After exploring commercial refrigeration inside and out, it’s time to take a closer look at the most important, and ubiquitous, units of all – reach-in refrigerators and freezers. No matter what type of restaurant or catering business you have, your kitchen will inevitably need a reach-in unit which will improve the quality and speed of both food preparation and service. You can expect your reach-in refrigerator to be the most heavily used piece of equipment in your kitchen. Therefore, it is vital to find the unit with the correct design, door type, compressor, and size for your particular needs.
Reach-In Refrigerators: Construction
All commercial reach-in refrigeration units are constructed from either stainless steel or galvanized steel, both of which are strong, durable, and easy to clean. Reach-in units must be fully insulated to help maintain the right temperatures, and the interior of most of these refrigerators will have a lining that is made of stainless steel, vinyl-coated aluminum, anodized aluminum, or ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) plastic.
Top-Mounted or Bottom-Mounted Condensing Units
The condensers of reach-in refrigerators have two basic designs; they will be either top-mounted or bottom-mounted. Top-mounted condensing units mean the refrigerators will offer more interior storage; and will usually run colder than bottom-mounted units because the warm air from the condenser rises from the top and not from the bottom (and therefore will not affect the contents of the fridge). On the other hand, bottom-mounted units mean you don’t have to bend down as much to reach the lower shelves, making the contents more accessible and easy to reach.
Because a refrigeration unit’s compressor draws in surrounding air to regulate internal temperatures, the warmer the incoming air, the harder the compressor will have to work to cool the air. Because warm air rises, and cold air descends, top- and bottom-mounted compressors each work more effectively in different environments and each has its pros and cons. Bottom-mounted compressors, for instance, pull in cooler air (from lower down), making refrigerators with this type of compressor good for hot environments. However, the compressor can become clogged with dust, flour, or grease from the floor. Top-mounted compressors, on the other hand, pull in warmer air (from close to the ceiling), making it better for cooler environments. This type of compressor is less accessible for cleaning and service, but it doesn’t detract storage space from the interior of the unit and it is less likely to get clogged up with dirt and debris than a bottom-mounted compressor.
Reach-In Refrigerators: # of Sections
One-section reach-in refrigerators are relatively narrow (up to 36 inches wide) and compact, which makes them ideal for smaller kitchen areas. The next size up is the two section (side-by-side) reach-in refrigerator, which offers more space, without being too massive for the average kitchen. Each section usually has three adjustable shelves, making these units versatile and flexible.
If space is not problem, a three-section refrigerator, which can be as wide as 85”, offers loads of space that can replace a medium-size walk-in fridge. These units can hold a lot of food on their nine adjustable shelves, which makes them perfect for a large, busy commercial kitchen with plenty of extra room. The size of a three-section unit usually ranges between 69 cubic feet and 85 cubic feet, and, like all refrigeration units, three-section refrigerators come with either top-mounted or bottom-mounted condensing units.
The following door types are commonly found in commercial reach-in refrigerators: full and half glass doors, full and half solid doors, a combination of glass and solid doors, swing doors, and sliding doors (which you’ll see mostly on glass-door units).
Glass-door reach-in refrigerators are popular in commercial kitchens as they can save time and energy by letting staff see the fridge’s contents without having to open the door. This helps to keep cold air in, thereby saving on energy costs. Refrigerators with glass doors have lighting that continuously illuminates the interior (not just when the door is open).
Solid door reach-in refrigerators are easy to clean and energy efficient, making them a commercial kitchen favorite. Both solid doors and glass doors, however, have plusses and minuses that you will want to consider. Solid-door reach-in refrigerators are easier to clean than glass and are also better insulated; but the solid door means that the door(s) will be open and shut constantly as staff search for ingredients and other supplies. Glass doors have less insulation than solid doors, resulting in a product that has increased product visibility, at the expense of less energy efficiency.
Along with door type is the style of the door – sliding or swinging. Sliding doors can eliminate congestion issues in tight spaces while swinging doors can provide a larger reach-in area. Swing doors have a stay-open feature that makes loading and unloading inventory easier. However, swing doors can block traffic flow in kitchens with limited space.
A half-size swing door is a door that is split into two sections, and only one part needs to be opened at a time, which helps to conserve energy and maintain a more consistent interior temperature. Nonetheless, this type of swing door still blocks traffic in a crowded kitchen.
Another option is a combination half-door reach-in unit – half solid and half glass. This style offers both great organization and increased visibility – a win-win situation.
Other Features to Consider
Gaskets: Gaskets are found on all refrigerators; they create the airtight seal around a refrigerator’s door, which helps to keep cold air locked inside. Some reach-in refrigerators have a removable door gasket, which facilitates easy cleaning.
Thermostats: While all commercial reach-in refrigerators have thermostats to regulate the internal temperatures, many newer, state-of-the-art reach in refrigerators are equipped with a digital thermostat. These thermostats provide more accurate readouts and make it easier to read and keep an eye on temperatures so they can be adjusted if needed, a feature that can lead to fewer service calls and lower costs.
Casters: Casters are wheels that are placed on a rotating mount for increased mobility. For reach-in refrigerators, casters may have a flat surface that will sit under the unit, or a surface that will actually lock in. In either case, casters are essential for heavy equipment like a refrigerator, which has to be moved for cleaning and servicing. Casters with a wheel-lock option are also important, as they help prevent accidents.
Where to Place Your Reach-In Refrigerator
When choosing the type of refrigerator you want, consider the location of doorways and other equipment, as well as how wide the open areas are in your kitchen. Plot out the location for the refrigerator or freezer before making your purchase. Consider how the door will swing open, left or right, and choose a configuration that will not interrupt the workflow.
A commercial kitchen should be designed with efficiency in mind, and an important part of this design is the placement of your reach-in refrigerator. For example, two- or three-section reach-ins will likely be placed near the prep area, so that items that will be needed throughout the day, like pans of pre-seasoned meat or vegetables, can be stored in bulk. A smaller reach-in, like a one-door refrigerator, is useful near the final production line or adjacent to the cooking area, and can be stocked with prepared meats and garnishes for the final plating.
Installation of Reach-In Refrigerators
The room and space in which you’ll be installing the refrigeration unit should be well ventilated. You must also adhere to the manufacturer’s specs regarding clearance guidelines for the back and sides of the unit to prevent inefficient operation and excessive service calls. You should also avoid installing units in particularly humid or dusty areas, which can lead to rust and as well as a malfunctioning condenser.
Always install refrigerators on a level surface away from heat and moisture-generating equipment (stove tops, for instance), which can hinder the unit’s optimum performance. Finally, a reach-in refrigerator should be supplied by the correct electrical voltage and have its own electrical circuit. The manufacturer’s manual will discuss and guide you as to the best practices for the installation of the reach-in refrigeration unit that you’ve purchased.
Reach-In Refrigerator Maintenance
Commercial reach in refrigerators are designed for heavy-duty use and should perform at a high level for many years. However, a few simple preventive maintenance measures will help ensure that your reach in refrigerator works effectively and efficiently for the long term.
Keep the compressor and coils clean, and ensure that the compressor fan enjoys good airflow. Check the door gaskets from time to time and replace worn gaskets. The gaskets ensure that cold air can’t escape from the unit and, over time, they can erode and lose their effectiveness.
The NSF Home Product Certification Program helps people choose products that are certified for quality and safety. For peace of mind, choose a commercial refrigerator that is NSF listed, which guarantees that the unit is constructed of safe and non-toxic materials, and that it has passed quality and performance testing that ensures durability and functionality.
In addition, to ensure the energy efficiency of your reach-in refrigeration unit, look for the EnergyStar listing. According to the EnergyStar website, “Commercial refrigerators and freezers that have earned the ENERGY STAR are on average 20% more energy efficient than standard models, because they are designed with components such as ECM evaporator and condenser fan motors, hot gas anti-sweat heaters, or high-efficiency compressors, which will significantly reduce energy consumption and utility bills.”
The Importance of the Right Reach-In Refrigerator
The kitchen is the beating heart of your restaurant’s operation and refrigerators keep the blood flowing, so to speak. Search around for the refrigerator that fits your needs, your space, your menu, and your staff, and try to buy the best unit that your budget allows. A good reach-in refrigerator, properly maintained and serviced, can last for decades, making it perhaps the most important investment you’ll ever make.