What You Don’t See Can Hurt You

by Katie Lee

The consequences of not using trained and certified KEC technicians can be devastating.

By Randall Rauth

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, nearly 6,000 restaurant fires are reported each year in the United States. And, of those, a percentage, around 21%, depending on the year, are caused by a failure to clean. And when you compare those figures to the shear number of restaurants operating in the country, it may not seem very high. But the concern is not the 6,000 establishments that will experience a fire in the next 12 to 15 months, it is one restaurant: yours.

“…the blaze worsened when it reached the grease hood.” — Miami, 2015

It can be mesmerizing to sit before an open kitchen and watch a talented chef stoke the flames of whatever dish is on the menu. However, those flames dance dangerously close to some very flammable material, and the OSHA-required automatic fire suppression system cannot be relied upon to immediately extinguish any fire. They can fail due to a grease clog, or the nozzles may be positioned incorrectly. Often an exhaust system fire spreads into unreachable areas of the ductwork. And if those areas have not been properly cleaned and maintained, the results can be catastrophic.

The bare metal of the kitchen exhaust system is designed to contain and cool any hostile or escaping fire, says Oliver Moore, Deputy Utah State Fire Marshal. He explains that fuel is introduced in increments each time cooking takes place: grease-laden vapors or residual cooking oil, effluent toxins, and soot. This mixture is carried up and away from the cooking surface and naturally adheres to collection filters and the cool sides of the ductwork, up to the fan housing and blades with the residual blown into the air. Within the ductwork, the buildup of grease or creosote creates a type of biodiesel or flammable fuel.

IMG 0011When safety procedures are not addressed, such as regular exhaust system cleaning and service, normal cooking operation will, in time, set a fire on the residual grease buildup, he adds. Once a hostile fire is within the ductwork, temperatures of 1,200 to 1,500 degrees may be reached, which may be hot enough to extend into the building structure.

Recent National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) statistics (2006–2010) indicate $246 million in property damage annually. There is an average of two deaths per year in restaurant fires and 115 injuries — neither of these numbers includes the risk to firefighters.

“…officials have not said when the doors might reopen for business.” — Anson, S.C., 2013

After the fire is out, an arson investigator gets involved, tasked with determining the fire’s cause, extent, direction or path, and the extent of fire, smoke and water damage loss. This is no small undertaking. “They will look at extenuating factors, such as type of cooking involved and fuels used, cleaning intervals, service documents, service and deficiency reports, hood label dates and times, city business licenses, and insurance vendors and documents,” says Moore. “The investigator will call all interested parties together for interviews — that is, chefs, cooks, kitchen help and eye witnesses. Also, they will identify subrogation partners: insurance investigators, equipment manufacturers, building owners, city building officials, etc. All who have an interest or financial attachment to the loss.”

Experts — mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, fire protection engineers, metallurgists — are retained on all fronts. “A complex restaurant fire investigation may last 3 to 5 years from the date of the fire to the date of the final settlement or adjudication,” says Richard Martin of Martin Thermal Engineering, a fire investigator and frequent expert witness.

IMG 0074In the meantime, your doors are closed. You have no revenue coming in. Your employees are out of work and getting new jobs. Your customers are disappointed and going elsewhere, possibly never to return. Scheduled events are canceled. The food in your walk-in and pantry that wasn’t destroyed in the fire has all gone to waste. “It is very common that a restaurant will never reopen after a fire,” says Martin. “Even if their insurance policy covers business-interruption costs, the long delays associated with the investigation and litigation invariably accelerates customer and worker attrition and may result in loss of reputation and goodwill.”

“Had [the] kitchen exhaust hood and ductwork been clean, the fire could probably have been contained…” — Oceanside, Calif., 2013

According to Moore, 53% of all restaurant fires are kitchen exhaust system fires. It’s easy to look at that big hood and hear that fan and think that everything dangerous is being blown straight up and away, but that simply is not the case. The kitchen exhaust system comprises the hood, filters, plenum, fans and what may be a labyrinth of horizontal and vertical ductwork, and the parts that you can see are likely only a small portion of the whole.

Getting the cleaning job done correctly starts with the bid process. It’s not about who will do it for the least amount of money. “Hiring a certified cleaning contractor who is familiar with the applicable standards is nearly always safer than using an uncertified cleaner who charges a lower fee,” says Martin.

Matt Mongiello of Interior Maintenance Company, Inc., a kitchen exhaust cleaning company located in Pennsylvania, says restaurant owners and managers should look for a contractor that specifically states they will perform a complete cleaning of the entire kitchen exhaust system, mentioning all associated components. A contractor who only talks about the hood and filters is throwing up a red flag and can seriously hurt your business in the long run. It is also important to confirm that the contractor has proper insurance and qualifications to perform the work, he adds.

Proper documentation of the job is key. This should include identifiable before-and-after photographs of the work completed. As Moore mentioned, a sticker is attached to the hood showing the name of the service company, the name of the person performing the work, and the date of inspection or cleaning. You should also expect a written report that details the work completed and specifies any areas that were inaccessible or not cleaned and why.

“The managers that do take the time to have their system cleaned properly are the most knowledgeable, not only about the components of their system, but why it works,” says Mongiello. “They understand that a properly cleaned system not only removes grease-laden vapors and protects them from fire, but also removes smoke, improves air flow, and increases energy-efficiency in their kitchen.”

As a restaurant owner, it is imperative that you get to know the twists and turns of your system, and there are two ways to do so. One is to hire a reputable, kitchen exhaust cleaning company with certified staff members, who will not only thoroughly clean it, but will provide you with photographic evidence of the work done in each corner and each component. The alternative is to see each piece of ductwork, blackened and deformed from the fire, laid out in succession in your parking lot as the investigators do their work.  

“Regardless of who is ultimately found responsible for a fire,” says Martin, “a restaurant’s ability to keep their doors open, maintain profitability, and preserve their reputation may hinge on their ability to keep their exhaust ducts properly cleaned.”

— Randall Rauth is the International Kitchen Exhaust Cleaning Association’s president and the owner of Hood Cleaning Inc. Rauth started his career in the restaurant service business. To find a qualified commercial kitchen exhaust contractor, visit the ‘Find A Member’ section of the IKECA website, www.ikeca.org. Email [email protected].

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