Cold Side

The 86 Repairs Guide to Restaurant Refrigerators

Keep your cool when your restaurant refrigerators get too hot with these preventative maintenance and troubleshooting tips from 86 Repairs.

Welcome to another 86 Repairs Guide! In this series, we provide valuable troubleshooting, preventative maintenance, and warranty information on the equipment and infrastructure found in your restaurant. We hope this information will help you and your team become more informed about repairs and maintenance (R&M)—and save you time and money along the way.

In the hustle and bustle of restaurant kitchens, it’s vital to keep your cool. How many times have you been at the receiving end of a Carmy-style rant? Or been the chef screaming at the rest of the kitchen staff? It doesn’t exactly keep the team motivated during a hectic service. (And if you don’t know who Carmy is, take this as a sign to start watching The Bear immediately.)

Even if people are getting heated, your food’s gotta stay chill. Refrigerators keep the perishable goods in restaurants safe, ensuring every ingredient is kept at the right temperature for consumption.

When a restaurant’s refrigerator stops working, you might not be able to create some of your customers’ favorite dishes, leading to lost profits from downtime. And, depending on how long the refrigeration is out of service, you run the risk of big inventory losses.

Consider this article your kitchen’s chill pill. Preventative maintenance measures and troubleshooting can help your restaurant’s refrigeration run the way it should.

Table of Contents

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What is a restaurant refrigerator?

Refrigerators are necessary to keep perishable goods nice and cool before they’re prepared or consumed. Many types of refrigerators are found in a restaurant, but we’ll be focusing on two within this guide: reach-ins and walk-ins.

A reach-in refrigerator offers easy access to food in cold storage for kitchen staff. The design optimizes volume, allowing prep cooks and chefs to store more than a classic top-freezer refrigerator could handle.

Walk-in refrigerators are large enough for staff to literally walk inside of them. They have a big footprint and offer much more storage than a reach-in refrigerator, making them ideal for high-volume kitchens.

Other common types of restaurant refrigerators include sandwich coolers, two-door reach-in refrigerators with prep space on top, lowboy coolers placed under grills, and draft system chillers. All of these use a single refrigeration loop, making their mechanics essentially the same as reach-in refrigerators.

Glycol coolers are less common but important to know about. These appliances use two refrigeration loops and a heat exchange to operate, making them a pricy piece of equipment for kitchens. Because of the expense, they’re less common in restaurants. However, if you do have glycol refrigeration in your kitchen, you can follow all of the preventative maintenance and troubleshooting tips found in this guide. Just remember to make sure your glycol is within operating ranges, too.

Numbers to know about restaurant refrigerators

Reach-in refrigerators and walk-in refrigerators are two of the ten most common pieces of restaurant equipment in need of repair. In 2021, just these two appliances accounted for 12.2%  of all 86 Repairs repair and maintenance (R&M) requests.

(Discover the other eight equipment and infrastructure offenders in The State of Repairs, our annual report of R&M data for the restaurant industry.) 

Although both pieces of equipment technically work the same, reach-ins are much less expensive to fix:

  • On average, the cost to repair a reach-in is $519.09.
  • A walk-in is almost twice as expensive at $1,000.42 per vendor visit.

Whether it’s $500 or $1,000, restaurants want to save every cent possible. No matter which type of refrigerators are found in your kitchens, use these preventive maintenance and troubleshooting tips to keep food cool and profits hot.

Maintenance for restaurant refrigerators

Taking small steps to maintain key pieces of equipment can lead to big time and cost savings for your business. Use our top refrigeration preventative maintenance tips to avoid unnecessary vendor dispatch.

Maintenance for reach-ins

Clean condenser coils

When condenser coils are clean, the reach-in refrigerator can shed heat and drop to temperature quickly when the door is closed. It also helps the compressor to not have to work as hard—the harder the compressor works, the shorter the compressor's lifespan.

  • If the coils are dirty, use compressed air to remove debris from the coils, or use a soft brush or cloth to remove the debris. Be careful not to bend the fragile metal fins of the coils.
  • After debris is removed, if the coils are still greasy, soak the coils in degreasing solution and rinse them off with water.

Inspect interior evaporators

Inside your fridge cabinet there will be a fan, and behind that fan is where your evaporator is located. Take a quick look for any sign of frost or ice buildup.

  • If there is no sign of frost or ice buildup, you’re good to go.
  • If there is a sign of frost or ice buildup, even if it’s minor, your coils are freezing over and need to be defrosted
    • Before you dispatch a vendor to take a look, unload the items inside the unit, shut it off, and leave it open overnight. 
    • If the evaporator freezes over again in a few days, have a technician take a look at the unit.

Check door gaskets

The rubber lining around the doors of your refrigeration units are also known as door gaskets. These help keep the air cool and protect from outside humidity—which can cause your evaporator to frost over.

To check if a gasket is good:

  • Gently pull on the door gaskets.
    • If they fall apart, slip, or react in a way they shouldn’t, the rubber is breaking down and the gasket needs to be replaced.
    • See the section on Restaurant refrigerator parts and warranties to learn more about replacing door gaskets.
  • Open and close the door.
    • The door should snap into place when it’s almost closed, since the magnet in the gasket attaches to the cooler. If it does not snap, or comes apart when it snaps, the gasket should be replaced.

Maintenance for walk-ins

The most important thing you and your staff can do to prevent vendor dispatch for a walk-in? Look at the back of the unit for frost buildup on the evaporator, which is the metal box with fans.

If there is frost buildup, this can mean that the unit needs to be defrosted with your thermometer, but it could also mean that your evaporator has a failed defrost component. While it may be hard to fix these issues on the fly, noticing frost buildup early can prevent an emergency down the road.

Most preventative maintenance for walk-ins should be done by a refrigeration technician because of how they’re installed and how complicated they are to maintain. But we know preventative maintenance is easier said than done; after all, with inconsistent processes, staff turnover, and the time investment to find the right vendors for the job, it quickly gets pushed to the back burner.

That’s why 86 Repairs offers preventative maintenance programs to take the task off your team’s plate and prolong the life of your equipment and infrastructure. Our team identifies the items that would benefit from a preventative maintenance schedule, selects vendors who can best support the program, and then manages the process from end to end.

Restaurant refrigerator troubleshooting tips

Preventative maintenance can help prolong the life of your kitchen equipment—but it can’t always stop equipment from failing. 

Here’s how we guide our customers through the most common reach-in and walk-in refrigerator issues before we recommend vendor dispatch.

Reach-in refrigerator troubleshooting

Unit is too warm

If you find the reach-in is frequently running too warm, here are a few things you can check before calling a technician.

  • Check simple things, like ensuring the unit is plugged in and that the breaker or GFI hasn’t tripped.
    • If the breaker or GFI has tripped, just reset it. It seems like a no-brainer, but it’s easily missed.
  • Verify the condenser coil is free of dust and debris.
    • If you don’t know where the coil is, find it behind a metal grate or vent on the outside of the unit. Remove the grate to expose the coils.
  • Examine the evaporator for frost or ice buildup. The evaporator is behind the fans inside the cooler. 
    • If there’s frost, unload and power off the unit overnight with the doors open.

Leak present

Is there a pool of water fit for a birdbath hanging out in the bottom of your cooler? No sweat—you can fix that.

As the unit cools, condensation forms on the evaporator and drains into an evaporator pan. Sometimes that drain gets clogged with yeast and bacteria and needs to be cleared out. Here’s how you can do that yourself:

  • Look around the cooler until you find a grate or vent near the bottom of the unit. 
    • Remove that grate to expose the condenser coils.
  • Adjacent to or behind the coils, you should see a shallow plastic pan with a drain pipe or tube leading to it.
  • Using compressed air or a wet vac, purge the drain pipe so the water will drain properly again.

Walk-in refrigerator troubleshooting

Unit is too warm

Toggle the electrical breakers to the unit off for at least 30 seconds and back on again. The unit should begin recovering temperature within minutes. If it doesn’t, call a vendor to diagnose and repair the unit.

Leak present

Leaks are likely due to bacteria buildup in the drain line from the bottom of the evaporator.

  • Trace the drain line through the wall to the floor drain. Clean the drain with a wet vac until water begins to flow, if possible.
  • If the pipes are inaccessible, call a refrigeration company.

Frost buildup

Look at the space between the evaporator and wall—not outside of the box. Struggling to find the evaporator? Look for a box with a fan.

  • If ice or frost is present, see if the unit has a digital thermostat controller, usually found inside the unit.
  • If there’s a digital thermostat, run a defrost cycle on that controller. Use the manufacturer manual to engage the feature, if needed. The defrost feature will protect food while still melting the buildup causing issues. Run multiple defrost cycles until all buildup is gone.
  • If no internal digital thermostat exists, or if there’s still frost buildup after running several defrost cycles, it’s time to call in a pro.

Restaurant refrigerator parts and warranties

Depending on the issue, you might be able to acquire and replace reach-in and walk-in parts yourself. 

For example, common parts that need to be replaced on reach-in refrigerators are door gaskets and hinges. Gaskets simply snap in and out of the fridge, and hinges can be easily replaced by anyone with basic levels of hand tool and equipment knowledge at the restaurant.

With walk-in refrigerators, door latches and catches break down over time but are relatively easy to replace. If you or your staff is handy with a drill or screwdriver, you can easily procure the replacement yourself and install it in-house with only eight screws.

Nervous to order the wrong thing? Just contact your manufacturer’s parts department and give them the serial number for your unit. They’ll give you the make and model of the part you need so you can buy the right item.

It’s extremely likely that a brand new piece of kitchen equipment, like a reach-in or walk-in refrigerator, will come with a one-year warranty. But the details of that warranty will depend on the manufacturer. For example, True has a three-year parts and labor warranty that will cover any failure—but watch out for emergencies, since you’ll be on the hook for overtime rates.

Some manufacturers offer separate, five-year warranties on compressors. But you’ll only be reimbursed for the parts replacement and not the labor to actually replace the part.

If you need service on your refrigerator, verify it’s still under warranty first. Use an online query from your manufacturer’s website to verify the date of sale. It’s highly unlikely the technician will check this on your behalf, so inform the vendor before they arrive on site.

A final note on restaurant refrigerators

Don’t let faulty refrigeration bring you to tears. Consistent preventative maintenance and troubleshooting for restaurant refrigerators will help prevent downtime, avoid unnecessary service, and prolong the life of your equipment.

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