What to consider when you’re choosing a new fridge-freezer.

Side-by-side or vertical?

Big side-by-side fridge-freezers with chilled water and ice dispensers are a lot more energy-efficient than large models of old. The trouble is, they don’t compete with vertical models for usable space. That handy ice-and-water dispenser usually reduces the freezer space by around 30 percent.

This means that a 600L side-by-side fridge-freezer is about the size of a 540L vertical model, but it costs at least $1200 more. You can get a good 520L vertical for $2100, whereas an ice-making side-by-side model will cost $3000 or possibly a lot more, depending on the brand and finish.

The fridge and freezer compartments on side-by-side models are narrower and deeper than in a vertically stacked fridge. This will be a problem for anyone who has trouble finding things in the back. The freezers are especially narrow: in one of the models we tested, you can’t lie a large pizza flat.

You also need to consider whether a side-by-side will fit your kitchen, or even through the doors into the house! Will there be room for the doors to open fully? These are big beasts, so check dimensions carefully.

Remember to allow ventilation space on the sides, back and top. It’s usually around 5cm, but ask the dealer for the exact requirements. The top can require up to 30cm clearance! Also, if they have a through-the-door icemaker and water dispenser, you will need to get a plumber to install them.

Top or bottom freezer?

Ultimately, it comes down to your needs and personal preference.

Having the fridge uppermost is generally more convenient. You open the fridge door many more times per day than you do the freezer, so it makes sense to have the fridge in the more accessible, upper position. For users in wheelchairs, having the freezer at the bottom will make it easier to get food in and out of both compartments.

But fridges with bottom freezers tend to have cold vegetable crispers, because the crisper sits on top of the freezer (although some models have a small heater under the crispers to overcome this!).

Having the freezer on top can mean the whole unit performs a little better. But fridges with top freezers tend to have warm crispers, because they sit at the bottom well away from the freezer.

Look for a minimum score in our test results of 6.0 for all aspects of temperature performance except the recommended setting — you can adjust the recommended setting to get a better result.

Size and space

  • We estimate a typical family of 4 doing its main shopping trip once a week would need 400 to 500 litres of total storage.
  • There are fridge-freezers as small as 170L, but these will only be useful in small apartments, or baches. In general, they do not perform as well as their larger cousins.
  • You can get vertically stacked models up to 600L, and side-by-side fridge-freezers with a total of 600L to 800L. But side-by-side models cost a good $1000 more.

As long as it fits in your kitchen space, go for the largest fridge-freezer you can afford. It’s false economy to keep your old fridge to cope with any extra demand. Old fridges are much less energy efficient, and one new large model with a bit of spare capacity will almost certainly run for less than an older smaller one. If you must keep the old one, switch it on only when you need it.

If you’re buying a fridge to fit an existing space, remember to check the measurements. Australian-made models and the bigger sizes from all brands may not fit.

Whatever size you buy, check with the real items you commonly store to see how well they’ll fit. If you like to keep pizzas in the fridge, where will they go? Will you be able to line the door shelves with your usual 2L milk containers and large juice bottles? If you like whole watermelon in summer, is there enough shelf space?

Interior layout

  • Most fridges give you the choice of which side the door opens when you buy, or allow you to change it later.

  • It’s handy to be able to get all the trays and baskets out without having to open the doors any wider than 90°. Many people have their fridges in a corner, so when the doors are open 90° they are hard against the wall.

  • Side-by-side models don’t offer a choice of the side which doors open. As well, the doors on this type of fridge-freezer may get in the way of using drawers and shelves if the doors cannot open to an angle well beyond 90°.

  • Most models have a good range of positions for shelves, but they must be fully removed before being reinserted. Many can’t be pulled out unless the door is opened well beyond 90°.

  • Solid shelves are an improvement on wire grill shelves. They stop spills dribbling all the way through the fridge, they make those spills less likely anyway because they provide a more stable surface, and they are easier to wipe clean.

  • Drawers are easier to load, but it’s harder to find small items in the bottom. If the door cannot open beyond 90°, you may not be able to pull the drawer out far enough to reach the back.

Other features to consider

  • Alarms or self-closing feature: Most fridge-freezers now have an alarm that sounds when the door has been left open for too long. However, these alarms are often only on the fridge compartment, not the freezer. When and how long the alarm sounds also varies. A classic method for ensuring your fridge door would close was slightly elevating the front of the fridge, so gravity closed the door for you. Most fridges now include a self-closing feature where the doors have weights built-in to them so they automatically close on their own.

  • Chillers: These are genuinely useful. Ideal for storing meat or super cooling the beer. They provide cooler storage (just above 0°C) than the rest of the fridge, so are good for storing meat and fish. They also prevent the food dripping onto other food and contaminating it. Some models have a separate control for the chiller.

  • Crisper: We measure the humidity in the crisper, which is a guide to how well unwrapped vegetables will stay fresh. Crispers need to have a lid that seals properly, so the humidity is contained. Some fridges have a humidity control so you can get it just right.

  • Adjustable rollers or feet: The body of the fridge-freezer must be perfectly level and square. The size and width of large models means they can easily distort, and then the doors may not seal properly. Level adjustments on all four corners may be needed to get the balance right. Rollers (with brakes!) make it much easier to pull the fridge out for cleaning.

  • Butter conditioners: These used to be a standard feature of New Zealand fridges, but they seem to have gone the way of the dinosaurs. We think that’s a good thing. Butter conditioners lower a fridge’s energy efficiency, and they don’t necessarily keep butter at a useful temperature anyway. If you want to keep butter a bit warmer, use the dairy compartment in the door.

  • Containers: Side-by-side fridge-freezers tend to have more self-enclosed containers than vertical models. These make fridge storage tidy (and more hygienic), but they also take up space and can make access a bit harder.

  • Can dispenser: Not a very common feature, but we like it! A handy wire under-shelf rack partitioned into three rows: you take one of the front cans and the rest roll forward. New Zealand beer cans (330mL) and soft drink cans (355mL) will fit, but the slightly larger Aussie beer cans (375mL) won’t.

  • Separate vegetable drawers: Having a third compartment can make access to the vegies more convenient. But unless it has an airtight lid, it will not function as a proper vegetable crisper. Vegetables not in a crisper should be wrapped before storing: the easiest option is to use the bags supplied by supermarkets in the vegetable section.