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Energy savings and high air quality standards - the recipe for efficient, clean food processing

Energy savings and high air quality standards - the recipe for efficient, clean food processing

Tuesday 31st August 2010

Few people are aware of just how crucially important a well maintained compressed air system can be in the quest to maximise profits and ensure contamination-free production in the food processing industry.

For many companies compressed air represents the second or third highest utility cost in their plants, with 10% of all energy consumption being utilised in its generation.  Yet a single 3mm dia. compressed air leak can waste up to £600 in energy costs per year - and leakage is the single largest waste of compressed air, with up to 40% leakage on unmanaged systems being extremely common.

A recent British Compressed Air Society (BCAS) study of compressed air systems found that 75% of compressed air system operators had no formal training in compressed air system efficiency.  More than 35% of those interviewed reported unscheduled system downtime in the previous twelve months, with 60% of these breakdowns lasting 2 days or longer.

The creation of an effective air leak management policy is key to achieving energy savings.  This is not rocket science and simply requires the establishment of a compressed air strategy, the goals of which should include:

  • Maintaining a leakage rate of no more than 5% to 10%
  • Increasing compressor life
  • Heightening employee awareness of energy conservation and compressed air in general
  • Constant system surveillance for integrity and safety issues
  • Employee education about compressed air best practices
  • Reduction of energy waste

Goals should be written down and published in an area where they can receive constant review.  Managing the system is more than just finding leaks; it's about reviewing the compressed air system in its entirety on a regular basis, looking for any area in which improvements can be made.  It also should measure the load on the system and inspect production machinery for misuse or damage.

An air leak management programme makes sound financial sense too.  My company can provide details of numerous businesses which are now saving around £7,000 each year on average, simply by taking advantage of a Comprehensive Leak Reduction Programme we offer as part of an on-going maintenance schedule, requiring minimal investment.

Based on our unique experience pay-back is usually achieved in a few months.  For example a local West Yorkshire SME business was annually leaking £7,900 worth of compressed air, the repair cost was £1,900 and this was paid for through savings in 4 months - with a £7,900 saving each year thereafter.

With a strategy in place and the assistant of an outside specialist company to handle air surveys and audit inspections on a planned basis, food processing concerns can be confident that they are achieving worthwhile energy savings.  Saving their long-term reputations by producing palatable, desirable and safe food products requires attention to a different area of compressed air generation, this time centres on the quality of the air being used.

During the production, processing, handling and packaging of food from source to consumer there is always a possibility that the integrity of the food becomes compromised and subject to recall, with the compressed air system being one source of possible contamination.

The actual compressed air itself is never the culprit - it is the added "ingredients" to the compressed air, from various sources that cause the problem, including particulates, lubricants and biological contaminants such as yeast, fungi and bacteria.

European legislation was introduced in 2004 to regulate food hygiene production standards.  In the UK a need was identified which amalgamated 3 European Parliament regulations into "2005 No.2059 - The Food Hygiene (England) Regulations 2005".  This came into force on 1st January 2006, with similar regulations established in Wales, Scotland & Northern Ireland.

The regulations introduce the requirement that food business operators put in place, implement and maintain a permanent procedure or procedures based on the Hazard Analyses and Critical Control Points (HACCP) principles.

This in turn led to the introduction of the BCAS Food Grade Compressed Air Code of Practice, following discussions between BCAS and the British Retail Consortium (BRC).

The HACCP process is a legal requirement, the BCAS code is a voluntary process but which, if selected to be the solution to identified hazards, raises its status by virtue of this association.

The BCAS/BRC discussions made it clear that bacterial contamination was of the greatest concern for food producers, and that minimising other contaminants, such as by the removal of oil, was also vital.  Atmospheric air, compressors and the compressed air distribution system were also identified as potential causes of contamination.

For the food processor, additional equipment and general good practice/maintenance relative to the compressed air supply will help keep contamination risks to a minimum.  Compressors need to be efficient and regularly maintained, while the air supply requires filtration to remove basic contaminants such as dust, particulates and oil vapour if the compressor is oil-lubricated; even an "oil-free" compressor is no guarantee of oil free compressed air.

However, filtration alone is not sufficient to combat the risk of biological contamination.  Bacteria breed in moisture and cannot survive where the dew point is less than -28°C.  These conditions are achieved by the inclusion of adsorption driers within the air system.  It is also recommended that sterilization filters form a worthwhile final process in the capture of contaminants.

Food manufacturers need to examine their production processes to check for potential contamination hot spots, through direct and indirect contact with the compressed air supply, for both the food product and its packaging.  Elimination of these hazards will extend the shelf-life of the products by further reducing the opportunities for serious contamination to occur.

Finally, stringent hygiene standards during washdown procedures can be achieved through the correct selection of purpose-designed pneumatic cylinders, actuators, valves and ancillary equipment within the processing line.  For example, stainless steel construction ensures corrosion resistance, cylinders with rounded corners allow fast drainage and are designed for easy cleaning and maintenance, while minimising the chances of contamination.

Every food processor, large or small, aspires to minimise operational costs, guarantee food quality and improve production capacity.  The right compressed air/pneumatic equipment, correctly installed and regularly maintained, can make a major contribution in turning this aspiration into an efficient, hygienic and economic reality.

EEF - The Manufacturers' Organisation -- The Carbon Trust - Accredited Supplier -- CHAS - The Contractors Health and Safety Assessment Scheme -- BCAS - British Compressed Air Society -- SafeContractor Approved
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