Ice Makers: A Basic Overview

With such a large abundance of different ice types, ice maker manufacturers, applications and models, it is important to know the basics, so you can choose an ice maker that will best meet your needs.

Commercial units are most commonly used in bars, restaurants, hospitals, supermarkets and convenient stores. Residential Ice Makers, specifically built-in and undercounter ice makers, are perfect for people who either love to entertain or who love a specific type of ice. Portable Ice Makers are great for on-the-go or small living spaces (i.e. boats, RVs, dorms, and small apartments). A portable ice maker is also a great alternative to not having an integrated ice maker in your refrigerator.

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Ice Maker Portable Edgestar

The Different Types of Ice Makers

There are a variety of ice makers and machines available for you to choose from. Not all of them are built the same, so it’s important to understand the differences between them all.

1. Portable/Countertop Ice Makers

Portable ice makers generally are compact in size, do not need a permanent water line, plug into any standard 110V outlet, and only need water poured into them to operate. Portable ice makers will make ice very quickly (in as little as 10 minutes), however, they are not freezers and thus will not keep the ice frozen for any length of time. The ice will melt, and the machine will continuously recycle the water to make more ice. Also, these small models can only hold a tiny fraction of their full ice making capacity (up to 35 lbs. per day), so you will need to empty them frequently if you need more ice to be made.

One of the best uses for a portable ice maker is its ability to be easily moved between the kitchen, rec-room, bar, patio, poolside, etc. Their small size also makes them great companions while camping, during picnics, tailgaiting, boating, or any other outdoor application.

2. Built-In/Undercounter Ice Makers

As the name implies, Undercounter Ice Makers are designed with front ventilation to allow them to be built in or between cabinetry. Built-in ice makers should be installed by a professional plumber. They take a permanent water line, and some of them also need a drain line. These can store much more ice than a portable model, and can keep it frozen for longer periods of time.

3. Modular Ice Machine

Modular ice maker heads are typically used to produce ice in much larger quantities than undercounter ice makers and are perfect for restaurants, bars, and hospitals. Modular ice makers require a separate unit for ice collection, which is typically stackable and placed beneath the modular unit.

When your ice production requirements surpass 300 pounds per day, modular ice maker heads are the go-to choice for high quantity and dependable ice production. When selecting your modular ice maker head, keep in mind that the condenser can be cooled by either water or air, with most air-cooled units requiring less water and electricity to create ice and therefore qualifying as ENERGY STAR certified.

4. Self–Contained Ice Machine

Self–contained ice machines both produce and store the ice within the same unit. While they require less physical space than modular units, self-contained ice machines have a lower production rate and storage capacity than most modular ice makers. Self-contained ice machines are the most practical option when space is a determining factor when deciding which machine to choose.

Ice Maker in a Bar

How They Work

Despite the different types of ice makers, the ice making process is generally the same. Water enters the ice maker either manually or from an exterior supply line and is then funneled into a refrigerated ice tray where the water will then be frozen, layer by layer, and formed into ice cubes. Once frozen and formed, a mild heating element then loosens the ice from the tray so it can then fall into its collection bin.

How to Clean Your Ice Maker

When cleaning your ice machine, it is important to use an ice machine cleaner that is also nickel-safe, allowing the cleaner to be used on a variety of ice machine types. In addition to being nickel-safe, the ice machine cleaner you select should have the capability to remove and prevent future build-up from lime scale, hard water, and algae.

Ice & Cocktail

Your ice machine should be cleaned every 3 to 6 months to prevent future problems and to ensure that your ice remains tasting clean, fresh, and flavorless.

  1. Turn off and unplug the ice machine.
  2. Make sure any water supply to the machine is turned off.
  3. Empty and discard of all ice and water in the machine.
  4. Remove all parts that come in contact with ice from the machine.
  5. Wash and sanitize in 1 part ice machine cleaner and 3 parts water.
  6. Rinse thoroughly in clean water.
  7. Reassemble the machine, wipe all exposed surfaces and let air dry.
  8. Restart the machine and discard the first batch of ice produced.

Gravity Drain vs. Drain Pump: Which Should You Use?

Both commercial and residential undercounter ice makers need to drain. There are two essential ways of doing this: by using either a gravity drain or a drain pump.

Gravity Drain:

A gravity drain uses the earth’s gravity to help drain condensate from the ice machine. Basically, if your drain is within 2 feet of the ice machine and the actual drain is physically lower than the drain port from the ice machine, a gravity drain will work well for you. Keep in mind though, you will run into problems if the drain is further than 2 feet away, or if at any time, the excess water has to travel “uphill.” If either of these is the case, then you will need to use a pump.

Condensate Removal Pump

A condensate removal pump helps to move excess water from the ice machine to a drain. If your drain is further than 2 feet away, then you will need a pump. In addition, if the water has to flow uphill at any point, you will also need to have a pump. There are two basic types of pumps. One is external, which you simply run the drain line from the ice maker to the pump, and then another line from the pump to the drain. Also, there are a few ice machines that have pumps built into them.

A Note on Ice Production Rates

Ice Cubes

Ice production rates are the most common identifier for ice machines. Production rates are determined by how much ice a machine produces in a 24 hour period. Manufacturers classify production rates based on their performance in optimal environments. The ideal temperature for the ambient air is 70°F and 50°F for water.

If the conditions of your ice machine’s environment will be warmer, you should plan on the production rates being approximately 20% less than stated. Because production is dependent on the environment your machine will be placed in, it is important to consider these variables when determining the production rate that is right for your needs.

Why You Should Use a Water Filter in Your Ice Machine

A water filter works to remove sediments such as dirt, rust, and other debris that exist in your water. Typically, these contaminants cannot be seen by the naked eye. However, they do exist and negatively affect the quality of ice that is produced. Removing these sediments from the water will diminish any unwanted tastes and odors from the ice, making your beverage much more enjoyable.

A water filter will also decrease the wear and tear on your ice machine, thus reducing repair costs. When unfiltered water is used, lime scale, slime, and mold tend to build up in your ice maker. Not only does this build up leave your ice machine in a very unsanitary state, it is the leading cause of machine failure. Lime scale, slime, and mold buildup decreases production, energy efficiency, and in extreme cases, can cause the compressor to fail. For optimal results, remember to replace your water filtration system every 6 months.

Now that you’ve got the basics down, it’s time to find that perfect ice making solution.

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About Author

Sarah is a savvy urbanite with small town roots. As a foodie, wine lover & adventurer, she loves the bustling city and the great outdoors equally. Her motto is that you don’t have to sacrifice comfort, convenience, or fresh air for small-scale urban living.


  1. Debra Jensen says

    Building a house and trying to find the best clear ice machine. We’ve heard that U-Line and Scotsman are the best. Can you suggest one over the other? We don’t want to spend over $1,500. Thanks for your help.

    • Jeff FlowersJeff Flowers says

      Hi Debra,

      I just spoke with our in-house expert on ice makers. Her response was that Scotsman is known to be more of a commercial ice brand. Since you are looking for an ice machine for your house, she recommends going with the ULINE machine. While they are both great brands, if you ever need the unit to be serviced, it will be much easier with the ULINE machine than the Scotsman. This is because with a commercial machine being used in a residential setting sometimes that can create problems.

      Hope this helps and good luck building a house. I wish I would’ve included a built-in ice maker when I was going thru the process myself.


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