No fewer than a dozen companies make reach-in refrigerators, and all offer a variety of finish materials, sizes and configurations. Many also now offer two or more lines of varying quality and features. These typically include an “economy” series and a premium line, sometimes called a “consultant” series, which generally uses more stainless steel, may have larger evaporator and compressor units for quicker recovery, and may have more interior configuration options.
When we speak of “doors” in reach-in refrigerators, we refer to the number of upright “columns” of refrigeration. These columns are 24" to 30" in width and may be either full height split, with two half doors or one above the other.
Upright or full-height boxes usually come in one-, two-, or three-door models. There may be good operational reasons to have several small coolers but it is always more cost efficient to use a multiple door unit than several single or two-door models. (For example, the cost of two one-door units 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 as well. If you go with a three door, just be sure it can fit through your doorway.
In addition to cost, consider space. A single multi-door refrigerator or freezer generally takes up about 6-8" fewer inches in length than a multiple one-door units. It may not seem like much but space in your kitchen is a valuable commodity.
The amount of usable refrigeration space inside a reach-in is also worthy of consideration. Manufacturers list a claimed interior size in cubic feet, but these measures are sometimes misleading. One consideration is where the internal evaporator coil is mounted on a given model: some have evaporators that drop down into the top compartment, limiting space on the top shelf; better models have evaporators recessed up into the top housing, expanding the usable storage area.
Evaluating Space Requirements
As a general rule, don't buy more interior space than you need. 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 will be using pan slides for kitchen sheet pans, use the narrowest unit that will fit slides, since anything wider is wasting area in your kitchen, giving you no additional usable volume. If you will be storing large items such as case goods, a larger length may be the better buy.
Finish materials can add to or reduce the cost of a refrigerator but they also affect durability. The top of the line consultant series will usually feature an all stainless steel cabinet. Most will agree stainless is the most durable finish and the best looking. However, if you forego stainless inside the box you can save about 10-15% on the overall cost. If you can accept a more-dentable aluminum exterior (with the exception of doors) an additional 10% or more savings may be realized.
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. Universal slides will allow you to use either sheet pans or steam table pans and a sheet pan on slides can also serve as a shelf when both are needed.
Recently, manufacturers have made products more maintenance friendly. For example, some have switched to evaporator coils without hard-to-clean fins and their need for frequent cleaning. Other 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 from the front of units. Such features will either let you do some maintenance in-house or keep costs low if you hire a service company.
Similarly, the use of high efficiency motors, newer refrigerants and remote condenser-glycol loop systems are among other energy-saving changes that are worth considering.
Dan Bendall ([email protected]) is a principal of FoodStrategy, a Maryland-based consulting firm specializing in planning foodservice facilities. He is a member of Foodservice Consultants Society International.