How to Buy Outdoor Refrigerators, Freezers, & Beverage Coolers | Buying Guide
We know what you might be thinking: “Wait, shouldn’t each of these appliances have its own article?” It may seem that way, but the truth is these 3 categories are extremely similar in terms of construction despite being built for different purposes. All can be purchased in multiple configurations for indoor or outdoor use, have some form of cooling technology to keep their internal spaces cold, and operate within similar parameters for functions like ventilation and temperature control.
That being said, there’s more than one reason why they go by different names. Take temperature for instance — beverage coolers operate around 40–45 degrees Fahrenheit, refrigerators at 34–40 degrees, and if you follow FDA guidelines (generally a good idea), you’ll keep your freezer set at an even 0 degrees. Electricity consumption is another main differentiator, namely that it increases with compressor size and minimum temperature potential. It’s a fairly simple concept: The colder a unit needs to get, the bigger the compressor required and the harder it has to work. An appliance’s noisiness follows a similar spectrum. The final difference is that beverage coolers aren’t food-safe because mold and bacteria can grow in conditions above 40 degrees.
That’s a lot to take in at once, huh? Don’t worry, each of the 4 sections below will explain everything you need to know in greater detail so you can be confident when shopping for outdoor refrigeration appliances.
What Type of Outdoor Refrigeration Should You Buy?
Whether indoors or outdoors, refrigerators are designed specifically for short-term storage of food. Yours should be food safe certified and always set to 40 degrees or lower to slow the growth of food-ruining mold. We probably don’t appreciate these awesome appliances enough, and that goes double for outdoor refrigerators. Their food storage allows you to truly call your outdoor kitchen an outdoor kitchen, not to mention that the additional space comes in handy for large families and large gatherings. Luxury and Premium models even come with additional features like interior LED lighting, glass doors, and locking door panels. While a chill-blasted refrigerator is great for food and non-alcoholic drinks, it’s actually not the best storage option for wine and beer. Generally speaking, neither should be kept below 40 degrees (40–50 degrees for beer, 45–65 degrees for wine). But that won’t be a concern once your beer or wine dispenser arrives.
Indoor freezer not cutting it in terms of space? Sounds like you could use an outdoor freezer, which can serve as a secondary place for long-term storage of meats and other food items. This “bonus freezer” can really be a game-changer for hunters and fishermen who don’t want to sacrifice indoor freezer space to store what they bring home from trips to the camp. Outdoor freezers also make it possible to buy meat in bulk, which saves your family a good bit of money over the long run. A quarter of beef (about $550–$750) can meet the needs of a family of 3 for a year, while a side of beef (about $1,100–$1,500) can provide a year’s worth of meat for a family of 5–6. Of course, you don’t have to store entire cow segments to get adequate use from an outdoor freezer. Undercounter freezers can keep frozen cocktails at the ready, hold tasty treats for the kids after a long day of swimming, or simply provide more long-term food storage in your outdoor kitchen.
Outdoor Beverage Coolers
Your beer and wine deserve proper storage, and that’s just what undercounter beverage coolers are for. Most of them operate somewhere between 40 and 45 degrees, which will incur less energy costs over time than a refrigerator but isn’t quite cold enough to ensure bacteria won’t grow on your food. That being said, outdoor beverage coolers maintain the perfect temperature range for carbonated drinks and beer. Just make sure your appliance is set within that golden window, and look for a unit with interior lighting instead of an incandescent bulb, whose UV light creates chemical reactions that ruin your beer. Though some units can cool their cabinets to almost freezing or maintain slightly warmer temperatures for wine, know that doing so will cause your beverage cooler to operate inefficiently. Still, undercounter beverage coolers can enhance your outdoor kitchen with a staggering array of features, including multiple temperature zones and locking doors.
You can’t explore the awesome effects of aged beef at home without a dry-aging refrigerator. (Literally, you can’t. Unless you want to use your fridge as a microbial culture.) These appliances are specially designed to create the necessary conditions to safely dry-age meat: temperatures just above freezing, humidity as needed for your particular cut, and a constant rate of air circulation across the surface of your meat. In any other environment, your steak — and their unveiling at the next big cookout — would be spoiled. Aging gives the enzymes within beef time to break down muscle tissues, resulting in a steak bursting with tenderness and nutty, concentrated flavor. This process can take anywhere from a few weeks to 30 days, so you’ll want a reliable appliance capable of maintaining just the right setting for dry-aging meat. With such particulars in mind, it should come as no surprise that dry-aging refrigerators are intended for indoor use only.
Where Do You Plan to Place Your Outdoor Refrigerator?
Indoor vs. Outdoor Placement
To be considered outdoor-rated, an appliance must pass a series of durability and performance tests – usually by impartial standards company Underwriters Laboratories, also known as “UL.” Though these units can maintain internal temperatures in sweltering heat, placing them in direct sunlight will cause undue stress on the compressor. This is especially important because outdoor units already use more electricity than indoor units, but there are some outdoor appliances with Energy Star ratings that can keep your power bill low even in harsh settings. Outdoor refrigeration products perform best in external environments between 60 and 80 degrees, though outdoor-rated models can function within the 40–100-degree range. Once below 40 degrees, most refrigerators and freezers (and especially combo units) tend to stop working correctly. Pro tip: If you want to continue using your outdoor refrigeration units in winter, just move them into your garage or basement.
Which Configuration Do You Need?
Undercounter refrigeration products are designed to fit into an indoor or outdoor kitchen island, making proper ventilation and drainage key. Front-venting units are best at exhausting excess heat in this configuration, while your owner’s manual and a licensed plumber are your best friends when it comes to drainage and water lines. Freestanding units, meanwhile, are a bit more easy-going because ventilation requirements aren’t as severe (you’ll still need to leave at least a 1-inch gap around the appliance so air can circulate). Stand-alone refrigerators and freezers go great in garages, sheds, workshops, pool houses, or any other outdoor space where friends and family congregate. However, you’ll need to make sure the area can sustain the weight of a large freezer or beverage cooler filled to capacity. The smallest outdoor refrigeration units are countertop models, which provide enough storage for liquors that need to be chilled (Jager, anyone?).
Outdoor Refrigeration Systems
Not all refrigeration units refrigerate the same way. The appliances we carry use either cold plate refrigeration or forced air refrigeration, both of which are fairly self-explanatory but have certain advantages informed buyers should be aware of. That chill running down your spine? That’s the thrill of knowledge coming your way. Oh, wait, that’s actually from the refrigerator we accidentally left open. Sorry!
Forced Air Outdoor Refrigeration
In this type of system, a hidden cooling unit (usually a compressor) treats air in a space completely separate from the cabinet. A fan then forces the cold air out of the cooling area and circulates it through the cabinet, leading to much more consistent temperatures throughout the unit. Factors like how full the unit is and whether it has glass or metal shelving will affect the evenness of its internal temperature, but a refrigeration product is generally most efficient when it's about three-quarters full. Remember that a slam-packed freezer with restricted airflow will struggle to lower temperatures, while an appliance will have to draw massive power to cool an empty cabinet.
Cold Plate Outdoor Refrigeration
Cold plate refrigeration, also called static cooling refrigeration, is a method of cooling that uses a dedicated cooling element at the back of the unit’s cabinet to pull heat out of the refrigerator, and in turn, your food. This older method of refrigeration, which takes about 24–48 hours to cool the whole appliance, relies on a certain density of products inside the appliance for optimal cooling to occur. Contents near the back of the fridge may block the flow of cold air, resulting in inconsistent temperatures from back to front. Additionally, contents directly touching the cold plate may freeze, and these units are more likely to ice or frost over.
Which Class of Outdoor Refrigeration Should You Buy?
For all the differences and variables that come with tackling 3 product categories at once, we still managed to sort them into easy-to-understand classifications. How, you ask? We weighed the quality, performance, and features of every appliance to sort them into 3 classes — Luxury, Premium, and Standard. (We’ve heard good things come in threes, but now we have proof.) So, take a look below to find the skinny on each classification, then use it as a guide to point you toward the caliber of products that best fit your lifestyle.
- Stainless steel exteriors and some 6-year warranties protect your investment
- Glass-panel doors and internal LED lights add an aesthetic flair to your space
- Powerful compressors operate quietly to leave your gathering undisturbed
- Lowest range of temperatures on the market keeps goods cold no matter what
- Locking doors, digital control centers, and temperature alarms give you peace of mind
- Stainless steel doors and exteriors provide the longevity you need in outdoor settings
- Units carry longer warranties than those in the lower classification
- Undercounter units with zero clearance are easy to install in outdoor kitchens
- Durable compressors pair with outdoor ratings to keep contents safe in the elements
- Features like glass doors, colored lights, and alarms make for a premium experience
- May lack outdoor ratings, making them less than reliable in harsh environments
- Painted metal bodies and limited warranties don’t bode well for durability
- Plastic interiors and wire shelving are lower quality than in higher-class models
- Clearance requirements and no guarantee of front venting may complicate installation
- Cold-plate refrigeration systems use less electricity than forced-air technology
Things to Think About
You’ve made it through the main points to consider when buying an outdoor refrigerator, freezer, or beverage cooler, but we understand many of you still may have lingering questions about these appliances. They’re where you store your all-important food and drinks, after all! We’ve set aside this final section to tackle some of the most common concerns about this category of products and put your mind at ease.
What Does NSF’s Food Safety Rating Mean?
The majority of these appliances are used to store food, so it’s crucial to find units that have been certified for food safety, most often by the National Sanitation Foundation. The American non-profit safety standards company certifies home refrigeration products only if they’ve passed a strict set of evaluations to ensure they meet the FDA's food safety requirements and construction standards. What does that mean? They have to prove beyond any doubt that they can maintain temperatures below 40 degrees, even in fluctuating outdoor settings, and boast construction entirely from FDA-approved, food-safe raw materials. Qualified outdoor refrigeration products bear the NSF label, giving you the confidence of knowing your food can be stored safely and properly.
Capacity of Outdoor Refrigeration Products
You think about capacity when it comes to cars and homes, so why shouldn’t you do the same for your outdoor refrigeration appliances? As always, the capacity that’s right for you depends on what you plan on using the unit for. An outdoor deep freezer capable of storing a side of beef has much more space than, say, a countertop refrigerator for your home office. And we don’t think the blue LED beverage cooler for your beer cave will have quite the same specs as the undercounter refrigerator where you keep treats and drinks for the kids. Fortunately for you, we have an outdoor refrigeration model to fulfill whatever your needs are! Just be sure to carefully consider how much space you need, the weight of the unit when full, and if you have an area that can support its full weight while installing and once installed.
Energy Star Rating
In addition to NSF certification, you may see refrigeration appliances with an Energy Star rating. This label is awarded to home appliances that meet all energy efficiency and environmental standards determined by the EPA. Buying products with this rating ensures less energy cost over time without having to sacrifice quality of performance, along with fewer greenhouse gas emissions than comparable, non-Energy Star units. That being said, Energy Star ratings are more commonly given to indoor appliances because they don’t have to work nearly as hard as outdoor units.
If you have more questions about outdoor refrigeration, don’t hesitate to give our outdoor living experts a call at 1-877-743-2269. Our Free Outdoor Living Design Service can also be of help, especially once you have certain products in mind and are ready to move into the next phase of building your ideal outdoor space. And our easy financing and free shipping? They can be the cherries on top of that ice cream sundae you’ll keep stored in your outdoor freezer.
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