What do you need in a new walk-in refrigerator or freezer unit?
It can be a complicated question. These integrated facilities are, in some ways, the heart of your kitchen. Walk-in cooler and refrigerator installations keep your inventory at proper ‘cold chain’ or HACCP-safe temperatures until it’s time to take them out to cook.
If you’re in the market for one of these units, here’s a helpful guide that will go over a lot of the most important considerations with you as you shop.
When Do You Need a Walk-In Cooler or Freezer?
One of the first questions is whether you need to buy a particular size of walk-in cooler unit, or whether you can make do with what’s already installed at your kitchen facility. Many restaurants need additional walk-in refrigerator and freezer space when moving to a new kitchen location, or when old units are wearing out or not energy-efficient anymore. You may also notice problems with old units where frost or condensation become problems. That may be a good time to take the plunge and purchase a new installation.
Refrigeration and freezer systems are not items that experts recommend using forever until they finally fail or malfunction. Instead, it’s a good idea to replace aging systems every 15 years or so, especially if new energy-efficient systems have come on the market in the meantime.
Walk-Ins, Reach-Ins and Warehouse-Style Cooler Installations
One of the first things to consider is that walk-in cooler and refrigerator/freezer models vary according to size and shape. You’re going to want to plan for the types of inventory racks you want to use to keep items in your refrigerated or freezer units. Also keep in mind that you’ll need room for a top-mounted or side-mounted interior refrigeration system, if that’s the way you decide to go.
Prefabricated and Built-in Walk-In Refrigerator and Freezer Implementation
As you start to get an idea of what kind of space you need for a walk-in refrigerator, ask yourself this – do you want to purchase a prefabricated model, or something that is built into your kitchen permanently?
Built-in models can be better in terms of structure, but they can be more expensive, and they’re harder to move or add onto than a prefabricated installation. If you’re unsure of what space you will need, a pre-fab model might be best to hedge against the risk of short-term changes.
Insulation and ‘Skin’
When you’ve made the big choice between prefabricated and built-in models, consider what the walls of your walk-in refrigerator are made of.
Walk-in cooler and freezer walls are made of insulation, with some type of metal covering on the outside, which is known as the skin. For insulation, you have polyurethane or extruded polystyrene as common choices. Typically, the R-value of your walk-in refrigerator is going to be between 5 and 10. You may also see new items like Aerogel used for refrigeration insulation.
As for the skin, you’re choosing from metals that provide different levels of corrosion resistance. Aluminum tends to be the cheaper option, with stainless steel as the “Cadillac” of materials. There is also something called Galvalum, a combination of galvanized and aluminum.
Choose your insulation according to modern standards to get more long-term service out of your walk-in refrigerator.
As mentioned above, you’re going to be choosing a refrigeration system according to how it’s integrated into your building footprint.
Two major choices are an interior side-mounted or top-mounted refrigeration system, or a remote system. Remote refrigeration systems can be mounted on the roof or in some external area, and hoses provide the cool air piped into the system.
This choice, again, is going to depend on how much space you need, and how permanent you want the installation to be. As you might imagine, mounting a remote refrigeration system on a roof means you’re probably going to be using this system for the long haul. On the other hand, a smaller pre-fabricated model with interior refrigeration will be easier to change around should the need arise.
Choosing a Type of Flooring
Here’s another major thing to think about when you’re choosing a refrigeration system.
This is a particular concern where some restaurant owners may want to keep prices down, but cutting corners can lead to serious problems with energy efficiency and more.
In other words, it’s tempting to simply plunk a walk-in refrigerator or cooler down on top of an existing floor, but unless the floor of the unit is insulated, you run the risk of failing to provide the right internal temperatures, as heat radiates into the interior of the unit.
Even a concrete floor, which is one option for a new walk-in refrigerator, should ideally be insulated, especially if there’s a basement space or other warm air room below the unit.
With that in mind, restaurant operators building these installations have choices – they can utilize tile, vinyl or some type of concrete coating (ideally with non-stick texture to protect staff), but at the end of the day, it’s a better idea to make sure any floor is insulated.
Features and Fixtures
When you have all of the above taken care of, you want to consider some extra features that will help make your walk-in refrigerator work better as a key part of your everyday kitchen process.
One is a pressure regulating valve that will keep the refrigerant at the right pressure.
Then there’s your choice of door latches – it’s generally a good idea to spend some money on a quality door latch, because this is going to determine how much warm air leaks out over time, and how easily your staff can access the refrigerator or freezer unit. New types of latches called trigger latches use spring-loaded systems to allow the latch to spring back in place after the door is opened. Another method is to use a magnetic latch.
Also, think about purchasing LED lighting to decrease the amount of heat generated by lights inside the unit. Remember, people need to be able to see well to access the inventory inside!
Preparing for Installation
It may be tempting to hurry, but try to fully prepare your staff for installing a new walk-in refrigerator or freezer.
Plan to put these systems in at a less busy time, in between meal services or overnight. In some cases, it may be advisable to shut down for a day or two. This is especially important if the system is going to be built in and requires concrete pouring and other extensive construction work.
Walk-In Refrigerator and Freezer Maintenance
Now that you have everything in place with your walk-in cooler or refrigerator, it’s time to maintain it for the long term.
Proper cleaning prevents mold and mildew from occurring. Better digital thermometer displays help you to maintain a HACCP plan or safety process inside the kitchen. Remember that your system is only as good as its core temperatures, and having better monitoring tools gives you peace of mind that you’re getting the value you need out of your equipment.
That should give you an idea of what to look for when seeking to outfit a kitchen with the best walk-in refrigerator or freezer system for success. What else are you looking for? Take a look at our full catalog at Chefs’ Toys, where we are “for chefs, by chefs,” and have a lot of experience helping restaurants to plan strategically for the future.