A primer on when to repair and when to replace undercounter refrigeration equipment.

Undercounter Refrigeration: An Overview

Refrigeration systems keep temperatures at or below 40 degrees F, which helps prevent bacterial growth. Here's an overview of this foodservice equipment category.

Foodservice operators looking to save space in the back of the house often include undercounter refrigeration as part of the solution. Also referred to as lowboys, these smaller-sized units not only keep valuable worktop space clear but also provide quick access to products when necessary.

Most units use self-contained refrigeration systems but some use remote designs, which locate the condenser outside the building. Front breathing, self-contained units allow operators to build in the cabinets on three sides. Some models require clearance on the three sides or in the back for proper breathing.

While they typically run about 30 inches tall, sizes of these units vary significantly based on the application. Undercounter units can be 24 to 108 inches long, with depths ranging from 24 to 34 inches. In general, the smallest units have a footprint of 24 inches by 24 inches.

"The height of refrigeration systems [used in the front of house by customers] needs to be 34 inches to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements," says Harry Schildkraut, FCSI, principal of S2O Consultants, Inc., based in Hawthorn Woods, Ill.

Most refrigeration cabinets feature stainless steel exterior construction with a variety of choices for interior materials, including aluminum, painted white aluminum, stainless steel and ABS plastic. Operators can choose from units with finished and unfinished tops. Doors may be unlaminated, laminated or glass. These systems include foamed-in-place polyurethane insulation.

Models may include automatic condensate vaporizers, automatic defrost, casters, self-closing doors and vinyl-coated shelving. Other options available are pull-out drawers, backsplashes, low-profile casters and a one- or two-tier over shelf assembly.

Some manufacturers offer a choice of left or right door swings and handles. Legs can be installed on units in lieu of casters.

How to Know When to Replace Undercounter Refrigeration

With proper maintenance, undercounter refrigeration can last 7 to 10 years on average. Here are four signs, though, it might be time to replace an undercounter refrigerator.

Reliability issues: If the refrigeration unit constantly fails or inconsistently maintains temperatures, it might be time to consider a replacement purchase.

Running inefficiently: When an undercounter refrigeration system does not shut off, this means it is not meeting cooling requirements. Units that run 100 percent of the time will wear out more quickly and need replacement sooner.

Deteriorating walls and floor: Deterioration can occur with heavy use over time. Interior liner cracks can expose the foam insulation and cause cold air to escape. This can result in higher bills due to energy loss over time and indicates the unit is reaching the end of its service life.

Doors not closing properly: Improper door maintenance can cause gaskets to wear out quicker. Units with damaged doors that do not seal properly may require costly repairs.

Undercounter Refrigeration Applications

Undercounter refrigeration is used for back of house or cook line storage as well as displays.

Culinary staff typically use undercounter refrigerators to store used in food preparation. Because of the units' smaller size, this equipment saves space.

In some instances, this equipment is a good fit in waitstaff support areas or to replace worktables in the back of house.

Units are available that provide freezer capabilities as well as cooling and freezing simultaneously. This allows for chilling, freezing and thawing applications.

Maintaining Undercounter Refrigeration

Maintaining undercounter refrigeration is key to ensuring proper temperatures are retained within the unit. Here are four service tips for undercounter refrigeration.

Proper maintenance for undercounter refrigeration units is critical not only to ensure food safety, but also to maximize the equipment's service life and energy efficiency. Some designs provide better accessibility. "[For example,] refrigeration systems are available on slides for easier service," Schildkraut says.

Below are basic requirements for cleaning and maintenance, but manufacturer's recommendations also should be followed.

  • Regularly clean wipe out the interior and clean with soap and water.
  • Clean condenser coils every three to six months, to keep from overworking compressors. Clogged coils prevent heat exchange, making the compressor work harder and shortening the refrigerator's service life.
  • Check door gaskets and replace if cracked or torn. This prevents temperature fluctuations and internal condensation build up.
  • Keep doors shut and do not restrict airflow around the unit. This will keep the unit from running continuously and potentially lengthen its service life.

In addition to daily, weekly and monthly maintenance tasks, units should be regularly serviced by a certified refrigeration technician.

Spec Check: Undercounter Refrigeration

Undercounter refrigeration is an ideal option for operations looking to conserve space in the back of house. Here are five considerations to weigh when specifying an undercounter refrigeration unit.

Size and Capacity: Whether specifying a one- or two-door unit, consider the appropriate size for the space allocated. Also, take into account the types of products the unit will need to store at food-safe temperatures. This will ensure the unit provides necessary storage capacity. "Operators also should consider the maximization of available space," Schildkraut says. "For example, using the void space above the compressor for a refrigerated drawer."

Refrigeration System: To determine whether a self-contained or remote refrigeration system is most appropriate, confirm where the operator will place the equipment and the available space prior to specifying.

Construction: Operators can choose from a number of interior construction materials, including aluminum, painted white aluminum, stainless steel and ABS plastic. "Heavy duty construction includes welded parts instead of screws and rivets," Schildkraut says.

Placement: Because it's important to keep the perimeter of the cabinet clear for proper ventilation, operators need to determine the unit's placement in regards to other equipment and walls. Only front-breathing undercounter refrigeration should be built into cabinets.

Options: When specifying these units, foodservice operators can choose from a variety of options, such as left or right door swings, door finishes and top styles. "[With some models] it's easy to change door swings in the field," Schildkraut says.

Also, for easier cleaning and more flexible use, refrigeration units with casters should be considered. "Refrigerated drawers in lieu of doors are another option," Schildkraut says.

Energy Efficiency and Undercounter Refrigeration

Undercounter refrigeration units are Energy Star qualified.

Undercounter refrigerators store food products at temperatures more than 38 degrees F but no greater than 40 degrees F and if intended for commercial use can receive the Energy Star designation. This product category includes any upright commercial, self-contained refrigeration cabinet with or without a worktop surface that has hinged, solid doors. In the case where the unit has a worktop surface, this surface may not add to the total energy consumption of the unit.

Energy Star-qualified commercial refrigerators and freezers can include such energy-saving components as hot gas anti-sweat heaters, ECM evaporator and condenser fan motors and high efficiency compressors.