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How Do Ice Machines Work? A Comprehensive Guide

How Do Ice Machines Work? A Comprehensive Guide

Ice makers are some of the most important pieces of equipment in a commercial kitchen, allowing business owners to cater to their customers in the best ways possible. But, how do commercial ice machines work? Based on the concept of refrigeration and heat exchange, commercial ice machines are ingenious pieces of equipment that use a fine interplay of the second law of thermodynamics to achieve cooling and ice formation. These machines were first created in 1845 by John Gorrie - an American doctor and scientist, and haven’t changed too much conceptually since then. 

Developing an understanding of the working of an commercial ice machine can help you remain aware of its various working parts and in maintaining your commercial ice maker. We detail several aspects of the internal mechanisms driving the functioning of the commercial ice maker in the following sections to answer frequently asked questions like ‘how does an commercial ice maker work?’. 

The Process of Refrigeration

Modern refrigeration systems are based on the second law of thermodynamics for their functioning. In the simplest of terms, the law states that heat can flow spontaneously from hot to cold objects, however, heat will not flow from cold objects to hot objects spontaneously. The law also indicates that hot things will always lose heat unless work is done to keep this from happening. Understanding how commercial ice machines work is based on the application of this law and its use in bringing down temperatures within the refrigerator.

The commercial ice machine has various parts that pump refrigerant throughout the system - which often involves a pipeline of copper tubes. The cooling or refrigerant fluid is converted from liquid to gas and back to liquid throughout the cooling process. So, how does an commercial ice machine work amid these complicated processes? By the effects of evaporation. Evaporation of the refrigerant causes a decrease in temperature, resulting in a cooler surrounding area. 

how do ice machines work

How Is Ice Formed in a Commercial Ice Machine?

Now that we understand the process of refrigeration, it’s time to get to the specifics. How does a portable commercial ice maker work? And how do countertop commercial ice makers work? If you’ve been confused about the difference in size and their impact on their functioning, the concept of refrigeration remains the same across different models and sizes of commercial ice makers. Whether you use a standalone model or a compact portable commercial ice machine, the unit uses a variety of components to achieve cooling. The refrigerant gas is first passed through the compressor, where it is pressurized and its temperature is raised.

It then passes into a series of tubes that form the condenser, where the gas is cooled and converted into a liquid state. The refrigerant fluid then passes through the expansion valve where it becomes a low-temperature fluid due to expansion in the low-pressure chamber. The low-temperature fluid then moves to the evaporator where water passes over a plate connected to the tubes containing the refrigerant and freezes. The heat from the water is shunted to the low-temperature refrigerant and it turns into the gaseous state again to restart the cycle. 

The Components Involved in Ice Making

The components involved in a conventional commercial ice maker are: 

  • Refrigerant
  • Compressor 
  • Condenser 
  • Expansion valve 
  • Evaporator 

Functions of the Refrigerant

So how does a refrigerator commercial ice maker work with the refrigerant within? It’s the refrigerant that’s a core component of the commercial ice machine. It goes through repetitive cycles of heating and cooling to help the water reach its freezing point. The refrigerant passes through the entire system creating a cyclical pattern, allowing for the refrigeration cycle to continue unabated. 

The Role of the Compressor

Compressors pressurize and heighten the temperature of the gaseous refrigerant. Heating and pressurizing the refrigerant is one of the most important steps in ensuring the gas expands in the subsequent portion of the commercial ice maker to cool down and become a liquid once more. Only a hot enough pressurized gas can expand enough to ensure continuity of the refrigeration cycle in the commercial ice machine

Importance of the Condenser

How do commercial ice machines work to achieve cooling through their condensers? The key to this lies in the name of the device. A condenser works to cool the pressurized and hot gas and converts it back to its liquid state. The condenser is a system of tubes designed to make the refrigerant lose its heat by coming in contact with external agents like air in the case of air-cooled systems, and water in water-cooled systems. The heat from the refrigerant is transferred to the external environment by these agents and the refrigerant cools to a liquid in the condenser before it passes to the expansion valve. 

how does an ice machine work

Why Expansion Valves are Integral

Expansion valves use a process called adiabatic cooling to ensure a highly pressurized substance expands rapidly to depressurize and subsequently loses heat just as rapidly. The same effect results in cans of pressurized aerosol sprays cooling down when you hold down the nozzle. Expansion valves ensure the high pressure and hot liquid becomes a low pressure and low-temperature liquid instead. 

The Evaporator’s Quintessence 

Evaporators are the part of the commercial ice machine where water turns to ice. The water comes in contact with the evaporator plate that remains in contact with the cold refrigerant fluid. The heat from the water is then transferred to the refrigerant, while water drops to freezing temperatures, giving rise to ice. 

Importance of Each Component

Each component in the commercial ice machine works to ensure the cycle of refrigeration continues unhindered. Since you now understand how commercial ice machines work, it’s important to maintain them the right way using this information. Regular service checks and maintenance are imperative for your commercial ice machine to function seamlessly and serve you for a long period of time. 

Do Commercial Ice Machines Keep Ice Frozen?

Despite the efficiency of the refrigeration system contained within the commercial ice machine, the unit, however, is not designed to keep the ice cold. Most commercial ice machines come with a drain to enable the removal of the melting ice water from the system. You will either have to purchase an commercial ice machine with a bin or a separate ice bin to pair your commercial ice machine with. 

Do Commercial Ice Machines Need a Drain?

Commercial commercial ice machines use up large volumes of water for the ice-making process. A lot of runoff is generated in the process. A drain is required to ensure the icemaker can release the melted ice water and the runoff without creating puddles of water on your kitchen floor or countertop. While floor drains are best suited, a drain pump will also suffice in case your facility does not have a floor drain. 

Do commercial ice machines Need to Be Plumbed In?

While portable commercial ice machines do not require a water line, full-sized commercial ice makers will need a water line with an uninterrupted supply. Equipping your commercial ice machine with a filtration system will ensure unnecessary minerals don’t make it to the internal parts of your commercial ice machine and reduce its operability. 

How do Commercial Ice Makers Make Clear Ice?

While regular refrigerators create cloudy ice, commercial ice makers prepare clear ice. But why is there a difference despite the same fundamentals of refrigeration? How does an commercial ice machine work in this respect? The answer lies in the way water freezes in an commercial ice machine. While conventional refrigerators freeze water from the top-down, commercial ice machines freeze water layer by layer, creating uniform crystals and eventually, clear ice. Once completely frozen, a sensor alerts the machine to warm the evaporator plate using either gas or room temperature water to trigger the release of the ice. 


Here’s what most restaurateurs have in mind regarding commercial ice machines

It’s important to consider the space available at your establishment, your requirements, the budget at your disposal, and the climate where your restaurant is located. 

While residential commercial ice makers are meant for low volume output, commercial ice machines are heavy-duty units built to handle large requirements of ice in a short span of time. 

  • What’s the difference between air-cooled and water-cooled systems?

Air-cooled commercial ice machines use air to condense the refrigerant, whereas water-cooled systems use water to cool it instead. While the former is better suited for warmer regions, the latter consumes more power and is better suited to colder climates. 

how does a refrigerator ice maker work


Now that you understand how commercial ice machines work, it’s important to ensure all your commercial ice makers are regularly checked, maintained, and serviced to ensure long-term ice production capability at your establishment.


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