Buying a good refrigerator that will keep product cold is not too difficult. What takes some expertise is sifting through the many available features and accessories. Here are some factors to consider when purchasing either a walk-in or reach-in refrigerator or freezer that will help you make the most of your purchase.
Upright or full-height boxes usually come in one-, two- or three-door models, as do under counter models. You may have operational reasons to install several small coolers, but it's always more cost efficient to use a multiple-door unit than to use several single- or two- door models.
The amount of usable refrigeration space in a reach-in is also worthy of consideration. For example, a two-door refrigerator in 48", 52" and 58" widths. Costs are not much different, so which do you choose? If you'll be using pan slides for kitchen sheet pans, you can use the narrowest unit since anything wider is wasting area in your kitchen. If you'll be storing large items such as case goods, a larger width may be the best buy.
Most manufacturers now have an economy refrigerator series and a premium line, sometimes called a “consultant” series. The different lines are an attempt to give operators more of what they need according to their budgets. Consultant-line refrigerators generally use more stainless steel, have larger evaporator and compressor units to compensate for constant door openings, and may have more optional interior configurations of shelves and slides.
The consultant series for most manufacturers is an all stainless steel cabinet. Stainless is the most durable finish, but if you forego stainless inside the box you can save on the overall cost of the unit. For about $1,000 less on a two-door refrigerator, you get a very functional aluminum interior lining. If you can accept an aluminum finish on the refrigerator exterior, with the exception of doors, an additional 10% or more savings may be realized. The tradeoffs are that aluminum won't keep its shine and may be dented more easily.
Most standard reach-in refrigerators are furnished with wire shelves in each compartment. If you use a lot of sheet pans or steamtable pans you may want to consider pan slides in lieu of shelves. Universal-style slides will allow you to use either sheet pans or steam table pans. A sheet pan on slides can also serve as a shelf when both are needed.
In recent years, some manufacturers have switched to evaporator coils without the hard-to-clean fins. The fins, while dispersing and exchanging heat well, also collect a lot of dust. When the fins become too clogged with trapped debris, they no longer exchange heat, causing the refrigerator to work harder and operate less efficiently. Look for evaporator coils without fins, which reportedly reduce cleaning from four times a year to one.
Other maintenance improvements include door gaskets that can be changed quickly and without tools, easy-to-adjust door-leveling devices, and compressor units that can be serviced easily from the front of the units. All these features will either allow you to do some of the maintenance in-house or keep costs low if you hire a service company.
Walk-in refrigerators and freezers are made using standard size, prefabricated panels with urethane insulation sandwiched between aluminum, stainless steel or other skin material. These panels are mass-produced in standard lengths of one-, two- and three-foot widths. Typical exterior heights in restaurants are 7'-6" and 8'-6". A higher ceiling is not costly and will give better airflow within the walk-in.
Manufacturers can produce just about any size walk-in needed in one-foot increments. Doors can also be added just about anywhere. A panel-style box may also come in handy if you want to move the unit or change its configuration.
When shopping for a walk-in, don't choose a walk-in with less than a 10-year warranty. It's important to note that this warranty does not cover the refrigeration system, which is a much more critical consideration. Also look for codes and standard approvals. The most important are NSF for sanitary construction and UL for safety dealing with flame spread and smoke development in case of a fire. Depending on your location, there may also be some local guidelines to follow.
Make sure to specify wall guards or kick plates where needed, particularly if your unit has an aluminum skin, which is softer and more prone to denting. Since the door is the only moving component, it makes sense to buy the most rugged door you can get. Choose a reinforced doorframe for rigidity and specify three heavy duty hinges. Also, buy a kick plate for the door. The combination of the reinforced doorframe, kick plate and hinges will provide a heavy-duty unit.
Operators often buy walk-ins that waste space or do not allow an efficient shelving layout. For example, a walk-in that has a nominal inside width of seven feet can have a three-foot aisle down the middle and rows of 18 or 24-inch shelving on either side. Adding a foot or two to the width of this box is not going to add shelving. An efficient storage layout needs to be planned to get the most from your walk-in. Get everything you need, but don't overspend.
Dan Bendall is a principal of FoodStrategy, a Maryland-based consulting firm specializing in planning foodservice facilities. He is also a member of Foodservice Consultants Society International. He can be reached at 240-314-0660.