Heat exchangers, kettles, and similar heating methods require a lot of energy, maintenance, and space. They can also make it difficult to control processing conditions and temperatures, resulting in loss of product quality and risking food safety. To learn about an alternative heating method known as steam injection technology, we interviewed Brad Wimmer, who is the Industry Sales Manager of Food, Beverage, Pharmaceutical, and Personal Care at Hydro-Thermal Corporation

Hydro-Thermal’s origin story goes back 85 years to the creation of the first Hydroheater. Since then, the company has brought its steam injection systems to numerous industries, applications, and countries. “Our products are second to none for precisely controlling temperature while managing various flow rates and fluid types,” Wimmer says. “One of the things I like to say is, ‘if you can pump it and it requires heat, we have a product that could fit that particular application.’”  Some of those applications include water heating, clean in place (CIP) systems, in-line food cooking, and pasteurization. 

Wimmer has been with Hydro-Thermal for nearly two years, coming from an extensive background in helping customers find alternative solutions to current operations and practices. “I'm mostly focused on solving challenges with sanitation, cycle time, and getting precise temperatures, flow, or versatility in cooking systems,” he says. 

The advantages of steam injection technology

“A lot of customers may be familiar with using indirect heat sources for their food,” Wimmer says, “such as a heat exchanger or a jacketed kettle.” However, steam injection technology is a direct heating method that has many benefits over indirect options.

Essentially, it works by pumping liquid food product through piping. Unlike indirect heat, steam injection instantly transfers 100% of the heat from the steam to the product, while allowing precise control over steam flow and mixing turbulence. That level of control can improve overall product quality. “Process profiles can be changed and modified to enhance things like texture and taste,” Wimmer adds. And the benefits extend to food safety. “Our technology is always internally modulated to allow for quick reaction times if there are process flow changes. We can manage temperature very precisely, even while flow rate conditions are changing throughout the factory.” 

To further support food safety, Hydro-Thermal’s SilverLine and Infuze cookers have 3-A sanitary certifications and can be quickly disinfected to speed up changeover times. “Our systems have onboard CIP systems,” Wimmer says. “Some of them allow for a very rapid changeover and can be controlled by a programmable logic controller (PLC).” This helps eliminate manual cleaning tasks.

Steam injection saves on energy and maintenance costs, too. “You are using all of the steam thermal energy in the sensible and latent heat,” Wimmer explains. “Whereas, with a heat exchanger, you're only using the latency source. So you're actually receiving a 15 to 30% benefit in thermal energy usage.” Heat exchangers also require condensate return pumps, an additional component that’s unnecessary for steam injection systems. And, thanks to a simpler design, Hydro-Thermal’s heaters only require maintenance once a year to operate efficiently. 

The systems also have a smaller plant footprint compared to other heating equipment, which is good news for processors who’d rather not expand their facility to make room for massive equipment. “Everybody wants to get as much volume as they can from their available space,” Wimmer says. “They want smaller machines that have the same capacity and capability of larger ones.” Hydro-Thermal’s equipment meets this need, fitting into tight floor space constraints without sacrificing performance.

Moving toward continuous cooking

One of the trends Wimmer sees in the industry is a desire to switch from batch to continuous processing. Because continuous processing keeps production going without interruptions, it requires fewer employees on the line and improves quality and consistency. “Texture, taste, and mouthfeel are obviously very important to our customers in the food industry,” Wimmer says. “So they're looking for ways to either improve or at least maintain the same quality while making their operations more versatile.” 

To ease the transition to continuous processing, Hydro-Thermal can provide systems that operate alongside the batch processes with which processors are already familiar. “They can have multiple batches of different process recipes while using our systems for continuous cooking,” Wimmer says. This way, customers can start to develop a comfort level with the new technology and gradually work their way up to upgrading other aspects of the line. 

Navigating budgetary and operational limitations 

Despite the advantages, some companies have uncertainties about switching to an unfamiliar technology like steam injection. They also may not have the budget to approach it as a turnkey solution. “The reality is,” Wimmer says, “to make significant changes and get to a continuous cooking methodology, people are going to have to look at the all-encompassing system.” However, when that’s not an affordable option, they can approach the upgrade piece by piece.

But whether food manufacturers choose to implement everything all at once or in phases, Hydro-Thermal can offer advice, expertise, and custom engineering to ensure a smooth transition. “That's one strong aspect of our company,” Wimmer says. “We look at our systems as being the industrial kitchen of the future, intended to be somewhat plug-and-play.” 

Hydro-Thermal also offers trial periods and training to aid potential customers in their decision process. “That allows them to become more comfortable with adding direct steam injection into their process pipeline. Based on how our systems are designed, it may be a little bit foreign to them. But once they understand it, they become more accepting of technological change.”

Award-winning technology

In partnership with university researchers, Hydro-Thermal continues to enhance its steam injection technology, searching for advancements in technology that can further improve food industry processes. “We've won several awards for our innovation,” Wimmer says. 

And that award-winning technology will soon be making its way to PROCESS EXPO. At the show, Hydro-Thermal will be showcasing the Infuze Sanitary Cooking Skid, “a simple system that can process the food cooking previously done in a kettle, a scraped surface, or a heat exchanger all in one pass,” Wimmer says. “It's ideal for those types of food products that are susceptible to caramelization or burn-on.” With a small cost of ownership and substantial savings, Wimmer says the system also has a high return on investment. 

Hydro-Thermal will also have a new actuator package at the show, designed specifically for sanitary cooking applications. “It's a linear actuator that’s IP69-rated,” Wimmer describes, “so it’s fully submersible to withstand washes and sprays.”

This year will be Wimmer’s first time at PROCESS EXPO. “For me personally,” he says, “what will make it a successful show is meeting with a lot of existing and new colleagues in the industry.” He’s also interested in exploring new technologies that could integrate with Hydro-Thermal’s future designs. “We may configure kitchens for customers that would involve pumps, mixers, or storage vessels incorporated into our process system. That way, we can provide a turnkey solution to the end-user. So it's exciting to see what other manufacturers are coming up with to improve their technologies.”

To learn more about Hydro-Thermal’s steam injection technology, stop by Booth #4615 at PROCESS EXPO.