FPE project managers explain common pitfalls and provide alternative solutions to help maintain food safety in your facility.
The good. The bad. And the ugly. If you’ve been through enough food processing facilities, you’ve seen it all. And we have. We’ve witnessed quick (albeit creative) fixes for dripping ceilings, peeling floors and unwanted air movement that are at best temporary and, in many cases, glaringly responsible for long-term problems.
You really don’t have time for facility problems. Thus, the instinct of every busy manager is to fix the pesky (insert problem here) now. But stop and ask yourself these questions before you act on the fly:
- Is this but a brief solution to this issue?
- Could this effort make the situation worse?
If you answer “yes” to either of these questions, that quick-and-dirty remedy is just that. So, do yourself and your consumers a favor and fix food safety hazards—even those that seem small and insignificant—promptly, yet correctly. You’ll save yourself and your entire team the nightmare of doing it all wrong.
Here are some frequent problems and the “solutions” many have tried, plus our tips on the proper fixes that’ll last.
Issue #1: Water dripping from the ceiling
Poor Solution: Diversion
Real Solution: Insulated/Vapor-proof Ceiling
Project manager Jim Larva notes that this problem is particularly common in older plants that lack proper ventilation or have vapor barrier leaks. Unfortunately, many processors address the symptoms rather than the problem.
“The quick fix is to hang a plastic sheet to collect the water and divert it off to the side of whatever it’s dripping on,” Larva says. “Or, they use aluminum gutters (or PVC pipes) like you use on your house and let the water drip on that and run out to somewhere else.” Both are bad ideas, he says (for reference, check the thumbnail image for this piece).
“The USDA will shut you down if you have dripping ceilings,” he states. Sure, processors can take a mop and dry the ceiling and then start up again. (Think of the labor cost associated with these tasks!) But the same problem will occur tomorrow.
The better solution is to install a ceiling that is insulated, vapor proof and does not drip.
“Dripping comes from condensation, so you have two things at play. You’ve got moisture and temperature difference,” Larva says. “When moist air is cold, it condenses and forms water… The good news is that you may not need to replace an entire ceiling to fix the problem.”
“In some situations, we can actually put a false insulated (IMP) ceiling in underneath a slab to prevent condensation from happening,” says FPE’s Mark Redmond, PE.
How do you determine the most economical and food-safe solution for your operation? “You need to work with somebody who knows what they’re doing,” says Larva.
Issue #2: Damaged floor toppings
Poor solution: Coat with thin, layered epoxy
Real Solution: Replace with urethane cement
Epoxy was commonly used on plant floors 20 years ago. “The problem with epoxy is that it cannot withstand thermal shock,” explains Larva. “So, if you have a cold room and use hot water for cleaning, when the hot water hits the cold floor, the epoxy will pop. It’ll pop right off the concrete.”
When this happens, some processors react by coating the floor again with the same material. But when they hit the floor with hot water under pressure, it just peels the coating off, Larva says.
“Then you have voids and cracks that harbor pathogens that might affect the food,” he notes. This is neither tasty nor sanitary. “Between the cleaning chemicals, sanitizing chemicals and hot water pressure, epoxy coating has pretty much given up the ghost as soon as it gets put on the floor,” Larva adds.
Urethane cement is a good choice for many facilities. This material has the same expansion properties as concrete, so it tends not to delaminate due to thermal shock. Of course, you must consider your specific operation (products produced, cleaning solutions, water temperature, etc.) when choosing the most appropriate flooring. Many options abound—including combination flooring—and processors frequently have preferences. In our experience, seamless flooring is appropriate for most facilities, if installed properly. Thin epoxy is frequently problematic and seldom appropriate. (Note: Vinyl ester resinous floor coatings have been used successfully in the past. However, due to ventilation of VOCs during application, these coatings are difficult to use in an operating facility.)
For more on flooring, read our white paper on the topic here.
Issue #3: Unwanted heat and moisture
Poor solution: Adding exhaust fans without proper make-up air
Real solution: Balance air flow
Excessive heat and steam vapors in a facility can occur around cooking operations, near equipment wash areas and in washroom spaces. Adding exhaust fans in areas to remove heat, airborne particulates, vapors and gases may seem to be a simple solution. However, doing so without providing make-up air to balance the air flow will simply exacerbate the problem.
If you’re already facing this conundrum in an existing facility, it’s best to perform an air balance study to see what can be done within the constraints of your current operation. Whether you’re considering or already tackling an expansion or renovation project, take care to install a properly designed ventilation system that will help maintain even room temperatures and humidity control, ultimately providing clean, filtered air to the production environment. You will produce a safer product and see reduced costs in the long term as well.
Think it Through
Respond wisely rather than reacting hastily to issues in your facility that may ultimately raise food safety concerns. While it may be quick and easy to grab a mop, a brush or a fan to fix the irksome problems noted here, these are not smart solutions. Consult a firm that works closely with food production facilities and knows how to manage these issues.
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