When it comes to choosing your commercial ice machine model, there are plenty of options out on the market today. You have to consider ice output, storage, size, and plenty of other factors before you make a final choice. One consideration is how and where the ice machine exhausts the heat it generates when making ice. There are three designs for accomplishing this: 1) Self-contained air-cooled, 2) Water-cooled, and 3) Remote-condenser air-cooled. Remote condensers can be a bit complicated because it usually involves placing a condenser on the roof, so today we’ll explain the difference between air-cooled and water-cooled ice machines in an effort to help you determine which one is right for you.

Self-Contained Air-Cooled Ice Machines

Often referred to as simply “air-cooled,” these ice machines use air to transfer heat out of the machine. Internal fans and vents inside the machine circulate the air. When air flows through the condenser coils, it removes the internal heat, which is then let out through vents in the rear or sides of the ice machine.

Air-cooled ice machines are more popular than water-cooled machines because they can be cheaper to operate in most locations. They are also more energy efficient than water cooled machines and therefore, better for the environment. The ENERGY STAR program is an initiative of the US Environmental Protection Agency that certifies appliances based on their energy consumption. Many air-cooled ice machines have an ENERGY STAR seal of approval, meaning they consume less energy than similar, but less energy efficient ice machines.

One of the challenges with air-cooled machines is that the air that is pulled through the machine to cool the condenser also brings in airborne contaminants such as grease and dirt.  In kitchens, airborne grease coats the fan blades and condenser coils followed by the dust and dirt which sticks to the grease.  This creates an insulation layer on the condenser, which means the condenser can’t transfer the heat to the air, resulting in lower ice production and potential damage to the equipment.

Air-cooled ice machines work best in clean, temperature controlled environments. When used in hot environments, the already warm air passing over the condenser coils will not remove as much heat as cooler air, thus slowing down the rate at which the machine can produce ice. Put in a enclosed space, the recirculating hot air gets hotter and hotter until the machine shuts itself off due to heat overload.  Regularly running an air-cooled ice machine in a warm environment can lead to an overworked unit and reduced life of the machine.

Water-Cooled Ice Machines

Water-cooled ice machines use water instead of air to transfer heat out of the machine. In these machines, water coils run along the condenser coils. The condenser coils release heat into the water, and then the hot water drains out of the unit, removing heat from the system and allowing it to maintain a cool temperature.

Water-cooled ice machines are most often used in areas where it is difficult to control the temperature.  As noted above, the performance of an air-cooled machine is greatly affected by the surrounding air temperature, where a water-cooled machine doesn’t depend on the ambient air to remove the heat. This allows them to operate in warmer temperatures without reducing the output of the machine.

The challenge with water-cooled machine is their water consumption.  Water cooled machines typically need 5 times more water than an air-cooled machine to product the same quantity of ice.  If your building has a recirculating water system with a cooling tower, then you can use that system to re-use all that cooling water.  However, this is not common with older buildings, which means all of that water is dumped to the drain.  Many municipalities are outlawing or severely restricting the use of water-cooled ice machines due to amount of water they consume.

So Which One Is Right For You?

An air-cooled ice machine could be a good fit if:

  • You will be using it in a cool or air-conditioned environment
  • The environment is relatively grease and dust free
  • You are committed to a regular maintenance program
  • You want a more environmentally-friendly machine
  • You want to reduce energy costs

A water-cooled ice machine might work better if:

  • You live in an area with low water costs
  • You have a cooling tower to reduce water waste
  • It will be used outdoors or in a non-temperature controlled environment

When examining the difference between air-cooled and water-cooled ice machines, water-cooled machines are the hands-down choice if you have a recirculating water system.  They require less maintenance, are less subject to variations in air temperature and cleanliness, and typically use 10% less energy than a similarly sized air-cooled machine.

Unfortunately, recirculating water systems are not available in most commercial buildings which is why air-cooled machines are more common.  The combined water/sewer bill on an air-cooled machine is often 90% LESS than that of a water cooled machine.  That savings far outweighs the increased maintenance costs on air-cooled machines, making the overall cost of operating an air-cooled machine lower than that of a water-cooled ice machine.

Given that most business owners don’t use ice to differentiate themselves from their competition, the decision on whether to use an air-cooled or water-cooled machine comes down to total cost of ownership…and in that score, the air-cooled wins…even though it does come with more hassle.