprofit health care organization saves on energy has the equivalent impact on the operating margin of $20 in increased revenues for hospitals or $10 for medical offices.

By establishing baseline energy and water use, and then monitoring the effects of efficiency measures, a hospital’s food services department can realize monetary savings directly attributable to their department, as well as environmental benefits.

If you are submetering your department and/or equipment, Portfolio Manager can help you to track your use and savings. Portfolio Manager is a free, interactive energy management tool developed by the EPA that will allow you to track and assess energy and water consumption in a secure online environment. By tracking water use alongside energy use, you can better understand how these resources relate to one another, make integrated management decisions that increase overall efficiency, and verify savings from improvement projects in both energy and water systems.

Strategies for Energy and Water Saving in Food Services

There are many low- or no-cost strategies for reducing energy and water use that will save your department money. When making larger capital improvements, there may be ways to reduce the costs of purchasing energy-efficient equipment. Many local utilities offer cost-sharing and rebates for commercial kitchen equipment that is energy- and water-efficient. Free energy and water audits are also available in some locations.

Low- and No-Cost Strategies

The following actions can be taken right away after establishing baselines, with little to no capital investment. These improvements and best practices can save thousands of dollars per year.

  1. Replace incandescent exit signs with LED exit signs.
    • The initial cost is about $40/sign (rebates may reduce cost to under $15).
    • Using LED bulbs reduces wattage from 40W to 5W per sign.
    • LED lifespan is 7,500-10,000 hours, compared to 750-1,000 hours for incandescent.
    • LED yearly energy cost is under $10, compared to more than $50 for incandescent.
    • Payback is less than one year, or less than four months with a rebate.
  2. Fix all water leaks.
    • A leaky faucet can waste up to 100,000 gallons of water per year and increase your water, sewer, and water heating costs.
    • Fixing one leak can save $700 per year.
    • If it’s a hot water leak, fixing will save $1,400 per year.
    • Set water heater to the proper temperature.
    • Only heat water to the temperature required for specific tasks in your operation. Typically this means either 110°F, or 140°F for the dishwasher.
    • A heater set to 10°F too high costs an extra $650 per year.
    • A heater set 20°F too high costs an extra $1,300 per year.
  3. Clean dirty refrigeration condenser coils.
    • Dirty coils can cause increased energy use, unnecessary service calls, and premature compressor failure.
    • Clean coils at least once a quarter.
  4. Install high-performance, low-flow pre-rinse spray nozzles.
    • A pre-rinse spray nozzle can be potentially one of the most expensive pieces of equipment to operate depending on its flow rate.
    • Some nozzles can consume five gallons per minute (gpm), which translates to an annual operating cost of $1,500 if used for only one hour per day.
    • Select a high performance, low-flow nozzle with a flow rate as low as 0.65 gpm. These water-efficient models clean just as well as the high-flow units, and can reduce annual energy and water costs by well over $1,000.

Longer-Term Strategies

When getting ready to replace equipment, or when planning a remodel of your kitchen, consider purchasing energy- and water-efficient equipment. Food preparation, sanitation, and refrigeration equipment comprise close to 60 percent of a kitchen facility’s energy costs. Lighting is 13 percent.

As a long-term strategy, your department may consider developing a policy that establishes a preference for water- and energy-efficient equipment depending on its ROI period (within one year or within three years, for example.) This will help ensure that future purchases will be made by considering not just the up-front cost, but the cost of equipment over its lifetime.

The following are some examples of the potential savings achieved through water- and energy-efficient equipment.

  1. Purchase ENERGY STAR boilerless steamers.
    • ENERGY STAR steam cookers consume approximately two gallons of water per hour, compared to 25-35 gallons on standard models, and are 60 percent more energy-efficient than standard models, owing to a combination of lower cook times, greater cabinet insulation, lower idle energy rates, and more efficient steam delivery mechanisms.
    • Water- and energy-efficient boilerless steamers can potentially reduce annual operating and maintenance costs by thousands of dollars in a typical casual dining restaurant.
  2. Choose air-cooled ice machines only.
    • Water-cooled ice machines may be just as energy-efficient as air-cooled machines, but their water use makes them far more expensive to operate.
    • A 500-pound-per-day water-cooled machine can use nearly 100,000 more gallons of water per year than an air-cooled equivalent.
    • In terms of operating cost, the air-cooled machine saves $700 per year.
  3. Specify ENERGY STAR dishwashers.
    • Commercial dishwashers that have earned the ENERGY STAR designation are, on average, 25 percent more energy- and water-efficient than standard models.
    • An ENERGY STAR dishwasher can save $720 annually in energy costs and $300 in water costs.

Reinvest Your Savings

By monitoring the monetary savings you achieve through water and energy efficiency measures, you can share your success with your administration and the community. Potential savings are in the thousands, and you might be able to direct that money into other sustainability programs in your department. For example, you may be able to devote more resources to local and sustainable foods, or biodegradable food serviceware.


There are many more tips for best practices in equipment operation and maintenance that can save money and resources, as well as more information on potential savings from efficient equipment.

Swedish Medical Center’s Water Savings

Photo courtesy of the Swedish Medical center
Photo courtesy of the Swedish Medical center

When Swedish Medical Center in Seattle was planning the construction of a new hospital in Issaquah, Washington, it included energy and water efficiency in its considerations for new kitchen equipment. Its new facility now uses a food waste collector system in place of disposal, and saves approximately eight gallons of water per minute of operation, and more than $6,000 annually. (A typical pre-rinse and disposer uses about 10 gallons of water per minute.) Another great benefit of the system is that it collects the food waste for composting, instead of sending it down the drain to the sewer system, notes Eric Eisenberg, corporate executive chef for Nutrition, Catering, Retail, & Conference Services at Swedish. This saves the community money and resources downstream for treatment of the waste water. With the savings on its water bills, plus the reduced energy costs because Swedish is no longer running a disposal, Eisenberg expects a timely return on the investment.

For more information about the Healthy Food in Health Care Program, and to access a variety of tools and resources, visit www.healthyfoodinhealthcare.org.