Expert advice on buying a refrigerator

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Choosing a refrigerator can be a complex decision, as it’s the one kitchen appliance everyone in the house will use.

They can last at least 10 to 15 years, making refrigerators an investment. Considering that even budget types start around $1,000 before any rebates or promotional discounts, buyers need to think about their lifestyle needs, said Sharon Franke, kitchen appliances and technology director for The Good Housekeeping Institute.

The good news is, Franke said, refrigerators generally have few performance issues.

"What makes a refrigerator good is that it maintains a steady temperature from place to place and, more importantly, over time," she said. "I tell people, with refrigerators, versus other appliances, they can really shop by price or have the features or the look they like."

Refrigerators are also moving into a starring role in the kitchen.

"We used to hear the aspirational appliance was the range. Now we’re hearing that more about the refrigerator. … They’re more expensive, and there’s more innovation in them," she said.

Robert English, home improvement merchandising director for Lowe’s, said that unless buyers are completely remodeling a kitchen, available space may also dictate what they buy, as some new models are wider.

Refrigerators generally fall into three categories: top-mounted freezer, side-by-side and bottom freezer. The bottom freezer category also includes the French-door style, which is now most popular, she said.

—Top-mounted freezers. The traditional refrigerator style may be best for budget-conscious buyers who don’t need special features. These can be a little smaller than other styles, so they may have a little less capacity, said Daniel DiClerico home multimedia content specialist for Consumer Reports. That makes them good for smaller kitchens, he said, and their smaller size means they’re likely the most energy-efficient.

Even in the low end of the budget category, English said, buyers can find features like adjustable glass shelves that are spill-resistant, gallon door storage and an ice-maker.

DiClerico said Frigidaire’s Gallery FGHT1846QF was one of Consumer Reports’ top-rated top-mounted refrigerators and can sometimes be found for less than $1,000.

—Side-by-side. These used to be the most popular refrigerator styles, said DiClerico and Franke, until the advent of the French-door style. They are easy to organize because everything is visible.

"People who want a larger freezer space like these. It’s really easy to find things in them, unlike in top or bottom freezers where things get buried," DiClerico said.

Their disadvantage is the fresh-food compartment is narrower, and it’s hard to put oversized items like platters in the fresh side or a pizza box in the freezer, they all said.

Still, these are good configurations for people in wheelchairs and small children because they can get easy access to both compartments, she said. "It means that children don’t have to stand on a chair to get (products)," Franke added.

Many side-by-side refrigerators have in-door water and ice dispensers. Unless buyers are avid users of ice and water, Franke said, this particular feature may not be worth it. She and DiClerico said this is one of the features that breaks the most.

—Bottom-mounted freezer, including French door. Fresh food is elevated in the bottom-mounted freezers, so people don’t have to bend to get vegetables in the crisper. But people who use a lot frozen foods tend to not like the bottom-mounted freezer, Franke said, and this style is not as easy to organize.

For budget buyers wanting a bottom freezer, DiClerico said, Consumer Digest likes Kenmore’s model 69313 which can be found for less than $1,000.

The refrigerator style most in demand now, and where manufacturers are putting their innovative features, is the French-door design, they all said. This style has two refrigerator doors that can be opened individually and a bottom freezer than can be a single drawer or two individual doors.

"People love the way they look," Franke said.

These refrigerators can be large, so they may not fit into existing spaces, English said.

French-door refrigerators come with more storage compartments, to allow better organization of fresh food, and individual temperature controls of those compartments, she said.

Other features in French-door styles include a door-in-door, which allows users to open the front door and grab often-used items, but a second, clear door is in front of the main compartment to reduce cold air loss. Some of other features include in-door seltzer dispensers or pod-style coffee-makers, and see-through illuminated main doors allowing users to peer into the fridge without opening it.

But innovation isn’t cheap. Basic French-door styles start around $2,000, and average models are around $3,000. Consumer Reports’ favorite, LG’s model LFXF32766S, is $4,000 before rebates.

Franke and DiClerico said some of the new innovations are worth it, such as individual temperature controls and separate evaporators for the freezer and fresh food compartments, preventing odors from passing between the two compartments.

DiClerico is less sold on the "connected" refrigerators, such as the heavily promoted Samsung Family Hub, which ranges in price between $3,800 and $6,000. He said, "It’s great as a refrigerator," but he’s less sold on technology part.

"We think obsolescence will be an issue. Samsung says they’ll do upgrades for it, but I don’t think they’ll do it fast enough," he said. "I just don’t think (connected refrigerators) are ready for prime time."