How Do Nugget Ice Makers Work?

Nugget ice makers are fascinating machines that use a unique method of creating ice cubes that's different from most other ice making machines. So how exactly do nugget ice makers work?

Let's do a deep dive under the hood and see how our favorite chewable ice nuggets are made.

Nugget ice makers work by pumping water into a metal cylinder with freezing cold walls. Ice forms of the walls of the cylinder and a spinner auger scrapes off the ice and pushes it upwards. The ice is then compressed through small nugget-sized holes and broken apart by a metal cone before falling down a chute into the collection bin.

The collection bins are equipped with sensors to sense when the bin is full and turn off the machine.

Due to the design of nugget ice makers they can quickly be turned on or off and can go from off to producing nugget ice in as little as 15 minutes. More on how long nugget ice makers take to make ice.

This unique freezing process allows nugget ice makers to make ice quickly and consistently with some commercial nugget ice makers being able to make enough ice for 7,000+ cups of ice per day!

How Nugget Ice Makers Work Video:

The below video (starting a 1 minute) gives an amazing demonstration of how nugget ice makers work.

Step-By-Step Guide To How Nugget Ice Is Made

Let's look in detail at exactly how nugget ice is made:

Step 1: Water Is Pumped Into a Freezing Cold Metal Cylinder

The core way that nugget ice makers turn water into ice is through a metal cylinder that is completely wrapped in tubing that contains refrigerant.

The refrigerant passes through the tubing on the outside of the cylinder and this makes the metal cylinder freezing cold.

Water is then pumped into the metal cylinder and when it comes in contact with the walls of the cylinder it begins to freeze.

In the video below you can see someone showing you the cylinder that came out of a commercial nugget ice machine:

Step 2: A Spinning Auger Scrapes Ice Off The Walls and Pushes It Upwards

Inside the metal cylinder is a spinning auger which is shaped in a spiral (similar to a drill).

The auger spins and as it does it scrapes ice off the walls of the metal cylinder and also pushes the ice upwards toward the outlet.

Step 3: Ice Is Compressed At The Top and Pushed Through Small Holes

For flake ice the outlet is wide and ice isn't forced to compress however for nugget ice cubes the ice is compressed at the top and pushed through small holes that force the ice into the diameter of the nuggets.

In the below video you can see an at home GE Profile Opal Nugget Ice Maker as it pushes ice upwards in long strips through holes in the metal.

Step 4: A Metal Cone Forces The Ice To Break and Fall Into Capture Tray

If you stopped here you would get extremely long pieces of nugget ice that were the right thickness but were too long.

So for the final step an upside down cone exists slightly above where the ice comes out of the holes.

New ice is continually made at the bottom pushing the existing ice up. As it meets the upside down cone the ice is forced outwards and this is what causes the nugget ice to break into small pieces.

It is rare for nugget ice machines to actually contain cutters that cut the ice. Instead it relies on this outward pressure in order to break the ice into chunks.

If you look closely you'll see every piece of nugget ice is a slightly different length and this is because they break semi randomly.

Step 5: Ice Is Pushed Down The Chute

In smaller home devices like the GE Opal Nugget Ice Maker the new ice coming up pushes the existing nugget ice out of the way where it falls down a chute.

In commercial machines they often have a spinning top which doesn't cut the ice but instead pushes the ice so it falls down the chute into the collection bin

Step 6: The Collection Bin Is Monitored For How Full It Is

Either using infrared monitors or a high-set thermometer the collection bin is monitored for how full it is.

When it completely fills up the monitors will trip a switch which will turn off the machine.

Once ice is removed and the bin isn't full anymore the nugget ice maker will power back up and can be back up and running in full capacity in as litter as 15-30 minutes.

Commercial nugget ice machines and at-home nugget ice machines work in pretty much the same way with some obvious variances in size. Click here to learn how the at-home GE Opal Nugget maker makes ice.

Large commercial machines sometimes have a paddle in the ice collection bin to push the nugget ice around so it can exit out a chute and into cup. While other have a large opening where people can manually scoop out ice.

How Are Nugget Ice Makers Different From Regular Ice Makers

Regular ice machines in a freezer fill up ice molds which are frozen and then emptied 2-4 hours later. Nugget ice machines on the other hand use a cold metal cylinder which when filled up with water causes ice to form on the sides. A spinning auger pushes the ice upwards and out of small holes. The ice is then broken to create nugget ice.

Commercial machines that make half ice cubes, full ice cubes or crescent ice cubes consistently pour water over a frozen plate of metal with a metal mesh. The ice is made from the back moving forwards until it is thick enough to trip a sensor causing the ice to drop into the collection bin.

Does Nugget Ice Melt Slower Or Faster Than Regular Ice?

You might be wondering whether nugget ice melts faster or slower than regular ice cubes from a different ice maker or ones you make in ice cube molds at home.

Nugget ice usually melts faster than regular cubed ice because the smaller pieces means it has a larger surface area which increases melting rate plus nugget ice is actually made of compressed flaked ice (like compressed snow) so it's not as dense as clear ice cubes.

The fact that they aren't as dense is what make nugget ice cubes so deliciously chewable and easy to eat. It's why they are commonly used in hospitals as they are less likely to hurt or chip your teeth.

Does Sonic Use Nugget Ice Machines?

Nugget ice has become so popular partly because Sonic uses nugget ice in their drinks and people absolutely love this ice.

Yes, Sonic uses nugget ice machines to create their crunchy and chewable Sonic ice that customers have come to know and love. Their huge nugget ice machines can make enough ice to fill thousands of cups per day.