Getting a good refrigerator that keeps product cold is not too difficult. What takes some expertise is sifting through the many features and accessories available to get what you need without paying for more. Here are some factors to consider when purchasing either a walk-in or reach-in refrigerator or freezer.
No fewer than a dozen companies make reach-in refrigerators. There are plenty of products and price ranges to choose from. Most manufacturers also offer a variety of finish materials, sizes, and door configurations.
Upright or full-height boxes usually come in one, two, or three door models as do under counter models. If you need refrigerators in the same general area, there may be good operational reasons to have several small coolers, but it is always more cost-effective 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% more than the cost of a two-door unit for the same amount of usable space. A three-door model is proportionately less expensive than a combination of smaller units as well. (If you go with a three door, make sure it fits through your doorway!)
It is usually important to consider the amount of usable refrigeration space in a reach-in since every inch of space or wall is often coveted in a kitchen. Consider the fact that a manufacturer may make 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 that will fit slides since anything wider wastes space without giving you additional usable refrigeration volume. On the other hand, if you'll be storing large items such as case goods, a wider unit may be the best buy.
Does it seem like manufacturers have a lot of very similar looking refrigerators? That's because many now have two or more lines of varying quality and feature levels. Most offer an economy series and a premium line to give operators products that match their budgets. Premium line units generally use more stainless steel, have larger evaporator and compressor units for quicker recovery and to compensate for constant 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. Top of the line models usually feature an all stainless steel cabinet. Most will agree that all stainless is the most durable, long lasting finish and also the best looking. However, 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 exterior with the exception of the doors, an additional 10% or more savings may be realized. The tradeoffs are that aluminum is not going to keep its shine and it is a soft metal that can be dented 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 or steam table 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, manufacturers have also made their products more maintenance friendly. Some have switched to evaporator coils without hard to clean fins. The fins, while dispersing and exchanging heat well, also collect dust. When they become too clogged they cause the refrigerator to work harder and operate less efficiently. The solution some have devised is an evaporator coil design 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.
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 sizes, nominally one foot, two feet and four feet in width. Typical exterior heights in restaurants are 7'-6" and 8'-6". (A higher ceiling like 9'-6" is not costly and will give better airflow within the walk-in.)
Doors can also be added just about anywhere on the box. The panel approach is good for mass production and excellent for shipping. A panel style box may also come in handy if someday you want to move the unit or change its configuration.
First consider basic items. One is the warranty on the panels — don't choose a walk-in with less than a 10-year warranty. 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. Depending on your location, there may also be some local guidelines to follow.
Another consideration is the finish material. The exterior and interior finish needs to be sanitary and durable. Things like carts and mobile racks are always hitting the outside and inside skin, so it needs to be tough enough to withstand the abuse, or you need to specify wall guards or kick plates where needed.
Most walk-ins get heavy use but will last many years because the only moving part is the door. It makes sense to buy the most rugged door you can get; also look for a reinforced doorframe for rigidity and for a kick plate. Next, look at the door hinges and specify three heavy duty hinges if they are available.
The most important choice you will make is choosing the right refrigeration system. It is common to think that bigger and more powerful is better, but that's not always true when it comes to refrigeration systems. Too big a refrigeration unit can be as bad as one that is too small. The system should be matched not only to the size walk-in purchased but also to the type of use expected. To do this correctly requires the help of a professional.
Also, remember that the walk-in compartment and the refrigeration system are two totally separate items, sometimes provided by different suppliers. The refrigeration system can be purchased from the panel manufacturer or separately from a refrigeration contractor. The choice is yours but it is always best to leave the equipment sizing up to refrigeration professionals who will stand behind your system. Be sure to clearly specify how your equipment will be used and how much in and out traffic it will have.
One last consideration is to always select your walk-in size based on the shelving or cart layout you need. All too often operators 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 7'-0" 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. A 10'-0" width for the same unit really adds nothing in terms of storage capacity but would be more costly to buy and to operate.
Dan Bendall is a principal of FoodStrategy, a Maryland-based consulting firm that specializes in planning foodservice facilities. A member of Foodservice Consultants Society International (FCSI), Bendall can be reached at 240-314-0660.