The best refrigerator for a specific household will fit into the space available, store enough food for the household's needs and include any desired features like a through-the-door water and ice dispenser.
Types of Refrigerators
Traditional top-freezer refrigerators are typically the least expensive ($350-$1,400 but averaging $500-$800), and are generally more efficient and reliable than other types, according to Consumer Search. Top-freezer refrigerators are often used for small households or in rental units.
Side-by-side refrigerators ($800-$3,000 but averaging about $1,800) are divided vertically, with the freezer on one side and the refrigerated section on the other, and they frequently include a through-the-door water and ice dispenser. The narrow doors mean these refrigerators work well in tight kitchens, but wide items like a cake or pizza box might not fit inside. Side-by-side refrigerators appeal to families who like the through-the-door dispensers, but these models might not have as much usable interior space as other styles.
Bottom-freezer refrigerators ($800-$3,200+ but averaging 1,000-$1,800) reverse the traditional set-up, putting the refrigerator section on top and the freezer on the bottom, so the more frequently used fresh foods are at eye level. Bottom-freezer refrigerators typically have a fairly large capacity, and can work well for small or large households.
French-door refrigerators ($1,200-$3,500+ but averaging $1,500-$2,700) combine some of the popular features of bottom-freezer and side-by-side models, putting the freezer section on the bottom, but with narrow side-by-side doors on the top fresh foods section, so large pizza or cake boxes easily slide inside. Four-door models also have a middle refrigerator drawer for frequently accessed items like children's juices and snacks, deli meats or canned beverages. French-door models typically offer large to ultra-large capacity, and many models have additional features that appeal to families, although this style also works well in smaller households.
The smallest full-sized refrigerators can be as narrow as 24" wide while ultra-capacity models are 33"-36" wide or more, and jut as much as 6"-8" or more past the standard cabinet depth of 30". And don't forget to check the height -- many modern refrigerators are taller than older models, and existing overhead cabinets might need to be raised or removed.
A refrigerator's capacity is measured by cubic feet, and varies from 10 cu. ft. for a single person to close to 30 cu. ft. for a large household with lots of food storage needs. The goal is to buy as much capacity as the budget can afford that will comfortably fit in the space available, without paying for more capacity than required. A refrigerator under 25 cu. ft. will meet the needs of most households, and larger models use significantly more energy.
However, bear in mind that manufacturers' capacity estimates are typically generous, and the actual usable interior space varies depending on the positioning of space-taking features like an ice maker, water dispenser or wine rack. Consumer Reports estimates that actual usable space can be 60%-80% of the manufacturer's estimated capacity, with top freezers typically providing a higher percentage of usable space than side-by-sides, bottom freezers or French-door models.
Every new refrigerator has an energy guide label that lists its estimated yearly operating costs. Models with the Energy Star symbol
meet specific efficiency standards. Energy Star rated refrigerators might be eligible for a rebate from the local utility provider.
Ice makers and through-the-door water-and-ice dispensers are great conveniences but can also be the most repair-prone part of any refrigerator, so search online user reviews for repair rates on a particular model. Check where the ice maker and dispenser are installed; depending on the design they can cut down on the amount of usable space in the freezer shelves, refrigerator shelves or door bins. Some ice makers produce only one size ice cube (often smaller than traditional cubes, to fit more easily into sports bottles and other containers), while other ice makers can be set to produce different sizes of cubes or crushed ice. Many water-and-ice dispensers also have a water filter.
Less-expensive refrigerators have fixed wire shelves, while high-end models have thick adjustable glass shelves with sealed rims to prevent spills fromspreading one shelf to others below. Some refrigerators promise "adjustable shelves" but only have a few slots available for each shelf, while others can be adjusted to a range of heights in small increments. "Elevator" shelves can be cranked up and down, eliminating the need to empty them before repositioning.
Drawers are great for keeping cheeses, deli meats, fruits or vegetables separate from other fresh foods, but check to see how far the drawers pull out and how easy it is to place a head of lettuce or other large item into a drawer.
Door bins vary from narrow racks with a single rail to hold items inside to wide, see-through bins that hold everything in place. Adjustable bins allow for more flexible storage in the door, but check to see whether bins can be moved up or down in small increments, or if there are only a few slots they can fit into.
Interior lighting varies from traditional incandescent bulbs to LED lights, which are more energy-efficient and take up less space.
Larger refrigerators may have multiple air vents to circulate cool air, or they may have separate cooling systems for the refrigerator and freezer compartments, to maintain differing humidity levels (dry in the freezer, some humidity in the fresh foods).
Refrigerator warranties used to be for five years or more, but many now come with a one-year limited manufacturer's warranty. Some brands offer 5-10 year warranties on just the compressor or other specific parts.
Potentially desirable features might include a dedicated egg compartment, a soda can dispenser that holds up to 12 cans, a single-bottle vertical wine rack, an under-the-shelf metal wine rack that holds 5-6 bottles or other specialized items Some families with children prefer a door-ajar-alert that beeps any time the door is open more than a few minutes, but others dislike having the beep sound when cleaning the interior.