By: Douglas Trattner
Published: April 29, 2010
With temperature regulating systems that function constantly, refrigerators are one of the hardest working appliances in the home. When placed outside the home, they are required to work even harder to maintain proper temperatures. In addition, they must operate safely even when exposed to inclement weather. For that reason, it’s important to purchase a refrigerator designed specifically for efficient and reliable outdoor use.
Cost range: $550-$1,800 and up
Likely additional costs: 110-volt GFCI outlet, cover for freestanding units
Average life span: 5-10 years
Indoor vs. outdoor
“There are two fundamental differences between refrigerators designed for indoor and outdoor use,” explains Paul Storch, vice president of Summit Appliance, a manufacturer of specialty refrigerators and freezers. Outdoor fridges are expected to maintain consistent temperatures in an unstable environment. Keeping items cool in the heat of summer requires that units possess increased insulation and be outfitted with more powerful components than their indoor counterparts.
The appliances also need to be weatherproofed against the elements. “Electricity and water do not mix,” Storch adds. “If the components get wet, there is risk of electrocution.” Storch says that to receive the endorsement of Underwriters Laboratories (UL), an outdoor refrigerator must pass a battery of tests designed to prove its safety in wet conditions. Even when built into an outdoor kitchen island, appliances still are exposed to splashing water and moist conditions.
Built-in vs. freestanding
As their names suggest, a built-in unit is designed to integrate seamlessly into outdoor kitchen cabinetry, while a freestanding appliance can be placed anywhere in the outdoor living space. The classification is more than cosmetic. Built-in fridges are front-vented so they require little to no clearance on the top, sides, and rear of the unit. Freestanding models still can be positioned beneath island countertops, but they require at least one inch of ventilation on all sides.
Material of choice
To withstand the elements, an outdoor refrigerator must be rust-resistant. For that reason, almost all are constructed of stainless steel. But all stainless is not created equal. Buyers are urged to seek out grade 304 stainless, also called 18/8, because of the alloy’s higher resistance to corrosion. Less-expensive fridges will be made from plastic-wrapped steel or grade 430 stainless, a ferrous metal that is susceptible to rust.
Outdoor fridges are more compact than the fridge/freezer combos found in kitchens. The most common measurement is 24 inches wide by 34 inches tall with an interior capacity of 5.5 to 6 cubic feet. Slimmer 15-inch-wide models with about 3 cubic feet of interior space are also available.
Some shoppers prefer the slide-out convenience of refrigerator drawer units. Sold in two- or three-drawer configurations, these built-in units occupy the same dimensions as a 24-by-34-inch fridge.
Outdoor fridges are simpler units than their feature-rich indoor counterparts, although most have an adjustable thermostat, automatic defrost, adjustable shelves, an interior light, and four leveling legs.
Units sold as “refreshment centers” or “wine coolers,” explains Storch, function exactly the same as those sold as fridges. The major differences are that these models often feature insulated glass doors and beverage-specific shelving. Wine, for example, is stored on its side on glide-out wooden shelving. Parents of small children should seek models with locking doors.
UL-approved outdoor refrigerators start around $550 for a basic unit with white plastic door panel and manual defrost freezer. The jump to $700 buys a sleek, stainless steel appliance with roomy interior space, mainly at the cost of the small freezer compartment, which is not present on finer models.
For a sharp, glass-fronted beverage cooler, expect to pay at least $900. If the idea of a double- or triple-drawer fridge sounds appealing, expect to pay between $1,800 and $3,000. Units approved for outdoor use typically come with a warranty that covers parts and labor for one-year and the compressor for five. Installing an “indoor” fridge outdoors will likely nullify the warranty, notes Storch.
According to the EnergyGuide label on Energy Star-rated outdoor fridges, these units have an estimated yearly operating cost of around $35. But Storch says those estimates can be misleading. Outdoor temperatures, exposure to direct sunlight, and even proximity to the barbecue all will affect those figures. To keep energy costs low, maintain proper ventilation and position the unit in the shade and away from grills, pizza ovens and fireplaces.
End of season
Outdoor refrigerators are not designed to function in temps below 40 degrees. Homeowners in cold climates are advised at season’s end to empty the unit’s contents and unplug the appliance from the electrical outlet. To inhibit the growth of mold, Storch suggests inserting a small spacer between the door and frame before taping it shut. Freestanding units should be covered to protect them from the elements and debris.
Douglas Trattner has covered household appliances and home improvement for HGTV.com, DIYNetworks, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Until he can spring for an elaborate outdoor kitchen, he will have to make do with a cooler filled with ice.