A walk-in cooler or walk-in freezer is an essential piece of equipment in most foodservice establishments. Its primary purpose is to keep a large quantity of perishable food cold. Unlike a reach-in refrigerator or freezer, with a walk-in you can “walk in” to the unit for very easy access to your product. 

If you’re reading this buying guide, it means you’re probably looking to replace or upgrade a walk-in, or are looking to buy for the first time. This guide contains the things to consider when buying a walk-in. 

Chef entering walk-in cooler with tray of food

In This Buying Guide: 

Types of Walk-Ins 

Prefabricated walk-ins are going to be your most popular and versatile option. Prefab walk-ins can be located anywhere that fits in your space, and they come in a variety of sizes determined by the manufacturer. Because walk-in panels are modular, you can expand your walk-in space easily as your business grows. The only major drawback of prefabricated walk-ins is it may not fit exactly to your space, depending on available sizes and configurations from the manufacturer. 

Built-in walk-ins are built specifically to your needs. They are built to blend in with your environment, and a lot of times will be covered with structural tiles on the walls. Because they are more customized, that means there are unlimited size options with a built-in walk-in. However, that also means it is more expensive than buying a prefabricated unit. Also, once it’s installed, a built-in model can’t expand or be altered as easily as a prefab unit. 

Building Blocks of a Walk-In Cooler or Freezer 

Panels: The panels of a walk-in cooler are constructed of foam insulation sandwiched between a metal ‘skin’. The skin is usually made from aluminum, stainless steel, or galvanized steel. The panels typically have around a 4” thick layer of high-density foam insulation, which is designed to help prevent temperature loss and make your walk-in refrigerator or freezer energy efficient. Insulation quality is measured by something called an ‘R-Value.’ The higher the R-value, the greater the insulating effectiveness. The most common insulation material is foamed-in polyurethane, which has a high R-value.  

Door: The door will be the most abused part of your walk-in, so having a tough door that can keep a tight seal is a must. Most doors come standard with a kickplate, which allows for greater durability. Look for adjustable door hinges, which will allow you to ensure an air-tight seal for greater energy efficiency. Buying a unit with a self-closing door latch is also a great energy saver, as it will help prevent those moments where the door isn’t closed properly, letting cold air escape. With many units, you can choose options such as door hinging and location. 

Floor: Choosing a floor for your walk-in will depend on the type of traffic you anticipate. Most floors are made of smooth aluminum, which are good for light or medium duty traffic. But in situations where there may be heavy cart traffic or heavy items such as beer kegs are stored, you may need a heavy duty floor that can withstand more weight and abuse. Most manufacturers offer advanced flooring options, which can be ordered in place of the standard flooring. 

In some situations, a floor may not be required at all. Floorless walk-ins are going to be cheaper than one with a floor, but it’s important to make sure the floor on which you install will keep your walk-in refrigerator up to code, so be sure to check all federal, state, and local requirements before ordering. An insulated floor is required for walk-in freezers. Remember, the more insulation you have, the less energy your refrigeration system will need to exert to keep your cooler or freezer at temperature, thus saving money on energy costs.

Walk-In Refrigeration Systems 

Placement of your refrigeration system depends on several factors, such as size of your space, and building requirements. There are three mounting options for your refrigeration system: top mount, side mount, and remote. No matter which option you choose, it is recommended to have a qualified technician come to install your refrigeration system to ensure it is installed properly.

Top Mount: Top-mounted refrigeration systems are self-contained and pre-assembled, so these units are ready to go out of the box. Some manufacturers design refrigeration systems to be flush to the interior so that the evaporator coil doesn’t infringe on the usable interior space of the walk-in. When used on indoor walk-ins, heat is discharged from the compressor, which can create added stress on your HVAC.

Top-mount walk-in cooler

Side Mount: Side mount systems have many similarities to top mounted systems, but are bolted onto the side wall of the walk-in. Side mount is an option when you have low ceiling that won’t fit a top mount. However, because of the location of the system, interior shelf space can be reduced due to the location of the evaporator coil.

Side-mount walk-in cooler

Remote: Remote systems are less expensive than top or side mounted systems. They are designed to sit outside of the building, which helps in situations where space is needed for ventilation of your walk-in refrigerator.

Remote walk-in cooler

Key Buying Decisions and Factors to Consider 

In addition to what we’ve already discussed, some important considerations to make when choosing a walk-in refrigerator or walk-in freezer are: 

Freezer or Refrigerator: The first thing you need to know is whether you will need a walk-in refrigerator or walk-in freezer. It all depends on whether you rely mostly on fresh or frozen ingredients. Walk-in coolers hold below 41 degrees Fahrenheit, while walk-in freezers hold around 0 degrees Fahrenheit. If you have the room and need solutions for both fresh and frozen foods, most manufacturers will carry two compartment walk-ins that allow you to have one section as a cooler and the other as a freezer.

Indoor or Outdoor Use: It’s very important to understand that there is a difference between an indoor and an outdoor walk-in, and they are usually differentiated by the manufacturer as well. If using in an outdoor application, an outdoor walk-in will come with panels for a roof, which of course will mean that you will most likely pay more for an outdoor walk-in. However, outdoor models will typically have thicker insulation as well as an outdoor roof sealing kit to keep the unit protected from the elements.

Sizing: One of the first things you need to decide on when purchasing a walk-in cooler or freezer is what size box do you need? This will depend on several factors, but the below table can serve as a general guideline. A simple rule-of-thumb to follow when determining your space requirement is: ½ cubic foot of storage space per meal served.

Chart describing how many walk-in coolers your business needs

Ventilation: For a walk-in to operate effectively and efficiently, you need to ensure that it has enough space to allow for proper air circulation. Your walk-in should have a minimum of 1 inch of space between the exterior of the walk-in and the walls and ceilings of your building. If using a top-mounted compressor, a minimum of 2 inches of space should be allowed from the top of the compressor and the ceiling. 

Delivery and Installation: When dealing with a large piece of equipment such as a walk-in, you will need to prepare for the delivery process to ensure a smooth installation. Before your delivery day, you want to have space cleared to move the panels to the installation site. It’s recommended to schedule your install either during a slow period of day for your business, or during non-operating hours. Following these guidelines will help ensure a smooth installation, whether you’re getting a massive refrigerated prep unit or smaller bar refrigeration system.

Warranty: We don’t like to think about it, but sometimes equipment fails. Having a strong warranty for your walk-in should absolutely be considered before you purchase. Manufacturer warranties vary, so be sure you know what the warranty is before you buy. 

Cleaning and Maintenance 

Cleaning your walk-in cooler or freezer is relatively easy. Most manufacturers recommend cleaning simply with warm soapy water using a damp, not wet, mop. 

In addition to surface cleaning, you should clean your condenser at a minimum of once every three months. The efficiency of the condensing unit depends on unrestricted air flow through the condenser. A wire brush can be used to loosen the accumulation of dust and dirt particles that have attached to the fins of the condenser. Once complete, a vacuum cleaner can be used to remove the loose particles. 

Making sure your door seals are clean is another great way to extend the life of your walk-in. Brush away any dirt or dust that builds up around the gaskets. When your gaskets have started to wear down, replacement gaskets are available at a relatively affordable price – speak to one of our product consultants to find the right gasket! 

Cleaning and maintenance

Walk-In Accessories

Strip Curtains: Strip curtains ensure that you can maintain your desired temperature and save energy. They block cold air from escaping the walk-in, keeping your refrigerated or frozen product safe.

Walk-in cooler strip curtains

ShelvingIncorporating shelving inside your walk-in will only increase the available square footage of the unit. Shelving units keep food off of the floor and allow air to circulate around the product.

Walk-in cooler shelving

Refrigeration Systems: If you already have a walk-in box and need to purchase a refrigeration system separately, you can find them at Central!

Walk-in refrigeration systems

Top Walk-In Vendors

KolpakKolpak is the foodservice industry’s specified leader in the manufacture of custom walk-in coolers and freezers. Kolpak’s product offering includes refrigeration systems, self-contained walk-ins and step-ins, refrigerated warehouses, pre-assembled walk-ins, and walk-in accessories.

Norlake: Norlake takes pride in meeting your every refrigeration need through innovative and reliable products, service, and performance. They are a full-service supplier of walk-ins and cabinets. Norlake is also one of our top vendors for refrigerated merchandisers and display cases.

Amerikooler: Amerikooler prides itself on making reliable walk-in coolers and freezers for everyday businesses. They manufactuer walk-ins, convenience store coolers, and quick-ship coolers that have all undergone rigorous structural testing.

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