Burning question: indoor charcoal oven CO2 fears

Indoor charcoal ovens have been around for a while, but it’s only recently they seem to have gained a reputation as the culinary must-have for every chef opening a new restaurant or refurbishing their kitchen.

And it’s certainly not hard to understand why when you consider the succulent texture and enhanced flavour that is attained from using what is ostensibly one of the most traditional methods of cooking.

But this trend has also caught the attention of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) following concerns that such equipment, if mismanaged, could expose kitchen workers to carbon monoxide, the colourless, odourless and poisonous gas emitted when fossil fuels are burned.

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The HSE, which acts as Britain’s independent watchdog for work-related health, safety and illness, has now opened dialogue with the catering equipment industry after it emerged that faulty installations have left caterers susceptible to danger.

A spokesperson for the HSE told Catering Insight: ““We became aware of instances where commercial solid fuel appliances — such as barbecues and solid fuel stoves — had not been installed by a competent person, or they were being used inappropriately. This potentially risks exposure to carbon monoxide. By law, industry must ensure employees and customers are protected against such risks. It’s important, and a legal requirement, that those who create the risk also ‘own’ and mitigate against it.”

HSE’s intervention suggests there will be a call for greater collaboration among suppliers to ensure the end-user market is better educated on using and maintaining equipment safely. Moves have already begun to examine the current level of information conveyed by the supply chain.

“HSE is now in discussions with manufacturers, suppliers, installers and commercial caterers to establish whether there is a need to raise awareness of the risks associated with solid fuel appliances,” added the organisation’s spokesperson.

Space Catering Equipment recently took over the distributorship of Bertha indoor ovens in the UK and it has been involved in the delivery of many projects that have incorporated solid fuel appliances over the years.

Space’s commercial director, Ian Bidmead, says the company will offer its “full support” to the HSE if it is consulted on the topic, but stressed that it had never encountered any cases yet where indoor charcoal grills have proved to be a danger.

“Charcoal ovens have been used for many years both in the UK and overseas, and by major chains, and provided that all necessary precautions are taken and good practice is followed, we’ve seen no evidence of any elevated risks,” he says.
Most suppliers of indoor barbecue ovens and grills have formal procedures in place for the safe installation and operation of their products and those approached by Catering Insight reiterated the importance of these guidelines being followed correctly.

Michael Eyre, product director at equipment supplier Jestic, which distributes the market-leading Josper brand in the UK, says that while a build-up of carbon monoxide can occur when charcoal is burned, it shouldn’t be an issue if the extraction is left on and working properly.

“We recommend users leave the extraction on low over night — or have it on a timer to go off a minimum of three hours after the kitchen is closed and to come on a minimum of one hour prior to anyone entering the kitchen,” he says. “We also recommend the use of a Solar & Palau fan which has two separate motors controlled by Hall Effect bearings that talk to the controller. If one fan motor fails, the other will adjust its speed to compensate and the controller will let you know that a fan motor has failed.”

Eyre says Jestic uses this sort of set-up in the test kitchen at its own Kent HQ. “The Hall Effect bearings can also be used to control the gas solenoid via the Solar & Palau controller, removing the need for an air pressure sensor which can get clogged with grease and soot,” he adds. “The other benefit you get with this fan is the Xylan coating on the fan blades, which is a non-stick coating that requires less cleaning than conventional fans.”

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Franco Sotgiu, managing director of Inka Grills, which now makes its products in the UK, says it is “absolutely vital” that charcoal ovens are only installed in areas where there is either natural outside ventilation or where appropriate mechanical ventilation has been installed. This includes a flue or exhaust vented directly to the open air, he says.

Inka’s product manual explicitly states the arrangement that is needed and it recommends customers also undertake consultations with experts in ventilation. It has even struck an informal partnership with Hertfordshire-based Chapman Ventilation, which will advise its clients on the mandatory requirements.

One of the things every installer should check is whether existing ventilation systems are capable of extracting the appropriate number of meters of cubic air per second and replacing it with fresh air, suggests Sotgiu. Other basic precautions, he adds, include installing CO monitor alarms that alert staff if any areas of the kitchen suddenly become exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide and running the extraction system for a period of time first thing in the morning. This can help to eliminate any overnight residue of CO.

“We have not been consulted by the HSE, but we would welcome being part of a discussion on this very serious matter,” says Sotgiu. “It is so relevant that we welcome the opportunity to sit down with competitive manufacturers to discuss the issue and define the best way forward.”

One question that has been asked is whether current indoor barbecue equipment features any form of automatic shutdown function to stop the production of carbon dioxide when the system is not in use or service has ended.

Space’s Bidmead notes that by their very nature charcoal ovens cannot be instantly extinguished or shut down, but he says there are steps that operators can take to manage the situation responsibly. One Bertha customer that it is aware of has even extended their sprinkler system inside the oven as a ‘belts and braces’ tactic, although Bidmead suggests that more orthodox safety measures are sufficient.

“Our recommendation on the Bertha oven, and indeed on our instructions to our customers, is to close both the top vent and the bottom vent at the end of service which starves the oven of air and will put the oven out. In our independent tests, this process will cool the oven by the following morning,” he says.

All manufacturers have comprehensive guidelines in place for the safe installation and usage of their equipment. It now remains to be seen if these are enough to appease the HSE or whether it will demand the industry does more to make its voice heard.

Official HSE statement

“We became aware of instances where commercial solid fuel appliances — such as barbecues and solid fuel stoves — had not been installed by a competent person, or they were being used inappropriately. This potentially risks exposure to carbon monoxide. By law, industry must ensure employees and customers are protected against such risks. It’s important, and a legal requirement, that those who create the risk also ‘own’ and mitigate against it. HSE is now in discussions with manufacturers, suppliers, installers and commercial caterers to establish whether there is a need to raise awareness of the risks associated with solid fuel appliances.”

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