Article contributed by John Mahlmeister, COO, Easy Ice
When you think of health and safety measures at your business, your ice machine probably doesn’t come to mind.
But the FDA classifies ice as a food for good reasons: under certain conditions, ice can make people sick with bacterial or viral infections. Consumers are most likely to encounter a contaminated ice supply in healthcare facilities, but it’s also possible for ice to sicken customers and staff in restaurants and bars.
How Ice Machines Attract and Transfer Bacteria
While mold and slime built up on the inside of your ice machine is undoubtedly disgusting, it’s the invisible contaminants that pose a real threat to your customers and employees. More than one outbreak of Legionella at a hospital or other healthcare facility has been traced to ice machines over the last few decades, and a 2018 study of 64 ice machines across 5 hospitals and 2 nursing homes found “Gram-negative bacilli and/or Candida spp were recovered from 100% of drain pans, 52% of ice and/or water chutes, and 72% of drain-pan grilles.”1 People can become infected with these bacteria when they consume the contaminated ice and when ice falls through the drain pan grille of ice and beverage dispensers, splashing contaminated water onto their hands and cups.
Commercial ice machines don’t create germs on their own. Human beings transfer bacteria and viruses to ice equipment via dirty hands, coughing, sneezing, and dumping partially consumed beverages into ice machine drain pans. They also spread germs through improper use of ice scoops, shovels, and buckets when taking ice out of bins. Once germs enter the ice machine, they will rapidly spread throughout the unit and live in the ice until the machine is adequately sanitized.
How to Reduce Bacteria in Your Ice Equipment and Eliminate Ice-Acquired Infections
While you can’t reduce the chances of your ice harboring germs to zero, you can get pretty close by taking the following four steps.
- Pick the Right Equipment
Touchless ice dispensers have become more popular in the last 3 years, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, but they have always been the best choice when it comes to maintaining a safe ice supply. Unlike standard ice machines with attached bins and ice machines integrated into soft drink dispensers, touchless ice dispensers eliminate virtually all human contact with the machine and the ice itself. Relying on sensors to release ice into cups when presented, touchless ice dispensers not only reduce the opportunity for dirty human hands to spread bacteria and viruses to the ice; they also require less superficial exterior cleaning.
Touchless ice and water dispensers should be the default choice for healthcare facilities. That said, restaurants and bars—particularly ones with self-serve ice and beverage machines—should strongly consider swapping out their standard ice equipment for touchless models too.
- Hire Experts for Maintenance
Whether you have a touchless ice dispenser at your business or not, proper ice machine maintenance will always be your first line of defense against contaminated ice. Many business owners hire HVAC or refrigeration technicians to handle their ice machine maintenance—or, in the case of healthcare facilities, depend on their facilities management staff—but hiring commercial ice equipment specialists is a far safer choice if you take your ice supply’s safety seriously.
Only technicians with extensive commercial ice machine experience will know how to perform a truly thorough deep cleaning of your machine. Ice machines are internally complex, with several different working parts that need to be checked for mold, slime, and debris. Less knowledgeable technicians from your local HVAC or refrigeration company are unlikely to understand the inner structure of your ice machine and know how to clean it from top to bottom. Without the right maintenance at adequate intervals, even the highest quality touchless ice dispenser will eventually start producing dirty ice.
Don’t take chances with your customers’ health—especially in higher-risk hospital and clinic settings. Make sure the people cleaning your ice equipment are professional ice machine technicians who have a comprehensive maintenance procedure.
- Consider an Additional Sanitation Measure: Ozone
If you want to take extra precaution with your ice supply’s cleanliness, add an ozone generator. Ozone is a gas with powerful disinfectant properties. It’s 99.99% effective at inhibiting microorganism growth and sanitizes surfaces 3000 times faster than chlorine! Ozone gas is heavier than air, so it will sink into the depths of the ice machine and into the bin, effectively sanitizing all internal surfaces your ice supply touches.
An ozone generator reduces the need for professional ice machine cleaning and does a better job than any person could at eliminating and preventing mold and slime growth. Adding ozone generators to all ice machines and dispensers is a must for hospitals and other healthcare facilities. They’re also a great option for restaurants and bars with high concentrations of yeast and grease in the air or for those that simply want to be certain their ice is always safe.
- Practice Proper Handling
If your business depends on standard ice machines with attached bins or non-touchless ice dispensers, handling the ice and equipment correctly can go a long way toward reducing contamination.
Train your staff to observe these ice machine rules:
- In healthcare settings: instruct your staff to sanitize their hands or put on clean latex gloves before dispensing ice and/or water.
- Never dump foreign beverages or food into the ice machine’s drip tray.
- Always dispense ice into single-use cups or clean containers. Do not allow used cups or other vessels to touch any surface of the ice machine equipment.
- If your staff uses a metal scoop or shovel to take ice out of the bin, store these tools in a holder on the side of the machine. Keep scoops and shovels away from the ground and other dirty areas, and do not leave them in the bin!
- Never use an ice transport bucket to scoop ice out of the bin.
- Don’t stack your used ice transport buckets; hang them or store them on a shelf after sanitizing.
- Wear a mask when scooping from a big bin.
- Never eat or drink while scooping ice.
- Always shut the bin door after filling containers.
Managing ice safety can be overwhelming if you’re an ice machine owner. Renting your ice equipment from a provider that bundles ice machines with professional maintenance can simplify your ice machine experience. Instead of trying to find a reliable ice machine service company in your area, figuring out where to buy an ozone generator, and spending thousands of dollars on a new touchless ice dispenser, renting from a commercial ice equipment company can keep your ice dispenser affordable and give you peace of mind.
Whether you’re preparing to open a new business or thinking about replacing your current ice equipment, consider a rental solution that combines touchless ice dispensers with professional maintenance performed by ice equipment specialists.
Sources: 1 Kanwar, Anubhav. “Hiding in Plain Sight: Contaminated Ice Machines Are a Potential Source for Dissemination of Gram-Negative Bacteria and Candida Species in Healthcare Facilities: Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology.” Cambridge Core, 31 Jan. 2018, LINK.
John Mahlmeister is the chief operating officer and co-founder of Easy Ice. Co-headquartered in Phoenix, AZ and Marquette, MI, Easy Ice is the national leader in the full-service ice machine subscription industry with warehouse and distribution facilities in Chicago, Dallas, Kansas City, Orlando, and Denver. Since its founding in 2009, Easy Ice has rapidly grown the number of ice machines under management to over 30,000 units across 47 states. The Easy Ice commercial ice machine subscription programs include installation, cleaning, preventive maintenance, repairs, and backup ice. For more information, please visit EasyIce.com. Find them on social media at Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn