How to Buy a Reach-In Refrigerator

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SAVE ENERGY: Only open your refrigerator door as needed. You'll save money.
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LOOKING GOOD: A stainless-steel finish is important in an open display kitchen.


It can easily be argued that refrigerators are the most critical piece of equipment in your kitchen. No matter what type of foodservice operation you run, you need refrigeration. Keeping food at the proper temperature without using too much energy is essential to food quality, food safety and your bottom line.

Before you buy, there are two important considerations to keep in mind. First is food safety. Improper cooling or cold-holding of foods are the most common causes of foodborne illness. As a foodservice operator you must have the proper cooling equipment for your needs, and then manage your food handling procedures properly.

The second consideration is energy consumption. Besides air conditioning, refrigeration equipment is likely to be your biggest electricity expense in the kitchen. When buying a new reach-in refrigerator, you should consider a model with the Energy Star label. The label ensures the model you are buying is among the most energy efficient made. Currently there are about 19 manufacturers that make Energy Star-labeled refrigerators. These units can save as much as 45 percent of your energy charges when compared to nonlabeled models because they have features like high-efficiency compressors, better insulation and the latest type of fan motors.

Once you have the two most important items covered, finding a good refrigerator that will last several years and withstand tough kitchen demands is not too difficult. Look for the NSF seal on the unit, which means the equipment has gone through rigorous testing and can hold the required temperature with proper use. Here are three tips for getting the best and safest service out of your refrigerator.

  1. Don’t overload the refrigerator cabinet. Proper airflow is essential to holding the cabinet temperature below 40°F. Most refrigerators have an air flow pattern designed to distribute cold air through the unit so all areas from top to bottom stay at a consistent temperature. Usually air is forced through baffles and louvers at the side or back of the cabinet to create even airflow.
  2. If the refrigerator is packed too full of product, the air can’t circulate properly and “hot spots” are formed, not allowing all product the proper cooling it needs. A lot of product can be stored in a refrigerator, but don’t overdo it and definitely don’t block off the air circulation louvers.

  3. Don’t use a regular refrigerator like a blast chiller. A reach-in refrigerator is made to store product at a safe temperature. It is not designed to chill large quantities of food product quickly as may be recommended in your HACCP plan or by local regulations.
  4. Not only will large amounts of hot food not chill quickly, the added heat in the box will raise the overall temperature and may adversely warm any other foods being stored. Cooling down small amounts of food is usually all right, but if you regularly need to cool larger amounts, invest in a blast chiller.

  5. Don’t otherwise overwork your refrigerator. Only open the door as needed and don’t prop it open when loading product. Most refrigerators have self-closing doors to help kitchen workers keep the cool air inside. A good option to purchase for most operators is half-height doors on full-size upright units. Less of the interior of the cabinet is exposed to warm kitchen air each time a door is opened. When possible, putting your refrigerator in the coolest part of your kitchen you will get better performance.

All reach-ins are not equal. Beyond being safe when used properly, reach-in refrigerators are not equal. There are many units on the market, each fitting particular operational needs. Of the 20 or so major manufacturers there are likely to be several that can meet your requirements. The trick is to match a refrigerator to your particular needs. First, size is a consideration.

Among the major manufacturers, height and depth dimensions for upright reach-in units vary somewhat. A seven-foot unit will fit into almost every kitchen and leave a little space for air circulation above, which most units need. Depths range from about 26” to 36”, which is a reasonable reach to the back of the unit.

Where refrigerators differ most is in widths. What is right for a particular operation depends on how the unit is to be used and how much product will be held. We found single-door models that are 24”, 26”, 27”, 28”, and 30” in width. The proper choice of these sizes depends on how you store product. For example, the narrowest models are precisely designed to hold a 12” x 20” steam table pan. Another size is designed to hold an 18” x 26” baking pan and no more. The 30” wide unit can hold either, but may waste space. Of course, for larger applications there are two-and three-door units in many additional sizes measuring up to almost seven feet in length. Plan your storage requirements carefully.

The finish line. Another important consideration is finish material for the interior and exterior of the unit. Often cost is a motivating factor. An all stainless-steel box is long lasting, easily cleaned and resists damage, but is the most costly finish. Using a reach-in with a stainless steel exterior and aluminum interior can save about 15 percent or more of the cost of a unit with stainless inside and out.

Aluminum is fine for sanitation, but is softer than steel and more prone to damage. That explains why most manufacturers also make a unit with an aluminum exterior but keep the doors stainless for durability. The models with aluminum in and out and stainless doors are generally the manufacturer’s budget line and may have other economy features besides the finish, but can be priced 35-40 percent less than the all-stainless models.

Interior configuration is the next consideration. Most manufacturers provide three wire shelves per section in reach-in coolers. You can also choose to replace wire shelves with pan slides of various types, depending on your needs. A special universal-type angle pan slide is available for most units, which can be used for either steam table or baking pans.

Some manufacturers can provide drawers instead of doors on units making the product easily accessible for an area like a saute station. Other configurations like glass doors for viewing or pass-through doors for front and back loading and unloading are also good given the right application.

Last, but not least, proper preventive maintenance is the best way to insure years of trouble-free service. Your refrigerator will run more efficiently and consume less electricity if the condenser is kept clean and air flow to it is not obstructed.

At least once a month, inspect the condenser fins and vacuum dust away if necessary and make sure nothing is blocking the air flow. Then have a specialist check the refrigerant in the unit once a year and you should be set for many years of trouble-free use.