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In every foodservice operation spotless wares and clean utensils play an important role in customer satisfaction. Consumers associate spotty wares with dirt and carelessness, discouraging them from repeat visits.

Dirty tableware not only creates a negative perception of your facility but can put your patrons at risk. Lingering food particles and germs increase the risk of foodborne illnesses.

Ensuring your wares are clean will improve customer satisfaction and decrease the likelihood of foodborne illness, ultimately increasing your bottom line.

In the commercial warewashing environment, there are two ways to wash wares. Staff can manually wash wares using the 3-compartment sink method or automatically wash them with a commercial dishwasher.

Today, many operations prefer commercial dishwashers because of the enhanced productivity and effectiveness of the machine. Staff simply have to rinse the dishes and load the machine, allowing them to focus more on patrons. However, the FDA (Food and Drug Association) requires all commercial kitchens to provide a stainless steel sink with three compartments for the 3-sink method if there is not an appropriate automatic dishwasher available. Your local Department of Health may have additional requirements.

The 3-sink method is an older, more traditional way to wash dishes, but it is a reliable and effective dishwashing process.

This process remains popular in many facilities and is encouraged by the FDA because it provides an alternate dishwashing method should a commercial dishwasher break down or fail to operate properly.

While the 3-sink method has been used for many years, it is often not used according to the recommended guidelines. Often staff may try to streamline procedures and skip important steps, such as quickly dipping the wares in the sanitizing solution instead of letting it dwell.

Without the right procedures, the 3-sink method can lead to cross-contamination and spotty wares.

Whether you prefer to use the three sink method or need to use it in the event your commercial dishwasher breaks down, understanding the right way to perform the 3-sink method is critical to achieving clean, hygienic dishes and reducing the likelihood of patron illness.

In this article and video, we’ll go over how to properly perform the 3-sink method to keep your wares clean and your patrons safe.

What is the 3-sink method?

The 3-sink method is the manual form of commercial dishwashing. Unlike dishwashing at home, manual commercial warewashing requires more than washing plates, bowls and cutlery with soap and water. It requires sanitizing the wares.

As mentioned above, the 3-sink method can be used as an alternative method to a commercial dishwasher. The 3-compartment sink setup is designed to work the same as a commercial dishwasher by cleaning and sanitizing dishes. The only difference is it requires the staff to manually wash dishes.

As indicated in the name, the 3-compartment sink method requires three separate sink compartments, one for each step of the warewash procedure: wash, rinse, and sanitize.

Although the 3-sink method uses three sinks to perform three different procedures, the entire cleaning process actually has five steps:

  1. Prep
  2. Wash
  3. Rinse
  4. Sanitize
  5. Air Dry

1. Prep

Begin by preparing each sink for use. Each of the sinks must be fully set up prior to beginning the cleaning procedure.

Sink Set-Up Procedures:

Check each of the sinks and drains for any debris or remaining residue from previous cleaning procedures. Once the sinks and drains are clear and free of any build-up, prepare the sinks for use. Each section of the 3-bay sink should be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized before each dishwashing session

Wash SoapSink 1 (Wash):

Fill with hot water or with your dilution controlled dispenser. The water needs to be at least 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

If not equipped with a dilution control system, add pot and pan detergent directly into the sink bay. Use the product label to find the proper dilution ratio.

Pro Tip: The temperature of the water is determined by your local health code and the temperature specified on your pot and pan detergent’s label.

Sink 2 (Rinse):

Fill with warm water. Do not add any chemical or cleaning product to this sink bay.

Sink 3 (Sanitize):

Sanitize SoapFill with water using the temperature that is recommended for the chemical you are using or with your dilution controlled dispenser.

If you are using chemical sanitization without a dilution control system, dilute the chemical according to the manufacturer’s instructions. The chemical dilution ratio can be found on the product label.

Test the solution concentration with the appropriate test strip.

If you are using hot water sanitation, the water must be 171 degrees Fahrenheit and continually moving(circulating).

Pro Tip: Some local and state codes will differ from the EPA’s recommended temperature requiring hot sanitation temperatures to be hotter than.

After preparing the three sinks you are now ready to begin prepping the dishes to be washed.

Before the dishes can be washed using the 3-sink method, they must be scraped or rinsed clean of any remaining food residue.

In most commercial facilities, there will be a garbage disposal and overhead sprayer hose to aid in the removal of food scraps and residue.

The prep step cannot be skipped.

Removing as much food scraps as possible will help keep the water in sink 1 cleaner.

The less food residue that ends up in the first sink, the longer you will be able to use the sink before having to switch out the water and detergent.

Additionally, reducing the number of times you have to drain the sink will help lower detergent and water usage and increase worker productivity. However, each sink should also be completely emptied and cleaned a minimum of every four hours.

After removing any remaining food scraps, submerge the dish in the first sink.

2. Sink 1: Wash

Wash Sink

After prepping the dishes, they go into the first sink bay also known as the wash sink.

In the wash sink, the wares are scrubbed with hot water and pot and pan detergent.

The pot and pan detergent should have been diluted into the water during the prep step. Do not apply pot and pan detergent directly to the wares. The proper dilution can be found on the detergent’s label.

The wash sink needs to maintain a temperature of at least 110 degrees Fahrenheit but no more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the wash procedure.

During this step, the wares should be scrubbed clean with a scrub brush, scouring pad, or cloth.

The water and detergent in this step should be replaced frequently. As a general rule, the sink should be drained and refilled when the water becomes too dirty and the soap suds are no longer visible or every four hours.

After the wares are washed, they are placed into sink two.

3. Sink 2: Rinse

No soap or chemical should be added to the water in the rinsing bay.

The second sink is used to remove all detergent and residues from the wares.

Because dishes will be submerged in the sink to remove soap, the water will become soapy. The water in this bay will need to be replaced when the water becomes too soapy. The water is too soapy when a dish can longer be removed without soap residue.

4. Sink 3: Sanitize

Sanitize SinkThe final sink in the 3-sink method is used for sanitizing the dishes. Sanitizing is different from cleaning in sink 1.

Cleaning is the process of physically removing germs, dirt, and other impurities from surfaces. Dishes must first be cleaned before they can be sanitized. Without being cleaned first, sanitization can not take place.

Sanitizing kills 99.99% of bacteria and germs on the wares. This step is critical to reducing the chance of food-borne illness.

To be sanitized, dishes can not have any remaining detergent residue on them. If you find that wares have remaining food or detergent residue, repeat the cleaning procedure before sanitizing.

Wares can be sanitized using either chemical sanitizer or hot water sanitization.

Chemical Sanitization

Chemical sanitation is the most common.

Pro Tip: Steps one and two are critical to the success of the entire wash procedure. If food or detergent residue reaches the sanitizing sink, the strength and efficacy of the sanitizer will be negatively affected.

The three most common types of chemical sanitizers are chlorine, quat and iodine.

For each type of chemical sanitizer, there is a minimum concentration of the sanitizer that must be present to effectively kill germs.

The right chemical dilution is critical to a safe and effective procedure. If the sanitizer is insufficiently diluted it can be hazardous to your staff. If the chemical is overly diluted, it will not kill germs and can put your patrons at risk.

Staff must check the dilution before and during the sanitization procedure.

The dilution ratio will be affected every time dishes are added. It is also affected by the hardness of the water, amount of water, and soap residue that may end up in this bay.

What is the best way to maintain the level of sanitizer in the bay throughout the entire cleaning procedure? When diluting the sanitizer, there will typically be an acceptable range.

For example, the manufacturer of a quat chemical may state the solution should remain between 200-400ppm (parts per million) for effective sanitization. To ensure the chemical remains in the acceptable range for the entire procedure, dilute the chemical to the maximum allowance so that even as the dilution rate goes down throughout the procedure it will remain above 200ppm (the lowest acceptable dilution).

Always refer to the product label for the proper dilution ratio.

Test the solution in the sink bay periodically to ensure the proper dilution ratio.

Pro Tip: An automated dispensing system can help take the guesswork out of chemical dilution. A dispensing system can be installed above the 3-sink bay to automatically dispense and dilute chemicals into the sanitizing bay. The system dispenses both water and sanitizer into the bay.

Each chemical sanitizer also has a required temperature:

● Chlorine solution: 75 ℉-120 ℉

● Quaternary solution: 75 -90℉

● Iodine solution: 75 ℉

Dishes must be submerged in the sanitizing solution for a minimum of 1 minute.

Warning: A common mistake is that the dish is only briefly immersed into the sanitizing solution. The ware must remain immersed in the sanitizing solution for the recommended time to comply with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) guidelines and local requirements. Some states require even longer immersion times.

Hot Water Sanitization

The second method of sanitization does not use chemical but hot water.

Hot water sanitization requires a heating device to be installed in the sanitizing sink. The heating device performs two tasks. It heats the water and circulates the water.

The water must be at least 171 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the entire procedure. Keep in mind, some states may require hot water sanitization temperatures to be higher than the EPA’s recommended temperature.

During hot water sanitization, the wares must be submerged for a minimum of 30 seconds according to the EPA. However, some states may require the wares to remain in the hot water for as long as 2 minutes.

Always check with your local health department to make sure you are adhering to the temperature requirements.

5. Air Dry

Do not rinse the wares after the sanitization step.

Dishes and utensils should always be air-dried on a drain board, utensil rack or similar piece of equipment. Drainboards control the excess water running off the wares, and allows for the items to fully dry without becoming contaminated.

Make sure that the drainboard is self-draining. Placing the wares on a flat surface will allow water to build up and increase the likelihood of bacteria growth.

Warning: Never dry items with a towel or cloth; doing so can result in cross-contamination.

Final Thoughts

The 3-compartment sink is a reliable and effective method of warewashing when used in accordance with your local health codes and product guidelines for temperature and chemical dilution.

Without the proper temperatures and chemical dilution, your 3-sink warewashing will not properly kill germs. Following the proper steps of the 3-sink method is critical to achieving clean dishes and protecting your patrons.

The proper chemical dilution can be tricky to achieve and maintain because of a variety of factors. An automated dispensing system will help your staff easily achieve the right dilution every time.

If you’re located in the United States, Puerto Rico, or the Caribbean, Imperial Dade offers a full line of warewashing products, including detergents, sanitization products, and dispensing systems.

Imperial Dade also provides unparalleled service & training to help you achieve maximum operational efficiency in your warewashing program.

Visit our warewash and laundry page to reach out to an Imperial Dade Account Executive. We will review your current dishwashing protocol and help you achieve best in class results.

Check Out These Additional Resources:

The Secret to Getting Clean Wares From Your Commercial Dishwashing Machine (3 Key Elements)