Reach-In Refrigerators

These boxes are crucial for storing foods at safe temperatures; without them we'd be unable to store fresh meat, dairy, produce, and so many other foods that we depend on. If you're looking to add one to your lineup, your choices are many. One-, two-, and three-section units are available with full and half doors, solid or glass. Add pass-thru and roll-in units into the mix and the applications are practically endless. More

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In the foodservice world, all reach-ins are not the same. They're fairly simple machines, and they all rely on the same basic refrigerator technology, but their uses can vary greatly. Before choosing yours, decide exactly what you'll want to store in your box, where it will be located, and how frequently you'll need to access it. These answers will give you a clearer understanding of what to look for.

Number of Sections

The first decision you'll probably make is the number of sections you need your new equipment to have. This will depend mainly on how much storage space you need. A single section typically comes with three shelves, with the option to buy more if you're storing smaller items. Larger boxes are split up into multiple sections, each with its own door. If you're on the fence about how many sections you need, it's better to go with the larger one, rather than trying to cram too many items into a box that's too small. An overfilled unit may not be able to maintain safe temperatures and will run the risk of breaking down.

Many boxes have storage space that is split up vertically into what are called half-sections, each with its own door. Half sections have the advantage of being more energy efficient, especially if you'll be in the unit frequently. When one is open, the other sections stay cold and sealed, so the unit won't lose as much air and the system won't have to work as hard to recover temperatures.

Door Types: Glass and Solid

Most models are available with either solid or glass doors, some even include one or more of each. Since they're better insulated, solid doors are the more energy efficient of the two under most conditions. They're also the more affordable option. Glass provides visibility into the box when the door is closed, which means users can see what's in each section before opening the door. If your equipment is accessed frequently, this can mean energy savings in the long run since it will cut down on the length of time the door remains open. These can also be used if you want to display items to the public, although a refrigerated display case is usually a better fit for that purpose.

The Working Box

Many foodservice professionals use the term "working box" to describe a reach-in refrigerator that can hold a safe temperature when it's frequently opened, closed, and subjected to higher ambient temperatures. These work best in a kitchen prep line, where staff members are constantly reaching in to grab food and ingredients. A 2006 Purdue University study showed expansion valve systems performed better in lower-temperature settings, while capillary tube units were more capable in high-ambient temperature facilities.

An expansion valve, which is placed between the condenser and evaporator, controls the amount of refrigerant that passes through the system, metering that volume based on the difference between the actual temperature and the set temperature. A capillary tube system relies on a length of coiled copper tubing that is very narrow, thus controlling the flow of refrigerant. Expansion valve units can respond in a more measured way to temperature changes, allowing more or less refrigerant through the system while running constantly. Capillary or cap tube models run at one flow of refrigerant until set temperatures are achieved, then the system shuts off until it needs to cool again.

Pan Storage

Depth is a concern if you'll want to store full-size sheet pans. Many chefs find it useful to store pans that can be quickly removed and transported. Not all refrigerators accommodate them, so if you need one that does, be sure to check before you buy. Some boxes even include pan slides instead of shelves in case most of the food you need to store will be on pans.

Compressor Location

Every refrigerator includes a component called the compressor, which pressurizes refrigerant and sends it into the box to absorb heat. It is mounted on either the top or the bottom of the unit, and it pays to be deliberate in choosing where you want it located on your new box, as each location has unique advantages and disadvantages. Visit our Learning Center for a detailed discussion about how to choose between a top-mounted and bottom-mounted compressor.

Roll Ins and Pass Thrus

A roll-in unit includes a door that goes all the way to the floor, allowing you to roll pan racks and other equipment inside and store them there. This is useful when you need to keep large quantities of food cold while keeping it mobile. Bakeries use these to hold racks of dough that has been prepared in advance, storing it safely until it's time to bake, when the whole rack is wheeled over to the oven.

A pass-thru unit has a door on each side, so food can literally be passed through from one side to the other. These can be installed where one side faces the kitchen and the other side faces the dining room, so wait staff can have quick access to items that are placed in the box by kitchen staff. This is great for handing off desserts, appetizers, and salads. A unit with one solid door and one glass door would be great for this purpose.

Interior Materials

Three common materials are used to build the interiors of commercial coolers:

  • Stainless steel is very durable, which means it's scratch- and dent- resistant, easy to wipe clean with a cloth, and resists the growth of corroding rust, though that can form given damage or the use of caustic cleaners.
  • Aluminum has many of the same benefits as stainless steel - it's easy to clean, but it isn't as durable. It's less resistant to scratching and denting, but is more affordable. While aluminum can corrode if damaged, the corrosion is clear, unlike rust, and actually forms a protective barrier that prevents further corrosion in that area.
  • ABS plastic will not dent, scratch, or rust. Interiors made of this material are molded in one piece, with coved corners and no hard angles, so it's easy to clean and contains spills. Unlike metal, ABS can be punctured by a hard enough blow.
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