A key to maintaining a hygienic processing environment is eliminating harborage areas, but conventional heaters contain crevices where bacteria can thrive. They’re also difficult to disassemble for cleaning processes, which presents a challenge for complying with FSMA sanitation requirements. 

That’s why Heateflex Corporation designed a true sanitary heater for the food and beverage industry. We interviewed JP Rivera, the company’s Director of Marketing and Sales, to learn more about the qualities of such a heater and why it’s an important part of maintaining food safety.

Heateflex has been a manufacturer of heating equipment since 1974. Last month, the company was acquired by Graco, Inc., which designs, manufactures, and markets systems and equipment to move, measure, control, dispense, and spray fluid and powder materials.

With a broad product range of water, steam, chemical, and gas heaters, Heateflex serves many industries, including semiconductor, pharmaceutical, medical, and food and beverage. “We're focused on ultra-high purity and ultra sanitary applications,” Rivera adds. “Our goal is to provide heating solutions to customers that care about those issues.”

Designing a true sanitary heater

Part of what makes conventional heaters unsuitable for food applications are the connections. The heating elements of these heaters attach to the housing through threaded screw plugs. “And when you have threads,” Rivera says, “you deal with bacteria and particle entrapment that can lead to unsanitary conditions.” 

When it comes to clean-in-place (CIP) applications, Rivera says, “we run across customers who have CIP skids and they want some type of mobility. They can't use a steam heater, so they need an electric heater, but they still want it to be sanitary.” 

After talking through these issues with food and beverage customers, Heateflex came up with a solution — the True Sanitary In-Line Fluid Heater. The heater integrates tri-clamp fittings through a patented design. Once the two ends are properly aligned, a hand-tightened clamp holds them in place. This creates a gapless connection where internal fluids stay in and external materials stay out. The simple construction and lack of threading minimizes the risk of contamination.

Heateflex has patented its own version of the tri-clamp fitting for the true sanitary heater. “Some people think because they have a tri-clamp connection for the input and output that it’s sanitary,” Rivera says. “But they always forget to look at how the heating element is connected to the housing. This heater is a true sanitary heater because it has tri-clamp connections for not only the input and output, but between the heater and the housing.” 

With the tri-clamp connections, as well as a removable element and end cap, “you can easily disassemble the whole heater for cleaning and FDA inspection,” Rivera says. It also doesn’t contain any dead legs, which are areas where the water can’t circulate and stagnant water leads to bacterial growth. “We removed all dead legs by making this a full gravity draining system,” Rivera explains.

Bringing food testing up to speed

In an effort to control foodborne illnesses and comply with regulatory requirements, processes in food testing labs are also evolving. “Normally what they would have to do for testing is put water into a beaker and into an autoclave for sterilization,” Rivera describes. “Then they would have to use some sort of heater to bring up the temperature, add in the media, and put it into the incubator.” 

To cut some of the steps out of this lengthy process, Heateflex created Demeter. Demeter precisely dispenses sterilized, deionized water into the containers housing the test media which is used to test for Listeria, Salmonella, and E. coli. “Now they can use one unit that can simultaneously provide the heated water and also sterilize it before it goes into the incubator,” Rivera says. This allows lab technicians to eliminate the autoclave step, making the testing process up to seven times faster than traditional methods. “It increases throughput, decreases downtime, and increases productivity.” 

Another way Demeter aids FSMA compliance is through its tracking capabilities. It records test sample information like temperatures and weights, which can then be exported to a lab information management system. “That way if you ever get audited, everything is traceable,” Rivera says.

Certification and customization

The heaters Heateflex supplies to food companies are constructed with 316L electropolished stainless steel, so they’re able to withstand high temperatures and are highly resistant to corrosion. Heateflex also provides certifications for all its heating units — material test reports, finish reports, and ASME certifications — to verify the source of the materials and that they meet FDA standards. “We provide those certificates so they have all traceability for everything,” Rivera adds. 

Because of its commitment to ensuring that customers receive a heater that’s specialized for their applications, Heateflex doesn’t sell its products “off the shelf.” Instead, they’re built to order. “That's something that's hard to find nowadays,” Rivera says. “Everybody wants to make it quick, sit on the shelf, and then try to get it off the shelf as fast as possible. We find that being there for the support and taking the time to build something — that’s what our customers require and what we take pleasure in providing.”

Heateflex released its true sanitary heater less than a year ago and has been seeking out shows in the food, pharmaceutical, and medical industries in which to promote it. To find those shows, Rivera says they reached out to their customers for recommendations. He heard about PROCESS EXPO from a distributor that supplies CIP systems to food plants. “They told me about this show, that they've done it before and liked it,” he says. “So we checked it out, and we liked the quality of exhibitors and the quality of attendees. And four days is a good amount of time — it's not one of those one-day events where you don't know if you're going to get a lead or not. It seems like there's huge potential there.”

To learn more about true sanitary heating solutions, you can find Heateflex at Booth #763 at PROCESS EXPO.