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Refrigerator 101 - From Buying to Caring for a Refrigerator

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While you can still find a rather basic model, refrigerators in general have undergone a dramatic change over the past decade with more emphasis placed on food storage, as well as features to make retrieving foods much more convenient. Since a refrigerator is a long-term investment, you'll want to carefully consider the various refrigerator styles and features to ensure that it meets your family's needs now and for the next few years. Whether you're buying a refrigerator for the very first time or replacing an older refrigerator model, these tips will help you be better prepared to shop for a refrigerator.

Installation Notables:

  • Capacity:  While you may want to choose a capacity that suits your needs, available space will most often dictate the maximum capacity of refrigerator you can install and it sometimes also impacts the style of refrigerator. Measure the allowable space for a refrigerator, then decide on capacity before you go any further.  And review the physical size specs of the model you want before buying, to confirm a good fit.  It's also a good idea to confirm that the size you buy can be easily brought into your home; some basement apartments may have smaller doorways or narrow hallways.
  • Installation Style:  Some models are available in standard depth or counter depth, which may influence the capacity you need.  Keep in mind that a counter depth refrigerator actually has less overall food storage space compared to a same width standard depth model, because it's not as deep.  If you like this style that integrates nicely with cabinetry, consider a slightly larger capacity if space permits.

          → What's a Counter Depth Refrigerator?

  • Door Swing:  Door swing influences convenience and how effecient your kitchen workflow is.  To decide which door swing is best, consider the flow-through traffic area, workspace and proximity to the range, counters or cabinets to allow sufficient convenient space for a full door swing.  For those tiny kitchen triangles, a side by side or French door refrigerator may be the best choice, as long as there's enough width to accommodate it.  But give some thought to the convenience of a side-by-side or French door right-hand door swing within your workspace.

          → Right or Left Hand Refrigerator - How to Tell The Difference

  • Height Clearances:  Height clearance is important if there are overhead cabinets.
  • Onboard Water/Ice Dispensing:  If you will be installing a refrigerator with onboard water or ice dispensing features, it will need a plumbing hook-up.

More About Buying a Refrigerator

We'll look at the pros and cons of refrigerator types along with styles and features below, but you'll also find more information in these related articles:

1. Types of Refrigerators

Beverage and Wine Coolers

Specialty refrigerators such as wine, beer or beverage coolers offer lots in way of convenience, have a compact styling and some are available in either built-in or stand alone models.  Though more expensive, built-in beverage coolers are very stylish and the units blend easily with cabinetry.  Though some are small capacity-wise, others such as large wine coolers or cellars, can hold a substantial wine bottle inventory, at just the right temperature.

  • Pros:  Best for convenience; saves space in family refrigerator; easy to place; can place where needed
  • Cons: Another appliance to install; built-ins are pricey; limited capacity; not compatible with all bottle/can sizes

All Refrigerator Models

While most family refrigerators have a freezer compartment, there are all-refrigerator models that have none.  The space is used entirely for cold food storage.  While it may seem very appealing and convenient to have that extra storage space, some miss having a handy freezer compartment in their refrigerator.  If you have a stand alone freezer nearby, an all refrigerator may be worth considering. Some large capacity all refrigerators can be installed with a same-size companion freezer for optimum food storage convenience.

  • Pros:  More economical; increased cold food storage space; easier access to cold storage
  • Cons: Limited model variety and capacity choices ; limited features; no freezer section

Refrigerators With Freezer Compartments

The most common type of refrigerator has a freezer compartment, but the position of the freezer can vary with the style of refrigerator - from being on top, on the side or on the bottom.  And there's a wide range of capacities available including compact models, undercabinet units or stand alone refrigerators.  For those who like a custom kitchen look, some models are available with integrated matching cabinet front panels.

  • Pros:  Most common and best for convenience, value; best choice of styles, features, prices, capacities
  • Cons: Wide range of prices - affected by capacity and freezer placement, features

A Look at Styles of Refrigerators And Placement of Freezers

  • Top-freezer refrigerators are the most economical to buy and many still find this style of freezer section the most convenient.  They offer the most choice when it comes to capacity ranges.
  • Bottom-freezer models offer a choice of pull-out or door-access frozen food compartment.  While some like this style of refrigerator, others do not.  This style influences the ticket price considerably and models offering a bottom freezer tend to be in the larger capacity refrigerators.
  • Side by Side refrigerators offer lots of convenience when it comes to having more frozen foods easily accessible.  They're very affordable, look stylish and the narrow door swing is a good choice for small kitchens.  However, they are only available in models with 20 cu. ft. and over.
  • French-door refrigerators will cost you much more but with this style, it's easier to place trays and bulky items and they usually offer lots of cold food storage and an ample freezer compartment.  You'll only find this style of refrigerator in the larger models.

2. Important Refrigerator Features

  • Choose a refrigerator with a freezer compartment placement that is most convenient for you
  • Choose an exterior refrigerator finish to suit your kitchen and that you can easily keep clean
  • Confirm auto or self defrost if not sure, especially with basic models
  • Spill-proof glass shelving - makes it easier to keep spills localized
  • At least 2 vegetable/fruit bins
  • At least 1 deli meat keeper
  • Adjustable shelving - at least one
  • A good place for tall items, bottles, milk
  • Humidity and temperature controls
  • Easy to see/reach freezer and refrigerator controls
  • Quality plastics used in bins, shelving, trim
  • Good rubber gasket door seal
  • Sufficient capacity for your needs in both cold storage and freezer space
  • Good range of door bins, shelving
  • Enclosed rear condensor coils - this could be considered a frill, but be prepared to keep exposed coils dust-free
  • Self-leveling feet

3. Refrigerator Bells & Whistles

  • More adjustable shelving - improves storage potential
  • Slide-out shelving - improves access
  • Quick cool compartment
  • Removable and adjustable door bins

          →More About Adjustable and Removable Door Bins

  • Gallon milk jug size door bin
  • Wine rack  - if relevant
  • Humidity adjustable vegetable/fruit bins
  • Water/ice dispenser - nice to have but requires plumbing and reduces storage space

          →Are Water/Ice Dispensers Worth the Cost?

  • Enhanced air circulation
  • Odor control feaures
  • Enhanced Humidity control
  • Digital temperature monitoring controls on front of door
  • For bottom freezer models - a pull-out drawer is easier to access than a door style
  • For top freezer - at least one shelf; lighting
  • French door style - enhanced shelving to store large trays
  • Reversible door swing option - available on some models

4. Energy Efficiency - A Must to Save Money

Buying an Energy Star refrigerator assures you that it meets certain energy efficiency targets, but the best in terms of energy efficiency is Energy Star combined with a CEE Tier certification.  When shopping, take time to compare Energy Guide labels to see which refrigerators cost less to operate. 

5. What Not to Buy

While an all-refrigerator (no freezer) model may be appealing because of the extra cold storage space, avoid this type of refrigerator if you do not have a freezer on the same floor. It can become inconvenient to retrieve frozen foods and treats several times a day, from a garage or basement freezer.

Also carefully consider a bottom freezer refrigerator for a home with small children, as this compartment is sometimes too convenient for them and another style may be better.  A door-access bottom freezer requires more bending than a pull-out drawer; it may not be a good choice for those with back problems.

Never buy a refrigerator before confirming clearances all around.  That includes sufficient door swing, how far the unit will protrude from cabinets, height if there are overhead cabinets and sufficient width for the model you choose.

6. Price Ranges and Compare Prices

Because there is such a variety in refrigerator styles and capacities, refrigerator prices tend to vary considerably. You can pay less than $200 for a compact under-counter cooler, slightly more for an apartment size all refrigerator and a couple of thousands of dollars for a large capacity French door refrigerator.

If your budget is tight and you need a family-sized refrigerator, a top-freezer model in the 18 - 22 cu. ft. would offer the best value and you can find various models in the $500 to $800 range with some nice features.

Compare Prices

7. Refrigerator Reviews

With different types and features, it can be difficult to find the right refrigerator for your home.  To find the best refrigerator, read refrigerator reviews:

To help others make good refrigerator buying decisions, take a minute and review your current or previous refrigerator:

8. Refrigerator Care, Use and FAQ's

Cleaning the refrigerator is probably the most neglected chore or the one most likely to be delegated. We hate to waste food, but items often sit for days unnoticed until they either develop odors that are hard to ignore or they are discarded during a non-routine cleaning. But cleaning the refrigerator regularly can improve access, air circulation, control odors and provide ample storage space.

While cleaning the inside is most important, the outside should also not be ignored.  Whether it's the exterior finish that needs attention or dust colonies on the condensor coils, these areas are just as important to keep clean.  And we may assume that most refrigerators are frost-free or self-defrost but and that's likely for mid-to-high-range models, but there are still many basic models of refrigerators that require manual defrosting.  It's always a good idea to confirm if you're not sure.

9. Related Appliance - Freezers

While there are homes that find a refrigerator freezer sufficient and have no need of a stand alone freezer, most have one and some even have two, because there are considerable savings to be had buying bulk food items.  For those that hunt, there is wild game to store and then there are gardens which need to be harvested and preserved. 

While shopping for a refrigerator, it may be a good time to consider how you will keep foods frozen or whether your current freezer needs upgrading.  Though freezers have the longest lifespans on average, newer models are much more energy efficient to operate than older models.

Compare Prices

10. General Appliance Tips

What to do if your appliance has been recalled or you've upgrade to a new model.  And there are reasons why it's a good idea to inform manufacturers of problems or areas where appliances could be improved.  Remember to review your product manual and keep it handy - it has lots of use information, as well as key tips on how to properly care for your new appliance.

Promotional Feature: View this video series to learn how to take good care of your house.

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Tips for Buying a Refrigerator

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