Foodservice Equipment Reports
Equipment Comparisons Refrigeration & Ice

Reaching For Cool


What other piece of commercial kitchen equipment works 24/7 and is responsible for keeping your perishable foods safe? Refrigerators are essential in all operations for storing a wide range of both raw ingredients and cooked foods. While walk-in refrigerators serve as bulk and long-term storage for items you may get only once a week or so, reach-ins put often-used foods at employees’ fingertips, saving time and labor.

Picking the right reach-in for your operation is relatively easy once you define the parameters that are important to you. There are lots of great products on the market, and most manufacturers offer lines with a range of finishes and sizes that will fit practically any budget or capacity need.

Your primary consideration should be food safety. Since refrigerators are running 24/7, reliability is key. You should be able to trust that your reach-in will hold food at safe temperatures while no one is there as well as during your busiest peak hours. Pick a company that stands behind its products with at minimum a three-year, parts-and-labor warranty, and a service network that can respond to any problems quickly wherever you have stores or operations.

Beyond that, some of your top considerations will likely be capacity, where you plan to use a reach-in, what foods you’ll store in it, how often your staff will access those foods, and how easy it is to clean and maintain.

How Big A Box?
If you look at a walk-in as long-term cold storage and a reach-in as short-term storage, think about how much food you want in short-term storage where employees can get at it quickly. A single-door reach-in typically has about 18 cu. ft. to 24 cu. ft. of interior space. Large enough to hold standard 18-in. x 26-in. sheet pans, they usually have three or four shelves, which should give you an idea of how much food they hold.

Need more storage space? Most model series also have two- and three-door reach-ins, too. That means double or triple the capacity, and at least one maker’s three-door model has 74 cu. ft. of storage space.

These larger reach-ins, though, may have too large a footprint to fit in your kitchen, so you may end up getting a couple of single-door units instead. Also, multi-door models may be too big to fit through doorways of an existing operation or building, so be sure to check outside dimensions before purchasing for renovations or remodels.

Mount Up
The area of the kitchen where you put a reach-in also may affect your purchase decision in a couple of ways. Cooklines are often hot and greasy, and a reach-in located close to the line will be subjected to that. Elsewhere in the kitchen is likely to be cooler and less dirty. The first thing to consider here is whether to choose a reach-in with a top-mounted or bottom-mounted refrigeration system. There are pros and cons to each.

Top-mounted models put the heat generating compressor and condenser on top of the unit. They’re often a better choice near the cookline since some of the heat they generate will be captured by the ventilation hood, counterbalancing some of the heat food will be exposed to from the line itself when employees open the door. You’ll need at least 12 in. of clearance above top-mounted units for ventilation.

Bottom-mounted units can be a better choice in other areas of the kitchen. Close to a cookline, the refrigeration can get greasy and dirty, quickly and easily, and could be damaged by water or debris from crews cleaning the floors. In cooler, less-dirty areas, bottom-mounted models offer the advantage of additional storage on top of the reach-in if it’s needed.

Another key factor affected by location is recovery time. A reach-in close to the cookline lets in warm or even hot air every time it’s opened, and will have to recover faster than a box located where the ambient temperature is cooler. Since the primary purpose of a refrigerator is to maintain the temperature of cold foods, not bring their temperature down to a safe level, reach-ins aren’t built with oversized compressors and big fans like blast chillers are. Of the two types of refrigeration systems used in reach-ins, however, one tends to recover faster than the other.

Thermostatic expansion valves are more prevalent and widely used than they were the last time we wrote about the category (see FER September 2012, pg. 22). Expansion valves respond to refrigerant temperature and pressure changes relatively quickly, and have large reservoirs for excess refrigerant. That allows them to respond to shifts with a lot of cooling power. That makes them a somewhat better choice in high-heat or high-use locations.

Capillary tube systems, while somewhat less expensive, are slower to respond. They use a long, narrow tube between the condenser and evaporator as a kind of throttle to handle changes in refrigerant temperature and pressure. While they can handle fairly constant temperature demands inside a reach-in with normal loads and gradual shifts in temperature, they can’t provide the same recovery time of expansion-valve systems when under duress. They tend to perform better in cooler ambient temperature locations and when they aren’t used a lot.

Coupe Or Sedan?
Another way to improve recovery time is by not letting as much cold air out or warm air in the reach-in every time it’s opened. Consider the typical reach-in a sedan—a single-wide has one door, a double-wide has two, etc.

But just as car makers produce sedans with more doors for more people, virtually every reach-in manufacturer offers double-door versions of each of its standard models. That is, a single half-door model with two doors (stacked, top and bottom, like Dutch doors), a double half-door model with four doors, and a triple half-door model with six doors. More doors for more employees, if you will.

Essentially, you can put certain items within easy reach for employees inside a half door so they don’t open the whole door and let cold air out and warm air in. A great idea for high-heat or high-use applications.

Fit And Finish
Easy cleaning and maintenance are a couple of other key factors in the purchase decision, and this is where a lot of cost difference comes into play. The reason here is the result of the materials used to finish both the exterior and interior of the box.

In the past, many manufacturers made as many as four different reach-in lines—economy, value, mid-range and high-end spec lines. More often, now, manufacturers will make a single line and offer options for both features and finishing materials.

While a few manufacturers still produce reach-ins with painted exteriors, a basic economy model these days usually has a stainless front and door, anodized aluminum or painted sides and steel bottom, top and back. The interior likely will be aluminum, though some makers still offer molded ABS plastic interiors, which can crack with heavy use and age. The inside of the door might be stainless.

A step up to a value and/or mid-range line would add stainless sides and may include a stainless floor inside. Top-line models are stainless inside and out except for exterior top, back, and bottom, which are typically heavy-gauge galvanized steel.

Stainless, obviously, is easiest to clean and most resistant to corrosion and staining from food acid, chemicals or even salt air in ocean-side communities. However, if your reach-in is wedged between other pieces of equipment, you may have no need for a model with stainless sides.

Legs or casters. In dirty areas of the kitchen, casters make it easier to clean both the entire exterior of the reach-in and the floor beneath it. If you specify casters, manufacturers are good about making sure at least the front two are the locking type, but be sure to check. If you plan to put the reach-in in a permanent spot and don’t need to move it for cleaning, legs are fine.

Some Nitty Gritty
Defrost. How well a reach-in performs depends in part on keeping ice from forming on the evaporator, and the compressor from over-cycling. Older model reach-ins had a manual defrost cycle or a timed cycle. Many, if not most, now have an automatic cycle that senses when the evaporator is freezing.

You’ll find two types of defrost systems on reach-ins: hot gas and electric. Reach-in models with expansion valves discharge hot-gas refrigerant through the evaporator coil to melt ice accumulation. Capillary tube refrigerators use electric wires to heat the evaporator coil and defrost it. On some models you can program defrost cycles between three and 12 hours.

Condensate forms when the refrigeration system pulls humidity out of the box. Reach-ins with hot-gas defrost cycles use that heat to evaporate condensate or melted ice that forms on the coil.

On capillary-tube systems, the least expensive way to remove condensate is a model with a drain in the bottom of a drip pan. But it only makes sense if you can permanently park your reach-in over a floor drain.

More common is a wick that soaks up excess moisture from the coil that drips into the bottom of the reach-in. The moisture in the wick then slowly evaporates, an option that doesn’t work as well in areas of high humidity or in high-volume operations that put excess load on the unit. Also, stored meat and produce create condensate that’s acidic; any excess could slowly corrode both the interior of the box and parts such as the coil. (Reach-in makers typically coat coils with epoxy or plastic to resist corrosion, but over time, the coil coatings can be compromised.)

A more expensive option is an electric heater pan at the bottom of the reach-in. The heater evaporates the condensate that drips down into the pan. While it uses more energy than a wick evaporator, the trade-off might be worth the cost in warm, moist climates or high-volume applications.

In hot, humid conditions, particularly in summer, condensation also can form around the doors. Many models have electric wire door perimeter heaters to evaporate this condensation. To save power, some have a switch you can turn off in cooler, drier conditions.

Details, Details
Controls. More models than ever feature electronic digital controls as standard equipment. These allow more precise control of the refrigeration system, both improving performance and saving energy. One maker’s control system even senses and monitors humidity to help adjust the refrigeration system. Makers also use digital controls to present temperature in either °F or °C on an LED display.

Temperature control. While most standard models operate in a safe temperature zone—33°F-38°F, for example— some models let you determine a set point within its operating range. If you store meat, for example, you’ll probably want a lower set point of 28°F-33°F. One manufacturer offers a set point range of 28°F-61°F. The high end of the range works well for storing wine or produce.

Load interrupt. A door-activated switch automatically turns the evaporator fan speed down or off when staff loads or unloads the box, preventing excess cold air from escaping the cabinet.

Cool mode. Some models offer a manual override to switch the compressor to “constant on,” helping bring reach-in temperatures down quickly after the unit has been loaded. Other models have a two-speed evaporator fan to speed cooling, operated by a manual switch.

Energy-saving mode. A few models have an automatic energy-saving mode that kicks in when the reach-in hasn’t been opened for four hours. Other energy-saving features found standard on most models include LED lighting, and high-efficiency ECM fan motors for both the evaporator and condenser.

Monitors/alarms. Digital controls also monitor reach-in performance and alert employees when something isn’t working properly. These include audio and/or visual warnings for door ajar, high- and low-temperature limits, dirty condenser, dirty air filter, evaporator coil failure or freeze up, discharge line failure and power interruption. One manufacturer now offers its high/low temperature alert in Wi-Fi mode, so you can receive alerts any time of day or night without paying for a monitoring service.

A dirty condenser, by the way, is the leading cause of refrigerator failure. If the model you choose doesn’t have an alert for a dirty condenser, make sure cleaning it is part of a regular employee- maintenance schedule, either once a quarter or twice a year. One manufacturer offers a self-cleaning condenser—brushes that sweep dust and debris off the condenser daily. But that, too, must be cleaned regularly, especially in greasy locations or those that use lots of breading and flour in the food preparation.

Several models also provide HACCP tracking. A memory function retains data for HACCP purposes, including any alarm events. Some use a USB port for downloading up to a year’s worth of data. Others can be directly connected to a network.

Study Hardware
In addition to finishes, pay attention to hardware items that are part and parcel of reach-ins. Operating procedures may dictate some of the features you want.

Shelving. Coated wire shelves are least expensive. Makers may use epoxy, vinyl, polyethylene or polyvinyl chloride for the coating to prevent corrosion. A step above in terms of cost and appearance are chrome-plated wire shelves. Fine for storing packaged foods, the chrome finish can grind away letting the metal beneath corrode if they get lots of wear and tear. As with the rest of the box, stainless wire shelves are best and longest lasting, especially in the back of the house where they’re subjected to rough treatment and exposure to acidic foods.

Each manufacturer has its own shelf-support system. Typical systems use vertical supports, screw-in stud supports or clips. Supports often are available in the same choice of materials as the shelving. Select them the same way: lighter shelf supports for lightweight packaged foods and heavier stainless clips or studs for heavy loads or raw food products. As an option to shelves, several manufacturers offer adjustable clips that hold tray slides, so you can use sheet pans as shelves.

Hinges. The two most common types are top-and-bottom pin hinges and edge-mount hinges. Removing the door for cleaning is easier with edge-mount hinges. Some pin hinges have a plastic collar that can slowly wear out over time. If the collar is not replaced, metal-on-metal contact can destroy the hinges.

Doorstops allow doors to open either 90° or 120°. If equipment gets heavy use or doors are forced open against the stops, edge-mount hinges are more likely to stress and tear the sheet metal to which they’re attached. Otherwise, edge-mount hinges are equally as strong as top-and-bottom pin hinges, and your choice may come down to looks.

Self-closing doors use either torsion springs or cam lifts. Torsion springs can wear out or lose their tension and may need replacing over the life of the box. Cam lifts operate using gravity and rarely wear out.

Handles/locks. Handles on reach-ins can be horizontal or vertical, and may protrude or be recessed. Vertical handles are usually the easiest to grasp and open. Vertical handles that protrude, however, could get bumped and damaged if your reach-in is in a narrow aisle or employees move lots of carts past it. Some makers offer a lifetime guarantee on handles against this sort of damage. Other ways around the problem are horizontal or recessed handles, either vertical or horizontal. Most models now come with key locks as standard equipment or as an option, at least.

Gaskets are essential for maintaining a seal around the door to keep cold air in. Magnetic gaskets provide the best seal, and press-in-place gaskets don’t require tools for replacement. Over time a gasket can crack or break from the repeated expansion/contraction required to clean it. Check them regularly and replace them as needed.

There is a huge number of reach-ins available from a huge number of makers. Use these pointers to ask the questions you’ll need to find a model that has the features, performance, reliability and cost that’s right for you.

It’s A Gas
You may have noticed the refrigerant R290 on the comparison chart (pg. 28-29) or manufacturers’ spec sheets recently, and wondered what happened to R134A or R404A. You may even be wondering what R290 is.

R290 is an “HC” or hydrocarbon refrigerant. Simply put, it’s propane, similar to what’s commonly found on outdoor barbecues.

Why the switch? The Department of Energy wanted federal refrigeration standards to come up to the level that California requires so all manufacturers are on the same playing field. Those standards went into effect in March. At the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency has been pushing its Significant New Alternatives Policy to help phase out ozone-depleting substances, including hydrofluorocarbons for certain uses.

The result is that the refrigeration industry has been moving toward alternatives such as R290 even though R134A and R404A are still acceptable refrigerants for foodservice refrigeration. Some manufacturers made the move more quickly because their reach-in lines wouldn’t meet the new DOE standards with older refrigerants, and R290 is very efficient. Others are making the switch because moving to less ozone-depleting refrigerants is the right thing to do, even though their existing equipment meets not only the new DOE specs but new Energy Star Version 4.0 standards, also effective last March.

Advantages of R290 are that refrigeration systems require a smaller “charge,” or amount, than when using other refrigerants. That, in turns, means manufacturers can use smaller compressors and fan motors, ultimately saving energy. 

Click to the following page for the full Reach-In Gallery.

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