Walk-in coolers and freezers are great options for restaurants that store mass quantities of food and drinks. A significant investment, walk-in refrigeration equipment is well worth its price tag—as it increases your storage space and helps your hotel or restaurant operate more efficiently. But before purchasing a walk-in for your restaurant, it’s essential to perform thorough research and identify what unit best suits your particular needs. This guide will help you do just that.
The first step in choosing a walk-in cooler or freezer is determining whether an outdoor or indoor unit is a better fit for your establishment. One type is not better than the other, and both indoor and outdoor units boast distinct advantages. By understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each type, you’ll be prepared to make an informed decision.
Storage space is always a precious commodity for restaurants, and an outdoor walk-in is especially useful if you’re operating with minimal storage space inside your building. Also easier to install than their indoor counterparts, outdoor units only require level ground. If land is uneven, the issue can be easily remedied with fresh concrete.
All refrigeration units operate by removing hot air from their interior. So while indoor walk-in models either heat up their surrounding areas or require remote condensing units, outdoor walk-in simply expel hot air into the outdoor environment. As a result of these conveniently located outdoor condensers, your operation will benefit from reduced air conditioning costs.
There are also a few downsides of installing an outdoor walk-in. Roofing will be required to help get the most out of your unit. Depending on the year-round local climate, it might also be necessary to take special precautions like weather-proofing your cooler or freezer. If your area receives significant snow fall, a strong roof cap will be necessary. Walk-ins located in areas prone to incurring tropical storms would benefit from hurricane tie-downs.
To make accessing an outdoor walk-in more convenient for employees, consider making a doorway in an exterior wall. Just ensure the wall is capable of being modified and can be thoroughly sealed. If a wall is load-bearing, the project becomes much costlier and potentially impossible. Be certain to check local bylaws to ensure outdoor walk-ins are not legally required to be surrounded by fencing or something similar. If your restaurant resides in an area where crime is prevalent, it might be in your best interest to securing your outdoor walk-in with a security system.
Although the cost of outdoor walk-in coolers and freezers can be higher than that of indoor units, many restaurant owners will find the cost worth it to preserve precious indoor storage space. In summary, here is a quick list of the pros and cons of outdoor walk-in units:
Indoor walk-ins are easy to access, allowing you to quickly grab food and ingredients when you need them most. If your walk-in unit will be used as your primary refrigeration device, then an indoor model is the best choice for you. Costing less up front than outdoor units, indoor walk-ins don’t need the fences, roof caps, and security equipment that outdoor models sometimes require. With an indoor walk-in cooler or freezer, you won’t need to worry about long-term exposure to the outdoor elements taking a toll on the unit’s lifespan. While outdoor walk-ins are visible to the public and can reduce the visual appeal of your restaurants, indoor units are covertly hidden inside the building.
Although an indoor walk-in cooler or freezer is a great option, there are certainly a few drawbacks that should be considered. Unless they possess remote condensers, these units release hot air inside your building—potentially leading to an uncomfortable environment and higher air conditioning costs. The compressors found on these units can generate significant noise, so it’s in your best interest to ensure a walk-in unit is installed far from where your patrons will be dining. Indoor walk-ins also occupy significant space and are not ideal for establishments that don’t have space to spare.
While installing indoor units is usually less costly than installing outdoor models, this is not always the case—as special precautions must sometimes be taken. Since these coolers and their contents can weigh thousands of pounds, it’s essential to have flooring that can handle the burden of all this weight. In many instances, floors will need to be structurally reinforced. Wood floors often need an added barrier that protects against moisture and prevents decay.
When choosing what walk-in cooler or freezer is best for your establishment, it’s important to heavily consider how much storage space you’ll need. The listed specifications of walk-in units measure exterior dimensions—which means interior dimensions will measure slightly smaller. Keep this in mind when outfitting your unit’s interior with shelving and storage items. Leave approximately 40" of aisle space inside your walk-in to enable easy transportation of carts through its interior. This will help make it simple to restock shelves and bins with new food and ingredients. While custom walk-in refrigerators and freezers ensure you get exactly what you want, ready-to-ship units cost significantly less and are installed in a timelier manner.
Walk-in coolers and freezers require heavy-duty insulation that ensures cold air properly remains inside the units. Foamed and laminate are the two most commonly used types of insulation. Storing insulation between two plates that are bolted together, foamed-in-place insulation provides a reliable guard against even the smallest transfer of heat. Foamed insulation is preferred for units that reside in hotter climates, as laminate can peel from away from the foam if the temperature is too hot or the air is too humid. Alternatively, the insulation of laminate models utilizes a hot epoxy to thoroughly attach. This type of insulation can also be cut to more precise sizes—making it better suited for custom walk-ins. Overall, the two types of insulation perform similarly as long as you’re purchasing from a respected manufacturer.
Refrigeration equipment comes equipped with either a remote or self-contained condenser. Remote condensers are placed outside and are ideal for reducing your unit’s heat and noise emission. Self-contained condensers attach to your cooler or freezer and don’t offer the versatility or energy efficiency of a remote condenser. However, these self-contained units usually come pre-packaged for easy installation. Generally the most costly condenser option, self-contained models are ideal for outdoor walk-ins. When used with indoor walk-ins, self-contained condensers can make unwanted noise and contribute to increased air conditioning costs.
Although unassembled remote condensers are the most inexpensive options, installation of these units usually requires the services of a professional. The exception is if you get a remote condenser with pre-charged lines. But even in this case, special equipment will be required to lift the heavy condenser. Since they’re located outdoors, remote units must be altered to withstand harsh weather. Despite these extra costs, remote condensers are more budget friendly and offer superior energy efficiency compared to self-contained units.
It’s also essential to consider flooring when installing a walk-in cooler or freezer. While walk-ins can be bought with or without built-in flooring, the advantage of a built-in floor is it provides insulation and superior energy efficiency. Even more important for outdoor walk-ins whose concrete floor tends to get hot from the sun, floor surfaces are commonly made with rubber or diamond tread plates. Both surfaces are non-skid and help ensure staff safety by preventing slips and falls. Outdoor walk-ins usually also require ramps for cart transportation.
There are a few steps you can take to help ensure you get the most out of your walk-in cooler or freezer. The first and most obvious thing to do is ensure your unit’s door is open for the bare minimum amount of time necessary. By consistently keeping the door closed, you prevent the loss of cold air and will save money on your electric bill. Leaving the door open will also cause the unit as a whole to work harder—which increases the chance that it will incur a mechanical failure. If you decide to use an outdoor unit, keep in mind these models sometimes sweat and form ice on their floors—creating a slippery and potentially dangerous environment for employees.
Owners of outdoor refrigeration equipment in hot and humid environments should go the extra mile to protect their coolers or freezers. Putting a large canopy over your walk-in unit can provide it with shade and protect it from direct contact with the sun’s rays. Keeping the unit shaded from the sun will help keep its interior temperature low and prevent stressful overworking. Another option for reducing unwanted strain is to invest in a second condenser. By having two condensers share the burden of work that one condenser would usually handle, you’ll minimize the potential for overuse while also having insurance in case one of the units malfunctions.
Whether you prefer doors with cam-lift hinges that enable automatic closing or strip doors that ensure cold air remains inside your walk-in, there’s something that satisfies your demands. Either type of door is ideal for operations where people frequently enter and exit your walk-in unit. Another option is a door window—which wills allow you to clearly view your unit’s stored contents.
While stucco-embossed galvanized steel is the most common exterior finish for walk-in coolers and freezers, there are certainly other alternatives. If you have an outdoor walk-in that’s in public view, you might want to consider getting a visually pleasing stainless steel finish. Other options include colored finishes like white, beige, and black. Many walk-in owners also outfit their units with protective accessories. Items like kick plates and bumpers can help prevent dents and scratches caused by carts and other equipment.
Since your walk-in cooler or freezer is likely storing mass quantities of food and ingredients whose worth surpasses four figures, it’s imperative you protect your investment. Should something go wrong, you’ll lose all the food—not to mention significant business over the next few days. To maintain peace of mind, consider investing in an alarm system that will alert you if the walk-in’s interior temperature strays from its normal range. These alarms can alert you via text or phone call—meaning no matter where you are, you can ensure your walk-in unit is working properly. Other great accessories include door alarms that alert you when the unit’s door has been left opened and exterior thermometers that display the unit’s interior temperature. As for providing the walk-in’s interior with adequate visibility, fluorescent lighting is brighter than incandescent and can help you save on electricity bills.
Walk-in coolers and freezers are specifically designed to store foods that are already at food-safe temperatures when they’re brought into the units. If you intend to add a lot of food that isn’t already at a safe temperature, the walk-in unit might not be able to cool it down fast enough. In these instances, a blast chiller can help remedy the situation.
If you’re not ready to invest in a walk-in cooler or freezer, consider reach-in refrigeration equipment. Pass-through refrigerators and freezers are also great options for busy kitchens. For functional refrigeration equipment that can help conserve space, check out refrigerated prep tables. Refrigerated display cases and merchandising refrigeration units are ideal for delis that want to showcase their offerings.
Many factors must be weighed before deciding what type of walk-in unit is right for you. But after reading this guide, you now have the foundation of knowledge to make a well-informed decision when purchasing a walk-in cooler or freezer.