Getting a good refrigerator or freezer is not too difficult. What takes some expertise is sifting through the many available features and accessories without paying too much. Here are some factors to consider when purchasing reach-in refrigerators and freezers.
No fewer than a dozen companies make reach-in refrigerators in a variety of price ranges. Most reach-in refrigerator manufacturers offer a variety of finish materials, sizes, door configurations and combinations of refrigerators and freezers. Stainless steel is the most common finish you will see and the longest lasting.
When we speak of reach-in refrigerator doors, we refer to the number of upright columns of refrigeration. These columns, in widths of 24 to 30 inches, could come with a full-height door or a pair of stacked half doors. Upright or full-height boxes usually come in one-, two- or three-door models.
If you need refrigerators in the same general area, there may be good operational reasons to have several small coolers, though it's always more cost-efficient to use a multiple door unit than to use several single- or two-door models. For example, if you buy two one-door units, the cost is about 40-50 percent more than the cost of a two-door unit for the same amount of usable refrigerator. A three-door model is proportionately less expensive than a combination of smaller units as well. If you go with a three-door, just be sure it can fit through your kitchen doorway — they are pretty large.
In addition to cost, consider space. A single, multidoor refrigerator or freezer compared to multiple one-door units is generally going to take up about six to eight fewer inches in length. It may not seem like much, but space in most kitchens is a valuable commodity.
The amount of usable refrigeration space inside a reach-in is also worthy of consideration when you're on a budget. Manufacturers all offer specifications of interior size in cubic feet. Sometimes these measures are not consistent and can be misleading, depending on the location of a unit's internal evaporator coil. Some refrigerators have evaporators that drop down into the compartment and may limit usability of the top shelf of the unit. Some of the better models have evaporators that are recessed up into the top housing of the refrigerator, thereby expanding usable storage area.
Also, don't buy more interior area than you need. Consider the fact that a manufacturer may make a two-door refrigerator in 48-, 52- and 58-inch widths. Costs are not much different, so which do you choose? If you will be using pan slides for kitchen sheet pans, you can use the narrowest unit that will fit slides, since anything wider is wasting kitchen area. If you'll be storing large items, such as cases of goods, a larger length may be the best buy.
Does it seem like manufacturers have a lot of very similar-looking refrigerators? It's because many manufacturers now have two or more lines of varying quality and levels of features. Most 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 for quick recovery from door openings and may have more optional interior configurations of shelves and slides.
Finish materials can often add to or reduce the cost of a refrigerator, but they also affect durability. The top-of-the-line consultant series for most manufacturers is an all-stainless steel cabinet. Most will agree that all-stainless is the most durable, longest-lasting and best-looking finish. However, if you forego stainless inside the box you can save on the overall cost of the unit. For about 10-15 percent less on a two-door refrigerator you get a very functional aluminum interior lining. If you can accept aluminum finish on the refrigerator exterior, with the exception of doors, an additional 10 percent or more savings may be realized. The tradeoffs are that aluminum is not going to keep its shine and is a softer metal that dents more easily than stainless.
Most standard reach-in refrigerators are furnished with wire shelves in each compartment. If you use a lot of sheet pans (18"×26") or steam table pans (12"×20"), you may want to consider pan slides in lieu of shelves in some refrigerators. 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, manufacturers have also made their products more maintenance friendly. Some 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. The solution some have devised is evaporator coils without fins. One manufacturer claims this change reduces 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.
Energy savings are now important to many owners. Recent developments have made the use of high-efficiency motors popular on many of the premium and even mid-priced units. Newer refrigerants are efficient and not harmful to the environment like some older models. An innovative new system uses glycol (similar to what goes in your car radiator) as the refrigerant in a circulating system for multiple appliances. This single system supplies the refrigerant to reach-in refrigerators and a variety of other refrigeration equipment like sandwich units and walk-in boxes. Glycol is easier to work with than typical refrigerants and may have some maintenance advantages. The energy savings accrue when heat normally generated by the compressors in the refrigerator is remotely located and not dissipated into your kitchen. The heat generated by these refrigerators and other items can be extracted centrally and used to preheat hot water or used in the building heating system.
If you consider your operational requirements carefully it's not difficult to find a good quality refrigerator or freezer that meets your particular needs and budget. 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. Bendall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.