What is an air gap, and how can you be sure you have a proper air gap installation? 

If you’re running a restaurant, you know that health inspections come with the territory. Although necessary, it’s no fun when a health inspector reaches for his pen and writes you a health code violation. When it comes to ice machines, most violations are easily fixable, but some commercial ice machine health codes can leave you scratching your head. For instance, what is an air gap, and what does it mean when a health inspector cites you for insufficient air gap installation for your ice machines? 

What is an Air Gap? 

An air gap is an amount of space that separates a water line from a drain to a sewer. Proper air gap installation makes sure dirty water What is an Air Gap? Proper Air Gap Installation.doesn’t contaminate the municipal water supply, the supply of tap water you and everyone else in your city drinks. Health inspectors may also refer to this as backflow prevention, which is a more general term to mean any apparatus that prevents water from flowing back up a water line.   

To best envision how an air gap works, imagine a kitchen sink. The faucet head is generally located a foot or two above the drain – and for good reason.  

What would happen if the faucet was only a few inches away from the drain? If that sink were to fill up, dirty water would work its way up and cover the faucet. If that wasn’t bad enough, submerging the faucet can create a vacuum, sucking that dirty water right up into the faucet, and possibly even into the city’s water supply – and who wants to drink that?  

The same principle works for ice machines. According to health codes, any piece of equipment where food, drinkable liquids or eating utensils are placed cannot have a direct line into the sewage system. Since the Food and Drug Administration classifies ice as a food, ice machines must follow these guidelines as well.  

Health codes require two air gap installations for each ice machine.  

The first air gap must exist between an ice machine’s drain lines and the water supply line that directly connects to the city water supply. This ensures that ice machines don’t contaminate the city’s supply of clean tap water.  

The other air gap, or backflow prevention, must be between an ice machine drain and the sewer drain. This makes sure sewer lines can’t create a vacuum which allows water to flow back up into the machine contaminating ice that could end up in someone’s drink.  

What is an Air Gap Violation? 

Luckily, both air gaps are standard on all ice machines, provided they were installed correctly. Unfortunately, health inspectors can’t always see them. 

By far, the number one reason health inspectors issue air gap violations in error is that they can’t see the air gap built inside the machine.  

Both Hoshizaki and Manitowoc engineer all their ice machines with a sufficient air gap to prevent any water from entering the city supply line. Unfortunately, not all health inspectors are aware of this. That’s why it’s important to hold on to all the documentation that your ice machine manufacturer provides with your machine. These documents illustrate the details of your ice machine’s air gap installation and will show the exact location of the required air gap.  

In some ice machines, you can give the inspector a clear view of the air gap by simply pulling off the front panel. This easy to do with cuber ice machines, but the view of the air gap is often obstructed in many flaker ice machines units. Again, if you have your flaker’s documentation readily available, you can point out the location of the air gap installation to your health inspector.  

In very rare instances, a health inspector may require you to install a vacuum break to an ice machine. Although an air gap is more than sufficient for backflow prevention, some cities may insist you also install a vacuum break. If this is the case, you will need a plumber to install one.   

Preparation is the best way you can ensure a health inspector walks out of your business’s doors giving you a stellar rating. It’s important to know both the common health code infractions that plague the food industry as well as the not so common ones. Armed with this knowledge, you can make sure a health inspector has all the information they need if they’re having a difficult time identifying a potential infraction. 

If you want more tips on how you can ace your next health inspection, check out our Health Inspection Checklist for Restaurants.