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How to design a water-resistant restaurant and kitchen

Equipment expert shares tips for preventing water damage

When managing your building operations and the health of your equipment, preventing water damage can be one of the most important pieces of the puzzle.

Damage from moisture and flooding is a fact of life, and the potential for special and expensive mediation in commercial kitchens and restaurants is a risk.

Placement of key infrastructure and support systems and sustainable materials and finishes go a long way toward reducing damage and business disruption.
Severe water damage in buildings is a common threat that can occur from a wide variety of sources: surface water from outside the building gets inside the building (floods/downpours are common causes); exterior drainage systems fail; pipes burst or equipment fails; roofs leak; sprinkler systems discharge — with or without an actual fire; and sewer lines clog and drains back up.

If not properly mediated, water damage can lead to mold, mildew, and failure of walls, flooring and equipment. The construction quality of a building and the placement of should-never-get-wet critical equipment will determine if unexpected incoming water is a catastrophic event or a minor disruption.

Protect mechanical and electronic systems

Restaurant food prep and storage areas depend on multiple mechanical systems for refrigeration, space conditioning, hot water, water conditioning, and beverage cooling. Often, restaurants also rely on an emergency generator. Equipment racks filled with computer servers, audiovisual systems, cable television controls, and security system controllers are also potential casualties. None of these systems are completely waterproof and few are water resistant. Placing mechanical and electronic equipment above grade level can make a huge difference on survivability. In fact, most industrial and commercial buildings place critical equipment in mechanical rooms on 12-inch concrete pads. While a masonry pad may not be practical in a kitchen’s mechanical area, equipment can be elevated using the same metal or fiberglass
dunnage shelving used for dry storage.

There are additional options: install mechanical equipment on top of walk-in coolers, build mechanical mezzanines, or mount compressors, fans, and other HVAC equipment on a rooftop. These strategic choices protect against the risk of flood damage. Mounting electronic and computer equipment racks four feet above the floor provides a safeguard and still allows easy access to the equipment. The space underneath can be used for mobile storage.

Dry goods are much less expensive to replace than mechanical equipment, but in high-risk areas like basements, operators should consider installing dry storage shelving at a 12-inch height rather than the 6-inch height mandated by most health codes. In addition to the extra measure of defense, access to these goods is easier as well as cleaning under the bottom shelf.

The labels on alcoholic beverage bottles, particularly fine wines, are very susceptible to water damage. Millions of dollars of vintage wine inventories were destroyed during Hurricane Sandy. A wine bottle without a label loses virtually all its value, and liquor can’t be commercially dispensed from a bottle without proper labeling and seals. Unfortunately, the very tradition of storing wine in a damp basement or cellar puts these bottles at high risk from water damage. Modern temperature and humidity-controlled wine coolers and holding units keep wine safe and secure inside a cabinet, and eliminate the risk water damaging labels and corks. Wine storage cabinets also protect the wine from a ceiling leaks or sprinkler discharge.

Take precautions on wall construction

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The second level of safeguarding that should be built into any foodservice operation is quality construction of the base walls. Protecting walls from flooding, plumbing leaks, or discharge from sprinkler systems is just the beginning of the precautions that need to be taken. Walls in foodservice areas should also be resistant to splashing water from food prep and high-pressure water or steam used for heavy-duty cleaning.

Some people believe that a wall surface covered with ceramic tile or fiberglass/plastic panels is waterproof. Unfortunately, the finish is only as good as the base wall behind it, as well as the integrity of the joints and any cutouts in that finish.

Grout between tiles always fails over time, and at that point, water will eventually get behind the tiles — and it’s hard to know when it’s going to happen. Once water penetrates behind the finished wall, problems begin to multiply as the base wall starts to fail and takes the remaining wall finish with it. Black mold and mildew moves inside the wall surfaces creating a serious health hazard.

Since kitchen walls usually support shelving, equipment, exhaust hoods, and all manner of piping and electrical devices, replacing the base wall and its finishes is a major cost and disruption that is easily and inexpensively avoided.

Today, there are several options for water resistant wallboards, and they include ratings for moisture-level tolerance. The wall behind a pot sink or dishwasher demands the highest level of moisture resistance; a wall in a prep area or pastry area can be constructed with a lower moisture-resistant rating. There really is no excuse to not provide water-resistant walls in all areas of a commercial kitchen. Also don’t forget the spaces where moisture- and mold-producing bacterial thrive: janitor closets, mop sinks, and can-or-cart wash areas.  

Moisture-resistant walls are only as strong as the base that anchors them to the floor. If the wall base is constructed of untreated wood or steel, moisture running along the floor will cause the base to rust or rot, undermining the integrity of whatever is set above it. Take these precautions:  

If wallboard on studs is planned, install the base on an 8-inch high block or a concrete curb base.

If this isn’t possible, use heavy gauge galvanized steel or pressure treated wood for the base and waterproof around the base. If the surrounding floor has waterproofing, it should be run up the base for each wall.

Starting the wall material 1-2 inches above the floor will reduce the likelihood of standing water wicking up the wallboard or paneling. The tile or vinyl base will cover the gap.

In areas with greatest exposure to moisture, consider masonry (concrete block) or glass and aluminum storefront if long-lasting walls are a goal. Although masonry walls require additional planning (for utilities), they also allow heavy equipment and storage shelving to be hung without the need for wall backing or secondary support. They also deflect carts and material transport equipment reducing damage to the wall that can lead to moisture penetration. Concrete blocks can also be purchased with pre-finished glazing so the finish looks just like ceramic tile. A glazed masonry wall is as durable and water-resistant as it gets.

Find the right flooring materials

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Excess moisture and flooding also impact flooring, especially the types of aesthetically-pleasing materials commonly used in front-of-house areas. If periodic flooding and/or high humidity are common threats, consider the following: Stained and polished concrete, durable cost-effective finishes for front-of-house and back-of-house areas; quarry and ceramic tile with water-resistant adhesives and grout; or heat-welded industrial vinyl floors with covered corners that extend 6 to 8 inches up the wall for a complete seal.

In front of house areas, be cautious about using: wood or laminate floors — they may warp or buckle; vinyl composition tile without use of heavy-duty moisture resistant adhesives; or carpeting.

With new construction and major renovations, operators should look for ways to capture excess water runoff before it can damage walls and floor finishes. Good site planning that pitches surfaces away from building entrances, installation of catch basins and French drains outside the doors will keep storm water outside. Consider adding a sump pump and perforated tubing to collect excess water around the building footings.

Floor drains with a pitch that assures drainage from every corner should be located in all wet areas inside a facility. All areas prone to overflow from clogging (toilets, utility rooms and dish and pot wash areas) should have floor drains.  

Foster Frable is a founding partner of Clevenger Frable LaVallee Inc., a foodservice consulting firm in White Plains, N.Y. He has designed more than 400 foodservice projects, including restaurants and operations in hotels, colleges and more. He can be reached at [email protected].

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