The Ultimate Guide to Buying a Walk-In

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Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Major Walk-In Decisions
    • Refrigeration Usage
    • Space Requirements
    • Location
  3. Refrigeration Components
    • Panels
    • Doors
    • Exterior Finish
    • Refrigeration Unit
    • Refrigeration Power & Sizing
    • Location of Condensing Unit
  4. Accessories
    • Lighting
    • Windows 
    • Alarm
    • Panic Button
    • Ramp
    • Motion Sensor
  5. Maintenance

A walk-in cooler or freezer can be one the largest upgrade purchases your business makes. Choosing the right unit that fulfills your needs and meets your budget is vital. While the important factors to consider may be complicated, they don’t have to be confusing. Let’s take a look at the major decisions, components, and accessories that will help ensure the perfect fit for your business.

Major Walk-In Decisions

There are many factors that go into choosing a refrigeration unit. Several of the biggest decisions should be made before you dive into the specific details of the individual components of the box. First, understand what type of refrigeration you need, how much space you’ll require, and where to locate your unit.

Refrigeration Usage

The first decision to be made is what kind of storage you’ll need – and at what temperature. The industry standards for coolers and freezers are typically 35° F and -10° F, respectively. Which kind of storage you’ll need will depend on the usage of the unit, or what specific products you will be storing and for what length of time. Do you need to store dairy products? Beverages? Prepared foods? Ice cream? Fresh baked goods? Depending on your business, you may need both a cooler and a freezer. Thankfully, both of these needs can be met with a custom combination walk-in with two or more compartments for cooling or freezing.

Takeaway: Your business model will dictate your specific needs, start by understanding your menu, what items you need to keep cold, and at what temperature.

Space Requirements

How much space do you need? The specific requirements for your business will vary depending on several factors. First, consider the maximum amount of space you will need during peak times. Your storage capacity will have to accommodate your needs during your business’s busy season while not being overly large. This is because operating costs generally increase as the size of the unit increases.

Arctic walk-in

Second, consider the type of food you will be storing because your menu is most important. What food you need to store is relevant because it will affect how your unit is laid out, and there are many items to consider. Generally, the necessity to store fresh food will most drastically increase your space requirements. All of these, and more, will factor into how efficiently your unit can be organized.

Next, consider how often you will receive deliveries. For example, if you receive daily deliveries, you may only need a few cubic feet of storage since you’ll be clearing out your product daily. On the other hand, if you receive product twice a month, you may require much more square footage in order to have enough space for all of the goods you need for multiple weeks. The frequency of delivery will be a determining factor in your space requirements.

Lastly, you should factor growth into your cooler or freezer calculations. Does your business have plans to expand in the short or mid-term? The cost of a slightly larger space now will almost certainly be less than purchasing another unit in the near future.

Takeaway: You need enough space for your product at your busiest times – an overstuffed cooler is an inefficient cooler. Your peak storage needs will depend on your menu, frequency of delivery, and future growth. 

Major Decisions

Refrigeration UsageSpace RequirementsLocation
✓ Type of food that you need to store✓ Kind of food on your menu✓ Indoor vs. outdoor units
✓ Length of storage time✓ Frequency of delivery✓ Space and clearance requirements
✓ Consider a combination cooler/freezer unit✓ Future business growth✓ Regional climate

Location

Your walk-in unit can be placed either inside or outside of your building. There are many factors to consider when trying to make this decision.

Indoors, there are several requirements to think about.

For indoor installations, every unit will require 2” of space between the walk-in and surrounding walls for a proper ‘air gap’. Next, you’ll need to consider the floor. Most walk-in freezers will require an insulated floor. Walk-in coolers can be floorless if they are on-grade (on a cement floor).

When considering placing a unit outside, the exact location in relation to building access is vital.

Depending on the frequency of cooler access, you may want to place your unit close to your food-preparation space. This may or may not be possible outside, depending on your property and building layout. Additionally, consider local building ordinances, building codes, and engineering requirements. Depending on your locality, there may be requirements for size, distance from the building, finish, snow load, etc. that you need to be aware of before installing your unit.

You should also consider the added requirements for a unit outside. These units require several other accessories, namely a condensing unit cover, membrane roof, and a rain gutter over the door.

These are in addition to general weather- proofing that will be specific to your climate, such as sloped ceilings for snow. Also, keep in mind that outdoor units generally require a floor.

Takeaway: You need to have the physical space to house your cooler. This can be either inside or outside. Housing your unit inside may provide easier access while housing your cooler outside may allow for a larger amount of storage. 

Arctic walk-in

Refrigeration Components

Great, now you understand what type of unit you need, how much storage space you should plan to have, and where to locate your cooler. Next, we need to dive into some of the specific features of your unit.

Panels

Most walk-ins are manufactured with interlocking panels: floors, walls, doors, and ceiling. The panels are what actually insulate the cooler. Their construction is generally the same – insulating foam sandwiched between sheets of metal.

Generally, panels that are better at retaining cold inside the unit have a higher ‘R-value’. R-Value is a measure of an insulation’s ability to reduce the rate of heat flow. Essentially, R-value describes the ability of the panel to stop the transfer of heat from the outside to the inside. All walk-in panels must meet specific R-value requirements in order to be compliant with building codes and energy efficiency regulations – a minimum of R-25 for coolers and R-32 for freezers.

Usually, as the R-value of a panel increases, so does the cost. High-quality panels will all exhibit some of the same characteristics: high level of fire retardation, meeting required energy efficiency standards (like EISA), and utilizing materials that are food-safe. There are many different technical specifications concerning panels that may affect your decision-making process, ask your dealer or manufacturer for specific details. 

Takeaway: Panels are essentially insulation sandwiches. The specific type of panel you need will depend on the desired temperature of your unit. Having a basic knowledge of R-value will help you understand the industry-specific language your dealer may use. 

Arctic walk-in, brewery

Doors

First, your unit may need a standard personnel swing door. They typically measure 34” x 78” and employ a latch-style closure. This is the right choice if the frequency of door openings will be low to medium – industry standard is 2-3 opens per hour. While this door system will take the most time to open and close, it is the most energy-efficient.

Next, especially if you need more clearance, sliding doors may be the right choice. These can offer larger entries than standard swing doors and be either manual or electric. Lastly, roll-up garage-style doors are ideal if your cooler is large and you receive large deliveries frequently.

Takeaway: The type of door you require will depend largely on what type and how much product is coming into your unit. Larger deliveries on larger dollies or pallets may require sliding or roll-up doors.

Arctic walk-in custom finishes

Custom Finishes

Industry-standard finishes are galvanized steel, aluminum, and stainless steel for walls and ceilings. They come with either a smooth or an embossed finish and are generally metallic gray or white in color. Floors must meet sanitation requirements (NSF STD 7), which call for an aluminum or stainless steel interior floor finish with the proper covering radius.

However, if your cooler or freezer is located where customers can see it, you may want to consider a custom finish for the entire unit, or just the customer-facing doors and walls. There are many reasons to consider adding a finish: the look can complement your restaurant’s front end and offer a unique customer experience.

The types of special finishes you can choose to incorporate are varied. Depending on your walk-in manufacturer, you may be able to select from a wide variety of patterns, colors, vinyl finishes, matched colors, and paint grips. However, industry-standard finishes include: galvanized steel, aluminum, and stainless steel on walls and ceilings. They can come with either a smooth finish or an embossed finish, in grey or white. For the floor, NSF STD 7 requires aluminum or stainless steel, so choices are more limited.

Takeaway: Consider a special finish to ensure your unit compliments your space and reinforces your brand.

Components

Refrigeration UnitPanelsDoorsSpecial Finish
✓ Self-Contained vs. Remote✓ Efficiency ✓ Required Entry Size✓ Matched to Your Brand
✓ Refrigeration Capacity✓ R-value✓ Frequency of Door Opening✓ Textures, Colors, Patterns
✓ Electrical and Technical Requirements✓ Finish and Size✓ Manual or Electric Opening ✓ Single or Multiple Sides

Refrigeration Unit

One of the more obvious features of any cooler or freezer is its refrigeration capacity. Some choices for which cooling system to choose will be dependent on the specifics of your space. Your walk-in manufacturer will generally recommend the best system for your particular requirements and constraints. Things like ceiling clearance and space will come into play here. Additionally, there are electrical and building requirements that each unit requires. Your best bet is to ask a manufacturer if you have questions about technical specifics. 

Takeaway: Some size limitations will factor into which refrigeration unit you will require. Additionally, technical specifications including electrical components may factor into your decision making. 

Arctic walk-in, temperature readout

Refrigeration Power & Sizing

Arguably, the most important aspect of your refrigeration system is ensuring that it will be powerful enough for your needs. The type of use and frequency will be major factors in determining this.

In general, walk-in cooler and freezer refrigeration is sized for holding temperatures–which means the product brought into the space is the same temperature as the room – and to accommodate an average of two door openings per hour. Any changes to these two industry standards will require a larger refrigeration system in order to hold the desired temperature.

If the cooler and/or freezer will be used in a “pull-down” fashion – meaning product will enter the compartment at a higher temperature than the holding temperature – details like product weight, entry temperature, and frequency will be very important. Organization can really matter here, too. You can minimize the frequency and duration of door openings by organizing products so that they are quick and easy to find.

Consider the time in which this temperature drop needs to be accomplished to comply with food safety standards. The faster this change needs to occur, the more robust the refrigeration will need to be. Together, both of these factors will help determine the system that is best for your business.

For example, a small beer cooler that operates primarily in a pull-down capacity located in an area where the door is opened 10 times per hour may require a more powerful refrigeration unit than a larger freezer that has frozen product delivered twice a day. 

Takeaway: Several variables will factor into how much refrigeration power you require. Consider items such as type of use (holding vs. pull down), the temperature of a delivered product, and frequency of door opening.

Location of Condensing Unit

One of the choices you will face when selecting a condensing unit is whether to locate it within your building or remotely (outside of your building). Standard top and side-mount condensing units attach directly to the cooler. While operating, they will dump heat into the room and can make a considerable amount of noise. Depending on your business and layout, this may be unacceptable.

The condensing unit can also be located outside of your building – called a remote system. Remote systems have the added benefits of driving heat and noise away from your building and customers.

Takeaway: The condensing unit can be attached directly to the cooler, or can be a remote system. Attached units will dump heat and noise into your building. 

Accessories

The decisions and components that we’ve discussed so far are a great start to a unit that is fit for your business. But choosing to custom build your unit with accessories that are tailored to your needs can make it perfect. 

Arctic walk-in with windows

Lighting

You have to be able to see your product! Having the proper lighting for your space can save hassle and frustration. The lighting inside of your cooler can vary by size, intensity, placement, and efficiency. High quality, vapor-resistant LED lights can save you money and prevent the need to change bulbs for years to come. Non-LED lights are a viable alternative, but modern LED bulbs can often last for over a decade, compared to a few years for incandescent bulbs. Additionally, lights that are not vapor-resistant may experience a reduced number of operable hours due to water damage.

Windows

Having windows installed can provide many benefits. For one, windows allow you and your employees to assess product stock without actually opening up the unit. This alone can drastically cut down on the number of door openings (and thus, saves energy). As an added bonus, a window can also let in light, either naturally or from exterior sources. Windows can typically be placed on the door or the side paneling of the unit. Additionally, windows allow you to display products to customers, showing them the contents of the unit.

Alarms

Alarms can be a vital part of your refrigeration system. First, the door can be alarmed to inform you that it has been left open. A door left open for even 15 minutes can force the refrigeration system to work overtime for several hours to restore the temperature. Second, an alarm can alert you when the internal temperature rises or falls outside of a certain threshold. As a result, this can potentially save you thousands of dollars in lost product by allowing you to react quickly to events like power outages.

Panic Buttons

In the very unlikely event that you or an employee become trapped inside of the cooler or freezer, a panic button can make all the difference. Panic buttons can be connected to a variety of alert mechanisms and serve to put you and your staff at ease. All walk-ins are equipped with an inside safety release mechanism.

Arctic walk-in with ramp

Ramps

Depending on the layout of your unit and frequency of delivery, a ramp may be an extremely smart investment. For example, if your unit has an insulated floor, then it is likely not flush with the ground. If your business requires bringing heavy dollies or pan racks into and out of the unit, a ramp will make that process much easier.

Motion Sensor

Motion sensors will almost always pay for themselves in electrical savings in the long term. They are usually connected to the lights, and ensure the least amount of waste when no one is inside of your unit.

Takeaway: Accessories that are tailored to your individual needs will make the difference in how well your cooler works for you. Lighting, motion sensing, and alarms can improve the efficiency of your unit, saving you money. Ramps and windows can improve the usability of the unit.

Accessories vs. Benefits

AccessoryBenefit
Lighting  Proper lighting will make tasks inside cooler easier; Efficient lighting will save money on electrical costs
Windows Allow cooler assessment without needing to open door; Allow light to be let in; Display product
Alarm Early warning system when unit falls outside of specified temperature range
Panic Button Safety mechanism in the event of an individual requiring assistance inside cooler
Ramp Allows easier access, especially if frequency of deliveries is high
Motion Sensor Energy-saving by only using lights when cooler is in use
 

Walk-In Maintenance

You have the information necessary to purchase a new walk-in, and the unit will last longest when properly cared for. First, the entire inside and outside of the unit should be periodically wiped down with warm water and mild soap – once a month is a good metric. This helps to keep the unit free of dirt, and more importantly, stop the growth of mold and mildew.

Arctic walk-in with reinforced hinges

Second, door gaskets should be cleaned with water and baking soda and wiped off about once a quarter. Also on the door, hinge pins and sockets should be lubricated with petroleum jelly at least once a year. Finally, like any machine, walk-in units will require regular care and maintenance to continue working properly for years to come.

The Final Takeaway

Customizability is key when choosing a walk-in. Make sure you’re choosing a brand with high flexibility that can meet your needs. It’s no small purchase, so your walk-in’s energy efficiency, exterior finish, door style, R-value, refrigeration power… well, everything, should be exactly as you want it!