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How to Choose the Right Fridge for Your Home

Open fridge

Podcast Version

When you’re renting an apartment in the continental US, you’re usually provided with a fridge. Most states require landlords to furnish them to tenants. But you might be in for a rude awakening if you’re moving outside the US, with Germany and Japan coming to mind: even if you’re a renter, you’re on the hook for appliances and you have to take them with you when you leave. Hopping back to the US though, you’re more likely to buy your first fridge once you become a homeowner.

It’s estimated that 8 million refrigerators are sold in the US every year. Damn, that’s almost the same as my city’s population or the entire state of New Jersey! The fridge and freezer combo is also ubiquitous in the states, whereas across the pond over 40% of homes in Europe have separate fridges and freezers.

Mind-blowing, right?! You mean to tell me that the two things can be separate?

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Your home’s your castle, baby. If that ubiquitous full-size top mount fridge and freezer combo makes your life easier, go for it. It’s a staple in both single-family homes and apartments across America. But you don’t have to get this kind. In fact, based on your/your household’s needs, you might want to try something completely different.

Related: Fridge Organization | How to Choose the Right Fridge | Is It Worth Getting Another Freezer | Types of Freezer 

Top Mount

Top and bottom mounts of a fridge are open.

The top mount is the most common type of refrigerator found in American homes. While there are different models today with varying dimensions for each component, the freezer portion is on top and takes up about one-third of the unit, while the refrigerator part takes up two-thirds and occupies the bottom. On average, they’re about 18-20 cubic feet for a standard full-size unit, while larger units can be around 27-30 cubic feet.

If your food storage needs are pretty simple, you can’t go wrong with a basic top mount. Most of them have shelving plus crisper drawers, and little storage bins and extra racks for beverages are a wonderfully inexpensive solution to really maximize your space.

I’m going to dive into compact units later, but as for the size you should go for with a traditional top mount or some of the other styles listed here, a standard full-size unit should be fine for most singles, couples, and young families. Larger households would benefit more from one of 30 cubic foot fridges, especially if they have shelves farther spaced apart that make temporary storage of things like food processor bowls much easier and less cramped than a standard unit.

Bottom Mount

Open fridge full of fruits and vegetables.

The inverse of the top mount, the bottom mount places the freezer component on the bottom of the fridge instead of on top of it. But is the right kind for you? Well, it ultimately depends on how much frozen vs. refrigerated food that your household is storing and if you have any health issues that make bending difficult.

After my parents attempted to renovate the house, a bottom mount fridge replaced the top mount after constant complaints of stuff in the freezer hitting us or falling on the floor. Let me tell you, a bottom mount doesn’t change things if your spatial reasoning is godawful. In fact, I distinctly recall the numerous times just provided a more direct route for kaiser rolls and Lean Cuisines to fall on the damn floor except now the journey was six inches instead of six feet. You know what sucks worse than an errant Klondike bopping you in the forehead before hitting the floor? Having to get on your hands and knees and get covered in dog hair and random kitchen detritus in the vain hope said ice cream bar falls in your hands first.

So, if your culinary needs are pretty average but you don’t buy a lot of frozen food, a bottom mount unit might be better for you than a top mount! But not all bottom mounts are built equally, they’ve come a long way from the basic swing door shown in the photo. Some bottom mounts basically act like one giant drawer you can pull out.

Placing food storage in the fridge.

If you’re going to opt for a bottom mount, definitely get the drawer kind so you don’t have to deal with food falling on the floor. The shelf ones that just swing open are an exercise in futility unless you rarely or never freeze anything. Hell is furnished with bottom mounts that have swing doors.

Side by Side

Woman searching for food in the fridge.

Side by side refrigerators, also called French door fridges, come in a variety of styles today. Some of them are ENTIRELY side-by-side with the freezer on one side and the fridge on the other. Others just have a large fridge on top or bottom with a freezer that’s just one swing door or drawer.

One awesome thing about the side by side model is that depending on the height, they can be superior from an accessibility standpoint. If you’re not that tall and/or have difficulty bending or stretching, a side by side model can save you a world of hurt. Because the doors also don’t swing all the way open, side by side fridges are good for apartments and kitchens that don’t have a lot of leeways to open a full-size fridge door.

Finding things in the freezer is far less likely to feel like an expedition to the Arctic in search of that lost artifact, the artifact being a potentially freezer-burnt Amy’s burrito from when you thought it would be a good idea to stock up on them at Costco just to have half the box lay there forgotten. Because many side by side models often separate the freezer component in a similar manner to the fridge itself, you can totally compartmentalize things like smoothie ingredients, frozen dinners, leftovers, and frozen desserts so that the beams never ever cross and you’re not literally throwing out icy chunks of cash in the near future.

Freezer burn

You can’t revive dead ice cream.

If you have kids, side by side models is also good for the type constantly opening the fridge and having trouble reaching the items they want. If there are also things you’d rather keep out of their reach like alcohol or birthday cake, you’ve got the option of using the higher shelves.

However, one of the major drawbacks of side by side fridges is that despite the extra space some larger models take up, it can be harder to fit things like food processor bowls and large pans inside. So if you like to make things on sheet pans or in casserole dishes, you might want to take one with you if you’re checking out side by side models in a showroom and see if it fits.

Compact Model

Small white kitchen interior.

As the resident expert on living in tiny shitty NYC apartments, I could have the standard vs. compact fridge debate all day long as someone who’s had both in various apartments. I need to state up front that I actually do not recommend compact models for most people. If your household is at least two people, you are absolutely better off with a standard full-size top or bottom mount, or maybe a side by side compact model that’s on the larger end. Unless your partner or roommate does not eat, ever, you’re going to be having War of the frigging Roses every time someone orders a pizza or generates at least one plate’s worth of leftovers. GET. A. STANDARD. FRIDGE. I. BEG. YOU.

But if you’re single, don’t have kids, you don’t really like to cook, and you go out to eat and/or travel frequently, a compact fridge may be just what you need!

Compact fridges are under 18 cubic feet. If you have a single-family home with a tiny kitchen, you may be considering a compact unit in place of a full-size unit. There doesn’t seem to be a hard and fast rule for what defines “compact”, although they are typically 32” high and 24” wide but some models will be smaller than this. Sometimes incredibly tiny units like iceboxes (around 9 cubic feet) get lumped in with compact fridges but think of a “real” compact fridge as somewhere between those little fridges you see in some hotels and a standard full-size fridge.

When I first bought my condo, I got the standard full-size fridge that came with the apartment. Given that my kitchen probably has less cubic feet than some of these fridges I’ve seen at Home Depot, I am assuming some kind of acrobatics were involved that would make the performers at Shen Yun gasp. Because I have no idea HOW the hell he got it in there. That fridge was wider than the doorway and it kept making these noises like a penny got stuck in my jeans pocket then got loose in the dryer. When the electrician I had over to handle the dishwasher hookups warned me that it was a sign the fridge’s motor was dying and it could potentially blow the dishwasher’s circuit mid-cycle, I did what most young new homeowners do: screamed into a pillow after looking at my negative bank balance.

Almost empty fridge

Sad-ass bachelorette fridge! I could’ve gotten several months of meals at the diner for how much this damn thing wound up running me out of the gate, plus the junk removal service.

Having such a tiny kitchen already necessitated a smaller fridge because the door could barely open in that tight space. When I called a junk removal service, they had to saw the door off first. But when looking at both standard and compact models, I found a retailer specializing in compact appliances for tiny living spaces and found that a Danby top mount suited my needs just fine, and freed up several feet in the already-crowded kitchen.

This wound up being a good call because my career and lifestyle started to necessitate a lot of travel within the next year, and if I work at home 100% of the time then I go completely mental. The compact model slashed my energy bill about 30%, another awesome perk.

But like I said, I actually do not recommend compact models unless you are virtually never home. I constantly lament that I don’t have space for frozen dinners when they go on sale, or random ziplocks full of frozen fruit and leftover spinach for future smoothies. As the name implies, they don’t have a lot of space. My freezer is just two little shelves, and you bet I’m the type who hoards frozen dinners so I can have it all winter long, like a squirrel. Or a feral game developer. So yes: it has difficulty closing and things often fall on the floor.

Because compacts also have tiny shelves, you can’t even fit full-size juice, soda, or wine bottles in there unless it’s in the very limited space on the door or you stow it sideways. Storing pans bigger than a 9×9? It’s like an MC Escher painting trying to fit a silicone muffin pan in there. Same for food processor bowls or anything much bigger than a takeout container.

Compacts are great if you live alone and have incredibly simple culinary needs coupled with going out and traveling frequently. You might as well get the cost savings on your energy bill. But if you have at least two household members, don’t go down this path.

Separating the Fridge and Freezer

Frosty and empty freezer

This one’s a little harder to do in the US, but it can be done now that I’ve taught you about the wonder of compact units.

Maybe you just don’t want a traditional top or bottom mount fridge. Maybe you’d like to cook at home a little more, but know that you’re more likely to make lots of food ahead of time and freeze it or stock up on frozen food than keep the fridge full. Or the opposite: you want fresh food all the time and barely freeze anything.

Full-size fridge-only units are a little more difficult to find and you’re probably going to have to look online rather than easily find them at your average appliance store. But why not opt for a compact fridge-only unit plus a chest freezer? Or if you have religious or dietary needs that cause you to need more than one fridge, get one standard top mount plus a medium-sized compact?

You’ll still want to consider the energy costs and risks in running multiple units relative to the size of your home and the way that the circuitry is laid out. Will the higher energy bills also be worth it? Will you and your household actually eat the contents instead of routinely throwing things out that go bad? (Compacts can prevent over-buying, but then also go too far in the other direction and provide insufficient space.)

Finding the right fridge is ultimately up to your household’s needs, budget, and how you’re likely to use it. 

Related: The history and evolution of the refrigerator | Kitchens with Wine Storage | Most Expensive Refrigerators | Picks for Beer Keg Refrigerators

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