Healthier Cooking Equals Hotter Fires
America’s eating habits are changing. For health reasons, we are selecting foods with less fat and cholesterol, but this has also created a fire danger. Many commercial kitchens have switched from cooking with animal fat, such as lard, to using fat-free vegetable oils in fryers. Vegetable oils burn hotter than animal fat, so vegetable oil fires are also hotter and more difficult to extinguish. Lard high in saturated fats, was usually protected by a dry chemical extinguishing system. This worked well as the dry chemical would combine with the fatty acids, in a process known as “saponification,” to create a soap blanket or foam on the surface of the grease that smothered the fire. This blanket remained in place long enough after extinguishment to prevent the fire from re-igniting.
With the use of vegetable oils, the dry chemical systems were no longer as effective in controlling or extinguishing a fire. Vegetable oils have only a limited amount of fatty acids to “saponify,” resulting in a thinner soap blanket forming when combined with the dry chemical. The thinner soap blanket breaks down before the grease can cool and the fire would re-ignite. When the oil re-ignites, there is no longer a charged suppression system to extinguish it which leads to fires that cause a much greater degree of damage to restaurants.
A classic scenario for a restaurant cooking fire is when a high-efficiency fryer overheats and ignites the vegetable oil within. The suppression system fails to operate and the grease in the exhaust hood ignites, allowing the fire to spread into the grease coated duct-work leading into the sub ceiling. The heat emanating from the duct-work ignites the wood structure and leads to a total loss of the restaurant. There are three things you can actively do to help prevent this scenario:
- Per NFPA 10, Class K fire extinguishers must be provided for hazards where there is a potential for fires involving combustible cooking media such as vegetable fats, animal fats or oils. The maximum travel distance from the hazard to the extinguishers must be no more than 30 feet.
- If you are using vegetable oil in your fryers, make sure your fire suppression system and fire extinguishers are designed to put out these hotter fires. Current codes require a UL 300 listed hood fire extinguishing system for cooking that involves grease laden vapors. K-rated fire extinguisher is required in a commercial kitchen.
- Keep with your regular frequency of kitchen exhaust cleanings. 1/8” of grease anywhere in the exhaust system is required to be cleaned. Make sure your kitchen exhaust cleaning professional has you on the proper frequency and is familiar with your accumulation rate.
What to Expect from your Annual Fire Inspection
Annual inspections by the fire department are performed to assess and eliminate potential fire and life safety hazards in your facility. Local authorities perform inspections to ensure that the codes and standards in place are being adhered to. NFPA 101, Intl. Fire Code, and NFPA 96 are standards that were created through a consensus process by industry representatives, such as code officials, manufacturers, system installers, and other specialists in the field. As a business owner/operator, it is good practice to be as knowledgeable as possible on these codes and standards in order to stay compliant.
While many people look at the fire and life safety inspection process negatively, these inspections benefit the business owners/operators by offering:
- A safe working environment for you and your employees.
- A safe facility for guests in an unfamiliar environment.
- Peace of mind for the owner operator of the facility or business. Around 80 percent of all small businesses that experience a large fire never reopen; affecting the owner/operator, employees, and valued clients. The businesses that do reopen, lose much of their customer base due to prolonged absence of production or service.
- A higher resale value may result from a well maintained facility. It is commonplace for buyers to hire a company to inspect the building prior to purchase to identify potential hidden costs related to fire and life safety.
- Many insurance carriers give businesses premium reductions for properly installed and maintained fire-protection systems.
Preparing for Your Fire Inspection
Preparing for your annual inspection is key to developing a good working relationship with the fire inspector and gaining positive results. Always make sure that any issues from previous inspections have been resolved and have reports from all inspections documented and accessible. The inspection is typically unscheduled or unannounced, so in the case it’s inconvenient for you, or you’re unprepared – it’s acceptable to ask that the fire inspector reschedule the inspection. Make sure to accompany the fire inspector with keys to all areas, and take notes even though the inspector will likely give you a report when the inspection has been completed. These notes may give you additional insight into the inspector’s thought process, and they may provide valuable information for future inspections.
Areas the Fire Marshal will be Inspecting
Maintaining means of egress or exits, is critical to providing proper life and fire safety in your facility. Making sure all exit doors are accessible, well lit, properly identified, and in working order will be key components of the inspection. Security of your facility can be a major concern because of theft or unauthorized access from both outside and within a business. Securing doors with unapproved locks, chaining doors, covering doors so they’re not readily discernible by building occupants, etc. and may not comply with the inspector’s means of egress standards. Talk with your fire inspector to resolve these issues so your building is both safe and secure.
Storage of combustible materials must be maintained in an orderly fashion, away from flame-producing appliances, and at least 18-inches below the fire sprinklers. Any combustible or flammable liquids must be in approved containers and storage cabinets. There are specific limits on the amount of combustible and flammable liquids by type of occupancy as well as specific storage arrangements. Cleanliness and orderliness are crucial to increasing fire protection: the fire marshal will check that your facility is clean and organized.
Typically, the fire marshal will look for exposed wiring or un-insulated wiring which are often associated with fire. Other electrical-related issues, such as making sure all electrical receptacles have cover plates should also be addressed. It’s required that circuits be properly labeled on all electrical panels and that clear access of 30 inches must be maintained in front of all electrical panels. Extension cords are not allowed except when used for temporary power. All extension cords must be heavy duty, in good condition, and only used for small appliances. Extension cords are required to be grounded, and if multiple items need to be plugged in, power strips with built-in circuit breakers are to be used, and they must be plugged directly into a permanent receptacle.
Fire-Protection/Suppression and Fire-alarm systems
In the event of a fire, what are the systems you have in place to stop it or slow its pace long enough for the fire department to arrive. Fire extinguishers should be evenly distributed throughout your building and should be fully operative when tested. Sprinklers, suppression systems, and kitchen exhaust hood systems will be checked as well. Give the fire inspector copies of all of your system or equipment inspection, testing, and maintenance (ITM) reports. Review these reports with the inspector and let the inspector know that any issues noted previously have been corrected. Fire-protection systems’ ITM and results reports are required by all the national codes and standards and likely by your insurance carrier.
Concluding the Inspection
Stress your concerns about making the facility as safe as possible by working positively with the fire department to achieve compliance. Ask questions and make sure you fully understand all issues. If there are corrections required, identify who is responsible for making them. In many cases the building owner is different than the business owner, so the responsibility must be determined for each item. In many cases, the building owner and business owner are responsible by lease agreement.
If there are costly items requiring attention, discuss alternatives and compliance time-frames with the inspector. Fire inspectors are most interested in gaining compliance and making your facility safer without causing you financial difficulties. They are usually willing to negotiate a fair amount of time for you to make this happen. In most cases, compliance items are easily corrected on site and will not cost a great deal of money or require a great deal of effort to do so.
How long has it been?
When speaking with prospective clients, there is always an “interview” process to determine what individual needs are important. During this brief Q & A, we try to understand several things like location, size, and condition of the kitchen exhaust system. Inevitably, we ask the question, “How long has it been since the system was cleaned last?” There really aren’t too many answers we get to this question; more often than not, the informed restaurant manager has had the vent hoods on their normal schedule and the last cleaning falls within the last three to six months. On the other end of the spectrum, often times the restaurant will tell us the last time the hoods were cleaned was eight months ago, over a year, two years or, heck, we couldn’t tell you the last time the hoods were cleaned.
One main reason, we find, there has been such a long gap in the kitchen exhaust cleaning is that the restaurateur has recently taken over the space from another tenant. If this the case, congratulations. Getting the kitchen exhaust cleaning service set up should be towards the top of the list of things to do. From a safety standpoint, you shouldn’t do any type of cooking under a vent hood that has not been cleaned and inspected. Typically, when a restaurateur is on the decline, maintenance expenditures are not a high priority. He or she could have been neglecting that system, thus allowing unknown amounts of grease to accumulate in the system, and potentially causing a fire hazard for you, the new owner, that could arise the very moment the new cooking equipment is fired up. From a budgeting standpoint, your R&M budget is not complete until the KEC costs are determined. In many cases, the city may require that an agreement is in place with a KEC company before you will be given your CO. Prior to reopening an existing restaurant, or even if you are going through new construction, talk with a certified kitchen exhaust cleaning company to understand your costs and needs. Get several bids. There are several tips to finding a reputable company in many previous articles we have written.
Another reason we hear quite a bit as to why a restaurant has not had their hoods properly cleaned, is that the restaurant, “cleans them themselves.” Being a former restaurant manager, I always liked to hear when staff would go above and beyond they’re normal duties. Unfortunately, properly cleaning the kitchen exhaust system is not something that should be left in the hands of restaurant managers and employees. NFPA 96 code actually states: “The entire exhaust system shall be inspected for grease buildup by a properly trained, qualified, and certified person (s)…” Some consider cleaning the vent hood as taking out the baffle filters and cleaning them. That is half right. While you should be cleaning the baffles regularly, there is quite a bit more to the system than just the filters.
When it comes down to it, if we are doing any type of cooking in a commercial kitchen, our exhaust system needs to be on a preventative maintenance program. There are some costs that are, simply put, fixed into the budget. If you are opening or reopening a restaurant, have a talk with a kitchen exhaust cleaning company to understand the specifics of your restaurant. If you are reading this article and all this comes as news to you, please don’t wait until it is too late.
10 Fire and Safety Concerns in your Commercial Kitchen
A food service establishment is subject to hidden and illusive safety concerns that, if not addressed may impact its survival, the safety of its staff, and the safety of its guests. There is a lot that can go wrong in a kitchen, and cooking equipment is responsible for 57 percent of disastrous restaurant fires. Meant as a follow up to “What to Expect from Your Annual Fire Inspection,” here are a few safety concerns to address in your commercial kitchen:
- Inadequate separation between open flame appliances and fryers. In order to be compliant, there must be a 16 inch area of separation between cooking appliances, or a 16 inch vertical non-combustible metal divider must be place. Without adequate separation, oil can splash or splatter into open flames, causing a fire risk. Always consult your fire suppression company when making any changes in your kitchen equipment layout.
- Combustible construction within 18 inches of hood. Combustible materials around the kitchen hood and cooking area may aid in the spread of fire. Incombustible materials such as mineral wool pad (or equivalent), provide a barrier that creates a break in the fire’s path.
- Fire suppression system/ fire extinguisher tags out of date.When a kitchen suppression system is serviced, a tag should be left by the servicing company indicating the service date. An out-of-date tag indicates that the system is not being serviced regularly. Suppression systems should be inspected every 6 months and extinguishers annually.
- The fire suppression system is not UL300 Listed.The UL300 Standard for Testing of Fire Extinguishing Systems for the Protection of Restaurant Cooking Surfaces was introduced in November of 1994. The new standard was set to address changes that were happening in cooking styles, processes, and equipment that were resulting in kitchen fires that had become increasingly difficult to contain. With the widespread transition from animal fat to vegetable oil use in deep fat fryers, dry chemical systems are no longer able to control the higher temperature, longer burning fires produced by vegetable oils. A UL300 Listed system is specifically designed to handle these intense fires, contain them longer, and prevent splashing of hot oil during the fire.
- Suppression nozzle covers missing or not in place.When the nozzles of a suppression system are not kept covered, grease laden vapors can clog the hole. This may impede or prevent operation of the suppression system. Remember to check the nozzles that are inside duct collars and duct work.
- Suppression nozzles not aimed properly.If a nozzle is not properly aimed to deposit the extinguishing chemicals on the source of the fire, it will be less effective. If you move kitchen appliances around on your cooking line, consult your suppression company first. They will need to make necessary adjustments to your system to make sure you remain compliant.
- Inadequate cleaning cycle kitchen exhaust system.Exhaust systems that are not kept clean will accumulate grease and pose a serious threat of fire. Cleaning schedules can vary and are based on the volume of cooking, type of cooking, and facility type. A full service restaurant using solid fuel cooking appliances or woks may need to be cleaned monthly, while a low-volume kitchens like that in a daycare or senior center only require cleaning semi-annually. A certified exhaust cleaning company must provide you with a certificate of performance stating the date of completion and an expiration date.
- Hood or suppression system does not cover all appliances.You exhaust and fire suppression system should cover all of your cooking equipment. If a fire occurs in or on an appliance that is not covered by the hood or suppression system, it cannot be adequately controlled by the system.
- Lights not covered with explosion-proof covers.All light covers must be able to contain any explosion originating within its housing and prevent sparks from within its housing from igniting vapors, gases, dust, or fibers in the air surrounding it. Explosion-proof light covers are generally required in areas involving high heat and high fire risk such as you kitchen exhaust hood.
- Baffle filter panels installed wrong or not installed at all. Filter panels are specifically designed to collect grease. They also create a fire barrier between the cooking surfaces and the interior of the hood. If they aren’t properly installed, dirty, or not in use an increased risk of fire is created. Filters should also fill up the entire opening of you exhaust system with no gaps existing in between them.
Taking proper steps to mitigate these safety concerns is ultimately the responsibility of the business owner/operator. The impact of not following these guidelines can be far reaching and lead a business to catastrophe. Having proper inspection procedures in place and following life and safety codes will create a safer environment for everyone in your food service establishment.