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What to know about buying a refrigerator

Today's refrigerator/freezer is a far cry from the old icebox. Innovations include door panels to match your kitchen cabinetry or appliances, narrow depths to fit snuggly into walls or between cabinets, and special food bins and refreshment centers in the refrigerator door. The refrigerator/freezer has also become one of the most expensive appliances in your kitchen. That's why it's important to shop smart. Fortunately, many new refrigerators conserve more energy than those made years ago. Since older units can gobble up as much as 25 percent of your household energy use, you'll see a substantial saving if you step up to a new energy-efficient model.

Types

There are top mounts, bottom mounts, and side by side units. If you want a side by side or bottom mount, you also need to decide whether to buy a built-in model, which fits into your kitchen wall with a premium price tag, or a freestanding model with finished sides.

Top mounts are the most popular style and can hold oversize items like birthday cakes and deli platters because of their wide shelves. Side by side give you access to more refrigerator and freezer shelves without bending, an asset for children or people in wheelchairs. You'll also find a wide selection of side by side units with automatic water/ice dispensers. Refrigerators with the freezer on the bottom have a loyal following. Their design puts foods in adults reach for most often at eye level. They also feature sliding baskets in the freezer. Bottom mounts are slightly more expensive than top mounts but comparable in energy efficiency.

Size and Price

Allow 12 cubic feet of refrigerator space for the first two members of your family and tack on four cubic feet for each additional member when determining the size of fridge to buy. For freezers, the rule of thumb is to allow three cubic feet per person.

Refrigerators and freezers start at $400 for a freestanding model and cost $1,800 and higher for a top-of-the-line built-in with all the bells and whistles.

The $400 to $800 budget category typically includes 9- to 16-cu.-ft. top-mount models and sold in white, almond or bisque colors. They're best for small households that don't require lots of freezer space. Many units in this price range come with wire shelves and separate freezer compartments with automatic defrost.

In the $600 to $1,800 range you get a greater choice of sizes, ranging from 17 to 25 cubic feet, and exterior colors. Inside your refrigerator you'll probably find sliding, height-adjustable bins and height-adjustable shelves constructed of glass, along with meat and crisper drawers with temperature and humidity controls, respectively, to keep foods fresh long. Automatic icemakers inside are also sometimes included, but through-the-door ice and water dispensers are usually about $100 extra. Most low- and mid-priced refrigerator/freezers provide dial or slide controls to adjust the refrigerator temperature.

Factors to consider

Know where you want to place your refrigerator/freezer. If your measurements reveal that you'll have trouble opening the doors, you may need a side by side style. Its narrow doors can open in tight clearances.

If you often buy large cuts of meat and want a bottom-mount freezer, a pullout shelf basket is a good idea. If you have small children, consider easy-to-clean spill-proof glass shelves. If you have tall family members, a side by side or bottom-mount refrigerator/freezer will make foods easy to reach.

People who reside in warm climates year-round and frequently drink prefer the convenience of through-the-door dispensers for water and ice. This feature is usually found in side by side units and almost always delivers crushed ice. Be forewarned: water dispensers significantly worsen the reliability of refrigerator/freezers.

Features

Your refrigerator/freezer should suit your needs. Let's say you buy lots of produce. You may want a model that sports humidity control crispers, allowing you to chose between high humidity for veggies or low humidity for fruits. If you frequently drink soda or have lots of tall bottles, consider height-adjustable shelves or beverage holders in the door. If you have trouble seeing to the back of your fridge, a brightly lit interior with legible thermostat controls that are mounted at the front are worthwhile.

Here are other options:

  • Adjustable door bins
  • Deli or meat drawer
  • Electronic systems
  • Split shelves
  • Trim kit
  • Water filters
  • Wine/beverage rack

Energy efficiency

For the most energy efficient models, shop for a refrigerator/freezer touting the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Star label. This tells you it meets government standards for low energy consumption, and it can reduce your annual utility bill by as much as $14. Buying an Energy Star refrigerator/freezer may also make you eligible for a $50 to $300 rebate offer from your local utility company.

Delivery

Before selecting your refrigerator/freezer, consider the logistics. Do you need your old fridge hauled away-or do you plan to use it as a backup appliance in the garage or basement? If you're buying a through-the-door water/ice dispenser, do you need your water hooked up? If you're moving your refrigerator to another space in your kitchen, do you need an additional electrical outlet installed? When will someone be home to accept delivery of your refrigerator/freezer?

Installing a refrigerator/freezer

Refrigerator/freezers typically range from 30 inches to 48 inches wide, 60 inches to 84 inches high, and 24 inches to 33 inches deep. Starting from the baseboard, measure the depth, height, and width of your space as well as all the entranceways to your kitchen to ensure the appliance can be moved in your home. Allow a one-inch clearance on each side of the appliance so that doors open wide enough for bins, baskets, and sliding shelves to pull out. If you're installing a new icemaker in your kitchen, you'll need a plumber to extend your water line to the refrigerator. Also, make sure you have a 120-volt dedicated outlet with three prongs to connect your appliance. Homes built before the 1970s generally have two prongs. Each refrigerator is slightly different, so it's best to refer to your owner's manual when installing.

Refrigerator/Freezer Glossary of Terms

A – C

Automatic moisture control: An electronic sensor that automatically controls moisture in the refrigerator as the room's humidity changes.

Bottom mount: A refrigerator style in which the freezer is on the bottom.

Built-in: A refrigerator designed to be installed flush with the cabinetry for a finished look.

Can rack: A space-saving wire or plastic rack that lets you stack beverage cans on their sides for automatically dispensing.

Child safety: A locking device on the water and/or ice dispenser to prevent children from using it without supervision.

Chilled meatkeeper: A drawer designed to store fresh meat, poultry and cold cuts at temperatures colder than the rest of the refrigerator.

Chillers: Any compartment, bin or drawer in a refrigerator that keeps foods such as meat or milk at a lower temperature than the rest of the unit. Some refrigerators let owners control the temperature of the compartment.

Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs): A gas used to make a refrigerator cold. CFCs have a negative impact on the ozone layer if they're accidentally released into the environment. Refrigerators made after Dec. 31, 1995 use refrigerants other than CFCs.

Coil-free back: A refrigerator in which the condenser coils are mounted on the bottom instead of on the back.

Coils: Tubes of the condenser that serpentine either along the back or across the bottom of the outside of a refrigerator or freezer.

Compact: A small-scale refrigerator with an average capacity of 1.70-2.40 cubic feet. They are commonly used in dormitory rooms and offices, as well as secondary units in homes for wine, sodas or snacks. Most units have small freezer sections, but don’t generally keep a zero temperature and require manual defrosting.

Condenser: A coil that turns the refrigerator vapor into a liquid, giving off heat and then dissipating the heat into the air outside the refrigerator.

Crisper: A storage bin for fruits and vegetables; many crispers have an adjustable humidity control.

Crushed ice: An option that lets a user select crushed ice--instead of ice cubes-from the ice and water dispenser.

D – G

Dairy compartment: An enclosure for storing butter, cheese and other dairy products. The compartment keeps the temperature warmer, so butter and cheeses are semisoft.

Defrost system: How the owner or refrigerator system can eliminate the eventual build-up of ice or frost in both the refrigerator and freezer. The three types are: manual, automatic and frost-free. Automatic, or cycle defrost, automatically defrosts the fresh-food compartment but the freezer section requires manual defrosting. Frost-free has a built-in heater, thermostat and timer or sensor that activates a defrost cycle to melt frost, drain water away and restart the cooling system.

Deli drawer: A compartment designed to store cold cuts or cheese at the same temperature as the rest of the refrigerator.

Door bin: A fixed or adjustable storage area in the door designed to hold bottles and jugs. Fixed bins have guardrails to keep jars from falling out. Adjustable bins let users change the position, according to what they wish to store.

Egg bin: A storage area for holding eggs to reduce breakage.

Flush, freestanding: A refrigerator that appears built-in (but isn't) because it's almost as shallow as the standard cabinet depth and can be covered with panels to match cabinetry.

Freestanding: A refrigerator designed to stand alone rather than one that's built-in.

Freezer basket: A storage basket in the freezer compartment that can be pulled out on rollers or glides.

Gallon storage shelves: Shelves in the door that are wide and sturdy enough to hold gallon containers.

Gasket: A long strip of rubber tubing around the refrigerator door that contains a magnet to provide a tight seal and to prevent the loss of cold air.

H – P

Hydrofluourocarbons (HFCs): The gas used in new refrigerators to keep them cold.

Ice tray shelf: A shelf designed to stack ice trays in a freezer with no icemaker.

Ice-cube bin: Storage for manually made or machine-made ice cubes.

Icemaker: A small device in the freezer that makes ice automatically when connected to the cold water supply in your house.

Insulation: Material such as foam or fiberglass--sandwiched between the interior cavity walls and the exterior cabinet of the refrigerator and freezer--used to keep cold air from escaping.

R - Z

Refrigerator only: A refrigeration unit that only features cooling functions, not freezing.

Reversible door: A door in a top- or bottom-mount refrigerator that can be changed to open left or right by changing the hinges and pins.

Side by side: A refrigerator with the freezer aligned vertically on one side of the main compartment.

Slide-out shelves: Food storage shelves that slide out for easy access, so users can get to foods in the back.

Snack center: A door-within-a-door that opens from the outside to allow access to frequently used items.

Spill-catcher shelves: Glass shelves made with lips around the edges to help confine spills to them.

Split shelves: Half-width refrigerator shelves that can be combined as one full-width unit or separated into halves for storing items of varying heights.

Storage stabilizing clips: Clips in upscale refrigerator door bins that keep small items from shifting around when the door is opened or closed.

Tall bottle holder: An area designed to store tall bottles such as upright wine bottles and large soda containers.

Temperature selections: The number of temperature settings on a unit.

Thermostat: A device that measures and maintains the temperature in the refrigerator and freezer compartments.

Thermostat controls: The rotary dial, manual slide or electronic touchpad that lets an owner raise or lower the temperature inside the refrigerator or freezer.

Through-the-door dispenser: An opening in the door of the freezer section for dispensing chilled water and ice.

Top mount: A refrigerator that has the freezer compartment on the top.

Trim kit/panel kit: A package of cabinet-matching hardware such as brackets or clips that can be bought from the refrigerator manufacturer. It lets a cabinetmaker attach custom-made panels to the refrigerator door to make the appliance appear built-in. Another type of trim kit is a molding trim that goes around the perimeter of a refrigerator, installed flush with cabinet fronts. This trim gives the refrigerator a built-in appearance.

Water and/or ice dispenser: A device found in the door of a freezer that dispenses chilled water and/or ice. More commonly found in side-by-side models than other configurations.

Water filter: A device that removes impurities from water coming into the water dispenser or icemaker.

Wine rack: A hanging rack designed to store wine bottles horizontally.

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