HPAC Magazine

Ice Machine Basics

By Mark Masterson   


There are many choices of commercial ice machines on the market today. While you might think that the technology for making ice has changed little over the years, this is actually not the case. Technology has advanced and so have commercial ice machines. Now machines are more energy and water efficient than ever before, and ozone-depleting refrigerants have been phased out.


Ice machines are classified in four main ways: by profile, by capacity and ice production, how they are cooled and by the type of ice they make.

Profile – Refers to the type of space into which the ice machine goes, such as under a counter or on top of a soda machine.

Capacity and Ice Production – How much ice (in pounds) can the machine hold, whether there is a storage bin, and how much ice can it produce in a day.

Cooling Mechanism – You have the choice between air cooled and water cooled.

Types of Ice – Full cubes, half cubes, nuggets, and flake ice are predominant, though there are many others.


Under the Counter – Under the counter ice machines find applications in both residential and business settings. Units can range in price from $350 up to $2,000 depending on capacity, how fast it can make the ice, and the ice type. It is important to measure the space that the machine will go into, remembering that most ice machines operate best with six to eight inches of clearance. Other ice machines require no side or rear clearance.

Stand Alone Ice Dispensers – By far the most common ice machines in a commercial setting are freestanding units. These are suited to restaurants, institutional applications and other settings where a substantial amount of ice is needed for day-to-day use. These can come in several different varieties. Some are all-in-one cabinets that include ice storage. Others just produce ice and must be attached to a separate storage bin. Very large units are sometimes split into separate condenser and ice making components.

Portable ice making unit –  These machines are an option for those who require less than approximately 35 pounds of ice in a day. The best part about these machines is that they make ice within a matter of minutes. They are priced between $150 and $300.


There is some debate over which type of compressor in an ice machine is more energy and/or water efficient. In general, air cooled compressors use more energy and water cooled compressors use more water. Nowadays, water conservation is more important than ever and those of us with access to clean water would be mindful not to waste it.

Water cooled ice machines keep their condensers cool by using water and running it over the condenser and then purging it from the ice machine. In a single day, the largest water cooled ice machine may run through over 5000 gallons of water or more when operating at maximum effort. That number adds up very quickly, especially if the ice machine is in use every day.

Some businesses simply have no other option and must use a water cooled ice machine to keep ice production consistent. Water cooled systems have an advantage if you need ice in a very hot environment, since they can work at a higher temperature range.

Air cooled machines use less water, but are higher in overall energy cost and require certain ambient temperature ranges around the unit. Some units split the compressor and ice making components to draw cooler air from outside or within the building toward the ice maker. In some locations this is vital to avoid heating up the space where the ice machine will be used, such as in a cafeteria. These split machines are also quieter.

Study manufacturers’ literature carefully and look at overall cost comparisons when specifying a machine. Capacity, energy use and the amount of ice made each day are the major factors. Since there are hundreds of machines on the market, the ENERGY STAR (www.energystar.gov) website is a good place to start.


Most ice types can be divided into four main varieties: cubes, nuggets, flakes, and gourmet. Different types of ice are for different uses. Cubes and nuggets are mostly used for cooling drinks. Cube ice is preferred in bars, though some are turning to specialty gourmet-shaped cubes for effect. Machines that make gourmet cubes can be quite expensive. Nugget ice is much easier to chew and is a favourite of some fast food restaurants and in health settings. Flake ice is used in snow cones and in display cases. The ice that is used to cool fresh fish on display is an example of flake ice.

With literally hundreds of commercial ice machines on the market at any given time, nothing replaces careful consideration about what type of ice machine is best for your clients’ needs and what size and type of machine is
suited to the application.  <>

Mark Masterson is with www.IceMachinesPlus.com, where he provides information and advice to contractors and purchasing managers about best practices when choosing ice machines.



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