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The Big Chill- Refrigeration Options in the Kitchen

When I was little we had a cold pantry that I’d go into during the hottest part of the summer. I don’t know how they built it in 1907 (I came along much later, thank you!), but it was a small room with wooden cupboards and shelves with a constant cool temperature all year round. Mom kept things like fruits and goodies in there- another reason to hide out- and sometimes cheeses or a ham hung in the corner. It was magical. I understand that recent owners turned it into a half-bath. Little did they know it would probably be a selling feature today!

We’ve come a long way from cold pantries and the iceman delivering blocks for a ice chest. From water and ice dispensers in the door being an upgrade we’ve gone to computer screens, wifi connectivity, and five door and door in doors.

Fridges in every size

Refrigerators are getting bigger. The most popular kitchen fridge is a 36″ wide, 70″ tall French door standard depth in a stainless steel finish with a capacity of 25-30 cubic feet of storage. There is also

Fridges are also getting smaller. We got a used refrigerator drawer unit from Renovation Angel, formally Green Demolitions. It’s made by Summit and is made for undercounter use and has two drawers, the top one being full depth front to back and the bottom is half. We use it to store drinks, milk for coffee and extra food. My dream tiny home has fridge and freezer drawers each with a separate use- fruits and veggies, dairy, drinks, condiments….

There are undercounter units for wine, beverages, fridge, and ice makers as well as fridges.. Undercounter units are <34″ high and generally 15, 18, 21 and 24 inches wide. They are used in bar, family room, outdoor kitchens, and islands as secondary storage and easy access of stuff.

Please note- if you install an undercounter unit wether it’s a fridge or dishwasher please, please, please make sure it is at the same level as the flooring in the rest of the kitchen. This is done by either using the same flooring underneath it or using plywood two raise it to the height. When our dishwasher died we had to hammer out thick tile, concrete, and grout to get it out as the prior owner tiled up to and not under the dishwasher and it was a choice of tile demo or breaking the countertop. In retrospect if we broke the countertop we could have raised the dishwasher and replaced the laminate. ;o)

Your main refrigerator-

When shopping for your main fridge there are some things to keep in mind-

  • How many people are in the household- a household with teenagers is going to go through more food than I will in my dream tiny house. The average family of four needs 19-22 cubic feet capacity.
  • How you shop- if you buy stuff from Costco you need to have a place to store it. If you’re a daily shopper like my father who enjoys the trip to the market to get whatever looks good that day, you may not need a huge fridge.
  • What you eat and how you cook it- some organized folks may prep and cook everything for the week so they have different storage needs than someone who stops off and does take away or prepared food from the grocery store on their way home.
  • The space you have to put it in- if you’re remodeling a kitchen or building from scratch your designer needs to know what model you want so she can design around it. Designing for one model’s specs and then having the client change what they order after the fact is a recipe for frustration, delays and costs more money to fix it. On the other hand most people are getting a new fridge to replace an existing one. Which means there is already a set area and set space available for it. Measure the opening side to side and up and down. Also measure your doorways to get the unit from outside to its space. Most delivery services will not remove the doors or trim in a doorway. You may have waited weeks for your new refrigerator and then it can’t get in your house. Measure, measure, measure!
  • Space concern 2- what is to either side of the unit? If it’s open or cabinets you’re probably fine, but if its a wall there could be problems. Say you’ve chosen a model with water and ice dispenser in the left door and maybe a door in door on the right. These cause the doors to be extra wide inside to outside. If you can’t open that door all the way, you can’t move the drawers to clean them or there beneath them without pulling the whole unit out and rotating it. Imagine a spill- something sticky like juice or worse uncooked meat juice- yuck! I learned this the hard way in my own kitchen when we had to shave the windowsill to open the freezer drawer.
  • Space concern 3- how tall is your existing opening? You should have space all around the unit and 1.5″ above. If you have a cabinet above the fridge are the cabinet doors going to clear the fridge hinges which sit higher than the fridge doors? Sometimes there is extra molding or part of the face frame that can be trimmed down to give you more space. Otherwise you replace the cabinet over the fridge or getting a smaller fridge.
  • Your best friend in all this, besides me, is the manufacturer specifications. Most large retailers have the on the web page for the unit or can get them for you. These should give you sizes with and with out door depth, handles, hight to hinge or top of box and the door swing width. Once again, measure your space!

Styles for your main refrigerator-

French door– the most popular refrigerator style has a full width refrigerator on top and freezer on the bottom. It can be full depth or counter depth water and ice or even k-cup dispenser on the outside of the door. It can have wifi or a tablet like screen, door in door so that the most often used items are handy and with door in door it may have a window that when you knock on it turns on an interior light so you can see what’s inside without opening the door. Are all these thing handy- maybe. Are they more expensive- of course. Is it more likely that something will break- probably! The more bells and whistles the more potential for problems. According to Consumer Reports french door fridges are more likely to need repairs than most other styles.

The freezer area of a french door fridge may have one drawer with an interior drawer and a large space below it, it may have separate drawers, it may have doors with drawers and shelves inside. One fridge that I was eying is this Samsung with four doors and a Flex Zone that could make one side of the freezer into a refrigerator or back again. But look how organized you could be! When my last fridge died it was an archeological dig to get all the stuff that had defrosted out and some stuff was dated 4 years earlier. Stuff just gets put on the top and the stuff on the bottom didn’t see the light of day until it was soup.

Side by side– this style of refrigerator has two full length doors dividing the unit into about 40% freezer and 60% refrigerator. People either love it or hate it. It has the advantage of a layout that makes visually organizing things easy. I don’t care for them for two reasons- the stuff I want to use most and fastest like fruits, veggies and meat are stored below waist height and if I wanted to put something large like a pizza, turkey, or lasagna tray in it they may not fit because of the narrow width of the compartments. I see more boomers than millennial or gen x’s getting side by sides unless it is because of hight restrictions. Side by side fridges seem to run shorter than french door models.

Freezer on the bottom- in this layout the freezer may open like a door and have shelves or bins inside or, more likely, open as a drawer. We are seeing more models like this. Like a french door layout it allows for larger horizontal storage and keeps the things used most and shortest shelf life closer to eye level. Disadvantages are- no water/ice in an exterior dispenser, and the wider door can take up too much space when opened impeding traffic.

Column– refrigerators, freezers, wine cellars are full height single units which are usually put next to each other. Imagine a side by side fridge/ freezer but separate units and 84 or more inches tall. If you have a large kitchen and feed a lot of people household wise or entertaining wise, and have a large budget, this could be the option for you.

Freezer on top– the old standby fridge is still used for smaller spaces especially apartments. The freezer on top is great if your main food sources are frozen meals, ice cream and margarita mix, but if you like fruits and veg the storage for this is at ankle level. This makes it less user friendly particularly for those with knee and back problems. I like to have the most used and shortest lifespan stuff easy too see and get at. If you do need to use a stop freezer make sure it has separate controls for the freezer and the fridge areas. Some have only one control which makes finding the temperature sweet spot difficult or impossible. I give Smeg refrigerators a pass on this because, like fashion, sometimes it’s about the look. ( Smeg makes very good appliances!)

Features in refrigerators

  • Counter vs standard depth– a counter depth refrigerator is shallower than a standard depth model. It’s doors will be just beyond the depth of a counter- approx 25″. A standard depth model will have about 6″ more of the side of the box showing + the door. A counter depth fridge will be around 5-6 cubic feet smaller in capacity. The advantages of the shallower fridge are- it looks more built in, it takes up less space which is extra important if it opens into a traffic area, and less space may equal less waste. If your fridge is jam packed like mine things get shoved to the back and may not turn up until they have their own ecosystem growing. If you find you waste too much food like most households, a counter depth fridge may help you control that. Disadvantages are- it holds less food. If you’re a Sam’s or Costco shopper or have a large family a standard depth fridge can make more sense for you.
  • Water/ice dispenser- this feature’s been around for a while and is very popular. Dispenser can be outside on the door or inside and may or may not have ice with it. Remember its does take up space inside the fridge. It can also cause problems if you didn’t scope out your space well before purchasing. See below re measuring.
  • View window- are these necessary? No. Do people play with them on the showroom floor? Yes. These are geared to the family who has kids or fridge peepers who stand in front of the fridge looking for something to eat. They are usually paired up with a door in door set up.
  • Door in door- like the view window, these are geared towards families who are constantly going into the fridge for one or two items repeatedly. Such as drinks or small containers of food. They are set up with bins accessible from both inside the partial door opening and the full opening. Door in door can keep down energy costs. They have a button in the handle that allows access to Just the in door stuff. This set up can also cause issues if you are retrofitting it into your kitchen or you don’t spec out for it during design. Again see below re measuring.
  • Flex zones- a flex zone can be an extra drawer with its own handle above the freezer section of a French door fridge or as in, again, this Samsung, an area that can be set to fridge or freezer. Very convenient if your having a party and you need more fridge space than freezer or if you have freezer in the garage or basement.
  • WiFi- this kinda goes with the camera and computer screen. WiFi connected appliances are the new big thing. Ultimately it will help you keep track of what you have and give you recipe suggestions. You can control settings from your phone. This is being designed into new aging in place applications. At some point everything will be connected a la
    Star Trek. Right now I’m meh about it.
  • Computer screen– ok, I’m old school, and don’t see the need for this. Then again I don’t have kids, I have pets and they just want the fridge to magically open when no one’s looking. Some manufacturers market its as a family hub, it can be message central, lists, recipes, access music….. It also adds to the cost and is one more expensive thing to break. I’d rather have an iPad and sticky notes. which leads to…
  • Camera- so you can see whats in your fridge and what you need to pick up. Again, not high on my must haves, in part because my fridge is so crammed full the camera wouldn’t be of much help. Boy, I sound like a cartoon cranky granny shaking my cane at technology! I’m not. A granny that is. Cranky, yeah, if I don’t have my daily tea and chocolate.

Measure twice and then recheck before you buy a refrigerator

I know I’ve already gone over this, but I can’t tell you how many times a week I’ve had people tell me there fridge is “around 30-33”, “standard size” or that their doors are “standard size”.

  • Measure the opening space for the fridge, not the existing fridge.
  • Measure the space’s width at the bottom and a the top- they may not be the same.
  • Measure the space’s height on he left and the right side- they may not be the same.
  • Check to see if there is any molding on the cabinet above the fridge that can be removed if you need the height. When in doubt take a photo too show the appliance salesperson. Photos do not replace measurements!
  • Measure the opening front to back.
  • Measure your doorways- every doorway the fridge needs to get through to get to its new home. Every doorway.
  • If you have an obstacle like a wall to the right or left of the area the fridge will go in check the manufacturer specs for the door swing. Don’t be like me and have to shave down a window sill to open the freezer drawer and pull the whole !@#$ refrigerator out, swing it around to be able to get the veggie bins out because the door couldn’t open far enough otherwise.
  • Go over with the salesperson if the units doors need to be removed to get it to its spot. And what the delivery team will and will not do.
  • Did I remind you to measure everything?

So what does this all boil down to?

Your refrigeration units must fit the space and your lifestyle needs. Size: as in dimensions, capacity: as in storage space, and style: as in configuration are your three main parameters. Do your homework by measuring and thinking about how you shop, how and what you cook, and who’s using the unit, and read reviews by both Consumer Reports and customers. Remember with customer reviews the people who review stuff usually really love or really hate something. Few people take the time to write a review to say “did what it is supposed to, all’s ok”. Also take a look at the manufacturer’s warranty and check out extended warranties from the store and your energy supplier. And remember to shop around comparing the unit price and the delivery and installation cost.

Another big takeaway-

Your warranty starts when you sign for your delivered appliance. If you have it delivered and then wait a week or a month (or like one customer 5 months) to unbox it and find out its damaged you are SOL. Most manufacturers and retailers have a very small window for issues of a delivered appliance and then its your problem. The retailer will refer you to the manufacturer. They will send out a repair person and try to fix it. Maybe multiple times. Try to get your appliance delivered as close to install- if it’s not being installed by the delivery team- as possible. Have them open it up and look it over like yo’ve never seen one before. And if here are any issues take photos, preferably with the team or their truck in the background, and feel free to refuse it. Don’t sign anything or at least write a note on all the copies of the paperwork. Then contact the store where you got it ASAP.

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