Product Knowledge Guide: Reach-in Refrigeration and Freezers

The reach-in category encompasses refrigerators and freezers but also includes pass-thrus, roll-ins and even under counter units. Refrigerators keep food temperatures at between 36 degrees F and 38 degrees F, while freezers hold food between -10 degrees F and 0 degrees F. Foodservice operators can also choose combination refrigerator-freezers that feature separate temperature readouts.


This category commonly consists of one-, two- and three-door models. Larger four-door reach-ins are also available but not commonly specified.

Smaller under counter reach-ins can provide added storage space for products staff regularly access at a display-preparation station or service point. Some reach-ins have waist-high refrigerated drawers, which provide quick and easy access while reducing the chance for cross-contamination between different food items.

Glass-front reach-ins offer easy identification of contents and are suitable for grab and go and merchandising displays in front-of-house applications. Pass-thru reach-ins allow access from both sides.

One-section reach-ins range in size from 18 inches wide by 29 inches deep to 36 inches wide by 36 inches deep, and from 78 inches to 84 inches high. Storage capacities range from about 16 to 30 cubic feet. Double-door units hold from 30 cubic feet to 52 cubic feet of product and are 36 inches wide by 29 inches deep to 57 inches wide by 36 inches deep. Three-section units provide 68 cubic feet to 80 cubic feet and are 36 inches wide by 29 inches deep to 57 inches wide by 36 inches deep. Four-door, wide-body reach-ins can hold up to 100 cubic feet of product. The industry average is said to be 50 cubic feet.

When space above a reach-in is limited, a bottom-mounted compressor is an appropriate choice, although it will reduce interior storage space and require installation of a door about one-half the height of a regular door. Top-mounted reach-in models require greater clearance, but can maximize available internal storage capacity as well as product access and display area. Operators should also note that not all interior spaces may be available for storage in a reach-in since evaporators, lights, tray slides and other components must fit in the unit.

All reach-ins use a compressor, evaporator coil and evaporator fans for cooling. Metering devices, however, may differ. While some units have a capillary tube that carries refrigerant, others use an expansion valve flow device.

High-end units feature stainless steel construction both inside and out. Reach-ins featuring aluminum construction are less expensive. Models with stainless steel exteriors and aluminum interiors also are available.

Common Applications

  • Reach-in refrigerators and freezers can store a variety of perishable food, including meat, produce, eggs, dairy products and condiments.
  • Glass door models are ideal for merchandising packaged sandwiches, beverages, ice cream and impulse food purchases.
  • Custom models can store temperature-specific items such as wine and chocolate.

Specifying Considerations

If properly maintained, reach-ins can last an average of 15 years, although some units have been in service as long as 30 years.

Operators should consider a number of factors when purchasing a reach-in, including:

  • The type of application will determine whether a refrigerator, freezer or specialty merchandiser is necessary.
  • Because sizes vary, operators should know the available floor space for the unit.
  • When choosing a reach-in, operators should determine if it will be incorporated into existing cabinetry or fixtures.
  • Energy-efficient reach-ins, which include three inches of cabinet insulation, operate on less horsepower and can save money over time.
  • Consider the unit's temperature maintenance and
  • recovery time in relation to its application.
  • Replacing refrigeration systems is expensive, so opt for a comprehensive warranty.
  • For warm environments, units with half doors are a good idea since this design provides less space for cold air to escape.
  • Reach-ins with gaskets that don't need tools to replace them offer easier maintenance.
  • Features such as microprocessors can help minimize service costs.
  • For operations with limited space, 180-degree doors facilitate easier loading of pans and trays.
  • Verify whether top- or bottom-mounted refrigeration better suits a particular application.
  • Specify the proper shelving kit, including racks, pan guides and universal tray slides, to meet the particular needs of the foodservice operation.
  • Determine if locking capabilities are necessary and specify locks and keys.

Specifying Mistakes to Avoid

When specifying, operators make the mistake of not considering the intended application of the unit. If a foodservice operator intends to use a reach-in on a production line, staff will open its doors frequently, which means the unit will need to feature quick recovery as well as low air velocity or high humidity to prevent foods from drying out.

  • Allow for adequate ventilation to exhaust the refrigeration system's heat. For under counter applications, verify and maintain proper clearances for airflow. Performance of the unit will suffer if adequate compressor airflow is not achieved.
  • Operators and their supply chain partners commonly overlook cabinet electrical power requirements. Also, verify cord length and type to ensure proper outlet type and installation height.
  • Base door hinging for easiest access. Half doors can help reduce air exchange and minimize intrusion into aisle ways, minimizing the disruption of work flow. Hinging
  • of the door should be properly specified to maximize ergonomics of the kitchen.

New & Notable Features

  • Newer models have a microprocessor temperature control that precisely maintains correct temperatures, resulting in longer food product shelf life and money savings. Some also feature more usable interior space, and airflow systems that keep units from working as hard to recover after doors are opened.
  • Other options include digital or dial thermometers; temperature monitoring and alarms; epoxy-coated, chrome-plated or stainless steel shelves; pan slides; fluorescent lights; LED lighting and advanced electronic controls.
  • Glycol refrigeration in lieu of standard compressor systems is becoming more prevalent.

When to Replace

Because these units require minimal interaction, other than opening and closing the door and the occasional cleaning, it is easy to take equipment like reach-ins for granted. Because these units operate 24/7, though, they receive heavy usage in foodservice operations. With its basic construction, the service life of a reach-in depends on how well the operator cares for the compressor and the environment that it's used in.

Here are several warning signs that a unit needs replacing.

  • Excessive noise: Compressors producing excessive noise or rattling sounds may indicate that the reach-in is ending its service life.
  • Inconsistent temperatures: Temperature issues resulting in food replacement can be costly. Consequently, if temperatures inside the unit regularly fluctuate extensively, this could mean the reach-in is beyond repair.
  • Excessive wear: Door hinges pulling away from the cabinet, broken seams or welds and exposed insulation, may signify that a new unit is needed.

Maintenance Musts

  • Thoroughly clean cabinets on a weekly basis using proper chemicals. Regularly wipe the inside cabinet, and clean spills and debris when necessary.
  • Clogged condenser coils are the main cause of compressor failure. Depending on the application, clean coils monthly or every other month at minimum.
  • Check often for torn gaskets, as these will prevent doors from sealing properly and compromise storage temperatures.
  • Keep evaporator fins clean, especially when there is exposure to grease.
  • Every three months, examine the fan motor and compressor to identify any loose parts or excessive noise.

Environmental Advancements

  • Energy Star-rated reach-in units provide high efficiency compressors and fan motors.
  • Many utilities also offer rebates toward the purchase of qualified products.
  • Energy Star-rated models can reduce energy consumption by as much as 35 percent as well as utility costs of up to $120 annually per freezer and $170
  • annually for refrigerators.

Editor's Note: FE&S thanks Eric Norman, FCSI, of MVP Services for assisting with this article.

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