Refrigerators 101

Refrigerators now come in a huge array of styles with many optional features so choosing a new one can be a complicated endeavor. Style, mechanics, costs, repairs, energy use, and lifestyle factors all play an important part in how you shop for and ultimately purchase a refrigerator.  

Exterior Configurations

You’ll have many choices where exterior configuration is concerned. Often, the final choice is highly influenced by finances. Refrigerators come in the following shapes and styles:

  • Side-by-side
  • Top freezer conventional
  • Bottom freezer conventional
  • French door
  • Counter-depth
  • Built-in
  • Under-the-counter small units
  • Commercial styles—such as glass front, or triple units

If you’re installing a new refrigerator in an existing kitchen, it’s important to accurately measure the width, depth, and height of the designated space. Allow wiggle room to slide the refrigerator in and out, especially if the space is completely enclosed by cabinets or walls. However, it’s advisable to get the largest unit that will comfortably fit into your space.

It’s important to determine how much space is available in front of the installed refrigerator for opening the door and standing or walking by. Side-by-sides and the new French-door refrigerators are wide-width units; however, since they have narrower doors, they need less space out front. Picture yourself standing in front of the open refrigerator. Are you able to walk past the open door without running into existing cabinets or countertops? If you choose a conventional refrigerator, should the door open to the right or to the left? Remember that many standard refrigerators are deeper than standard cabinets, so they protrude forward past the cabinets.

Counter-depth refrigerators lack some interior space, but recede into the décor of the kitchen for a more finished look. Care must be taken with commercial refrigerators—they can be too wide to carry through a doorway, much less install in the kitchen.

You may want to consider looking for the following exterior features:

  • Trim kits—colored panels, brushed aluminum or stainless steel panels, or cabinetry
  • Special stain-resistant exterior finishes
  • A water filter located behind the base grille
  • A door lock feature
  • A reversible door swing, especially if you move often
  • A "clean back"—condenser coils are located on the bottom of the unit, instead of the back
  • An open-door alarm
  • A through-the-door water and ice dispenser

Interior Features

Judge the interior of a refrigerator by matching it to your family’s needs. What kinds of foods will you be storing? Side-by-sides often are attractive because of their exterior water and ice dispensers, but the narrow lines limit the size of items that can be stored and reduce visibility and access. Does your family love pizza? Most side-by-sides are too narrow to store them. Ditto that large cake pan. When judging the interior of a fridge, look for the following:

  • Is the interior layout convenient and adjustable to your needs?
  • Can you store wide or tall items conveniently?
  • Can large drink bottles be stored in the door?
  • Can you easily reach items at the back of the fridge?
  • Are temperature and humidity controls easy to reach?
  • Is the interior well-lit?
  • Do the available compartments suit your food-storage needs?
  • Are the shelves sturdy, adjustable, and easy-to-clean?
  • Are slide-out shelves available?
  • Are the foods you use the most storable at eye and arm level?

Comparative Costs

Top-freezer refrigerators account for 50% of all refrigerator sales, and are by far the most economical to purchase and maintain. They make good use of space and tend to be energy-efficient. Most models have factory-installed interior icemakers, which are less repair-prone than through-the-door dispensers. 

Bottom-freezer fridges are next in sales, and are still economical. Side-by-sides take a leap in price, but are still cheaper than counter-depth refrigerators. The new French door models are pricey, but desirable for their wide-width interiors and bottom freezers. Built-ins are costly, luxury refrigerators and are often available with designer fronts or cabinet fronts. Commercial refrigerators can cost even more than built-ins, and are for dedicated cooks with state-of-the-art kitchens. As far as finishes are concerned, stainless steel is more expensive than brushed aluminum or basic colors. Custom cabinet fronts are still more expensive.

Potential Repairs

Refrigerators break down much less often than other major appliances, and all brands rate good to excellent in quality. Through-the-door water and ice dispensers are the primary cause for repair calls.

Energy Use

Your refrigerator is probably the top energy consumer in your home. However, due to regulations implemented in 2001, new refrigerators use 60% less energy than those made 25 years ago. If you have a refrigerator that is 15 years old, you should probably consider buying a new model.

When buying a new refrigerator, look for one that is Energy Star® compliant. Many municipalities and utility companies offer rebates if you replace an old refrigerator with an Energy-Star® compliant model. Check with your local utility company for information regarding rebate programs.

Top or bottom freezer models are generally more energy-efficient than side-by-sides. However, because of the through-the-door water and ice dispenser, family members might open the doors less often with a side-by-side, thereby keeping the cold air in. It’s worthwhile to know, however, that the difference in yearly running costs between the most efficient and least efficient models is only about $30 a year.

Here are some tips to help you conserve energy when using your refrigerator:

  • Keep the door shut.
  • Defrost the freezer often if you have a manual defrost. Heed the manufacturer’s instructions; being careless during defrosting can cause damage to the point of destruction.
  • Avoid buying a fridge with a drink and ice dispenser—they use a lot of energy.
  • Buy a fridge with transparent drawers to decrease searching time.
  • Keep the fridge filled 2/3 full, or switch to a smaller fridge.
  • Consider a model with auto-close doors.
  • Don’t overload the refrigerator with food; it cuts down air circulation.
  • Avoid buying a frost-free fridge; it uses more energy.
  • Avoid placing the fridge near a heat source.
  • Never place hot foods in the fridge.
  • Defrost frozen foods in the fridge to boost the cool factor.
  • Consider turning off the butter conditioner—it actually heats.
  • Vacuum the exterior coils often.
  • Wipe the condensation off containers when putting them back in the fridge.
  • Check the seals all the way around the door: Insert a sheet of paper, and close the door. You shouldn’t be able to pull the paper out.
  • Set the temperature between 37 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Lifestyle Factors

Lifestyle is the most important consideration when choosing a refrigerator. How much food will you be storing? What are the container sizes you’ll be storing? What is eye-level for the people in your household? The food you access the most should be stored at eye level. Do you entertain often? Do you need extra space for drinks? Perhaps you should consider purchasing an extra under-the-counter drink fridge. Are you unable to bend over? A bottom-freezer model might be your best option, since a freezer is accessed less often than a refrigerator. Are you a professional cook? If so, you might want to leap into the realm of commercial refrigeration.

A refrigerator is a major investment for your home; yet, refrigerators are more serviceable and energy-efficient than ever, and can provide good service for years. The huge variety of exterior and interior configurations and designer looks can make buying a refrigerator a confusing, but exciting, prospect. Knowing what to look for can give you much peace of mind.


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Author: Gale Boyd