The premise of a walk-in cooler is obvious: it’s a cold box for storing foods and beverages. But there’s more technology in and on the box than you might think—and manufacturers have made recent advancements. Federal regulations now require newer environmentally-friendly (yet slightly less efficient) refrigerants; however, manufacturers have simultaneously reduced the electrical load needed for cold storage and thus minimized its carbon footprint. At least one supplier has further improved the efficiency and lengthened the useful life of its cold boxes with new construction methods that keep the compartment airtight and watertight even at the vulnerable points in the corner joints and around the door frame. Newer units feature door status alarms, doorframe heater wire shutoff systems, automatic temperature data recording for HACCP, even remote alarms and remote control through USB ports.


Who Needs a Walk-in and Why

There’s no simple formula to determine whether a restaurant’s volume, hours of operation, menu and food preparation system would merit the addition of a walk-in cold box. If meat, fish and produce arrive daily, reach-in refrigerators may provide adequate storage. But if you’re finding that staff are having to replenish supplies constantly, you may want to consider a walk-in cooler for backup. (You can even add a reach-in door to the walk-in.)

Several makers note that today’s greater emphasis on fresh fare has increased overall demand for walk-in coolers—and, correspondingly, reduced demand for walk-in freezers.

A reach-in cooler should be the first choice for cold storage of items that will be accessed many times an hour. If you have products that are going to be stored for days or if you’re storing in bulk, then you will want to use a walk-in cooler, says one manufacturer. “The walk-in is your bank for food storage,” says a sales and marketing vice president. (If you’re storing items for months, you’ll need a walk-in freezer.)

Why not just add more reach-in refrigerators? “If you keep adding reach-ins, you’re adding more condensing units and lots of electrical service to a job site,” explains one supplier’s director of operations. By going to a walk-in cooler, you’re cutting down substantially on utility costs—particularly since walk-ins also are much better insulated than reach-ins.

Some operators may actually require more than one walk-in cooler if they’re storing a lot of beer or wine. While 35°F-38°F is a good temperature for storing multiple items together such as produce, meat, fish and beverages, a specialized beer cooler will hold the beverage at a lower temperature and a wine cooler too will provide less chill (about 50°F). If space is a concern, it’s possible to site the box and condenser elsewhere in the building, or even outdoors. It’s even possible to cut a door in an exterior wall to access the unit, although that would add to the cost.


KPS Global Walk-In Cooler

Doors are probably the most-used part on a walk-in cooler—besides the compressor. Look for heavy duty hinges and handles. Many makers recommend adding a kick plate if employees are rolling carts in and out. — Courtesy of KPS Global


How Big and How Powerful

When specifying a walk-in cooler, figure size from the inside out—that is, begin with the space needed to store the specific items required for your operation. If crews will bring carts inside the walk-in, for example, they’ll require approximately 40 in. of aisle clearance. Taking that into account, decide the width, depth and height of shelves needed. From that, you can derive the interior volume and dimensions of the box. Then you can figure the exterior size, given the type of construction and the thickness of the insulation used (see “Understanding Insulation” at right). The smallest, simplest and least expensive walk-ins are off the-shelf units in sizes such as 6-ft.W x 6-ft.D or 8-ft.W x 8-ft.D, with the compressor typically mounted on top. (Remember to take these units’ typical 7 1/2-ft. height into consideration when figuring what model will fit the space.) These units are often available for order online and don’t require long lead times for manufacturing and installation.

However, many manufacturers offer custom sizes, building both the box and the refrigeration system. They work closely with dealers and end-users to meet the project’s specific needs.


Nor-Lake Walk-In Cooler

Customizing the size of your walk-in cooler can help maximize storage space. (Specify this model in any size, shape or angle.) Manufacturers offer off-the-shelf models too that are easy to order and quick to ship. — Courtesy Nor-Lake.


“One mistake that buyers make is settling for standard panel sizes instead of getting the maximum storage space possible when the manufacturer can custom design the walk-in,” says a vice president of sales and marketing. “We can manufacture high-density perimeter wall panels, which allows us to manufacture in 1-in. panel increments. So, the customer can draw the line where they want the walk-in, and we build it to fi t: height, width, exact size of shelving needed, even the door location, which can be as close as 6 in. from the corner.”

The horsepower and Btu load of the refrigeration system matter as much as the size of the box itself. There are many factors to consider in refrigeration sizing, not all of them obvious. In sizing refrigeration, always consider the humidity in the room where the walk-in cooler will be placed. Air flow also is a factor, especially if the refrigeration system is sitting on top of the walk-in. Without proper air flow, the compressor will not function properly.

“Usage is critical,” says a product manager. “We assume the average user is going to open the walk-in door six to eight times an hour, and we size the refrigeration system based on that factor. We try to put a cushion into the design to accommodate whatever the customer does.”


Thermo-Kool U-Shaped Walk-In Cooler/Freezer Unit

Ask about warranties when researching walk-in coolers. This U-shaped walk-in cooler/freezer unit comes with a 10-year panel warranty. — Courtesy of Thermo-Kool.


Considering the Extras

"You may not need all the 'bells and whistles,' but some options can prolong the life of the walk-in while making your life a lot easier," one manufacturer's product specialist points out.

One company's standard control system for its walk-ins comprises a light control, audiovisual temperature alarm, temperature data monitoring, onscreen diagnostics and a cyclic heater and monitoring system for each door. Its more advanced controller option adds a time and date monitor to help document any incidents, a secure digital memory card interface and a PC connection kit, among other enhancements.

"In the past few years, more buyers are recognizing that if they buy the newer electronic controls that are optional for refrigeration systems, they pay for themselves rather quickly," notes a product manager.

For example, one supplier offers a controller that you can program for demand defrosting; it can reportedly save 30% on energy consumption per year.

By mapping out the ideal interior and exterior dimensions, right-sizing the refrigeration system and adding on important accessories, you're sure to build a walk-in cooler that best supports your operation.

Understanding Insulation

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, an insulating material’s resistance to conductive heat flow is measured or rated in terms of its thermal resistance or R-value. The higher the R-value, the greater the insulating effectiveness. The R-value depends on the type of insulation, its thickness and its density. Walk-in coolers have higher R-value insulation than reach-ins (the DOE requires a minimum R-25 insulation for walk-in coolers, versus the R-16 that’s typical for reach-in refrigerators).

Two types of insulating materials are primarily used for walk-in coolers at foodservice operations. Extruded polystyrene has an R-value of 5 per in. Thickness. It’s typically produced as a board stock that’s cut to panel size, laminated to interior and exterior metal panels and glued to the cooler’s frame, with a less dense foam filling in the gaps at the corners.

Foamed-in-place closed-cell polyurethane insulation, widely used in custom walk-ins, has an R-value of 7.2 per in. Thickness. Polyurethane permanently adheres to structural panels that have already been bolted in place, adding strength and reliability. In addition, the foam’s density means superior moisture resistance. Because the cooler’s walls can be thinner with foamed-in-place polyurethane, inside storage space is maximized in relation to the size of the box. And because the compressor and condenser don’t have to work as hard to keep food cool, better-insulated walk-ins will likely have a longer useful life.

Manufacturers give competing arguments as to which type of insulation makes most sense. Ask the maker of the model you’re considering to show the facts about the insulation and ask about the manufacturing process. Ask for the R-value and warranty information.

Cold Holding is Not Blast Chilling

Specifications for walk-in coolers are based on the premise that food and drink are coming in cold, or at least at room temperature. One of the issues that suppliers see most frequently is operators batch-cooking menu items and placing large amounts of hot food into the cooler, straining its refrigeration system and raising the temperature of other items.

You might be able to reduce the strain on the cooler (and the food safety danger of too-slow chilling) by putting hot food into multiple smaller containers and pre-cooling it in an ice bath before loading it in the walk-in. But that’s a makeshift solution.

If you’re cooking product in-store, a blast chiller is the better answer. Certain remote-refrigeration blast chillers can be placed inside walk-in coolers, so employees can unload the chilled food for storage without putting it through a room-temperature environment on the way from cooling to holding.


Walk-In Cooler Gallery


American Panel custom manufactures walk-in cold rooms that fulfill many bulk storage needs. Panels are manufactured in 4-in. thickness and comply with all nationally accepted building codes. Foamed-in-place insulation offers the highest insulating value, reducing operating costs. Fiberglass reinforced polymer, used in door and frame, does not transmit heat and will not rust, warp, twist or support bacteria. Units are assembled and tested in American Panel’s factory prior to shipment to ensure correct installation the first time.


Bally uses the same construction on its doors as it uses on its panels: nonozone-depleting rigid insulation, foamed-in-place and securely bonded to metal skins for structural strength. A reinforced U-channel steel frame with a thermal breaker prevents twisting and sagging and eliminates the need for structural members. Bally’s Speed-Lok construction allow the door to be assembled to the walk-in panels with ease and provides a sturdy structure that will last for years to come.


Kolpak Polar-Pak walk-in coolers boast rugged, high-performance construction. Modular panels of 4-in. 100% foamed-in-place non-CFC urethane foam off er superior insulating capabilities. Exterior and interior feature top-quality galvanized metal. Polar-Pak also offers improved air circulation around the coils, making the unit economical and efficient to run. Polar-Pak is flexible enough to be used in virtually any configuration. Some standard 7-ft.-6-in.H units are part of Kolpak’s Quick Ship Program and ship within seven days.


KPS Global introduces FUSIONFRAME, a new insulated polyurethane panel frame system for walk-in coolers that provides four times the R-value thermal performance and structural performance equal to or better than wood. The system’s structural and insulating properties extend the life of walk-in coolers while providing energy savings. FUSIONFRAME limits vapor infiltration, moisture absorption, condensation development and icing of joints, and reduces heat gain through the cooler envelope by up to 50%. The system is custom-built to spec for each order.


Master-Bilt walk-in coolers provide the right amount of temperature-controlled space. Choose from several types, from a minimum 36-sq.-ft. units to elaborate 10,000-sq.-ft. warehouses. Ready-Bilt models ship pre-assembled from the factory. Quick Ship walk-ins ship in fi ve business days after the order is received. 10-Bilt models off er more options and ship in 10 days after order receipt. Bilt2Spec walk-ins are custom built to fi t your application.


Nor-Lake’s Kold Locker line offers same-day shipment on most models with simple-to-install Capsule Pak refrigeration systems. Fast Trak models are available in unlimited length options, with fi ve-day shipping in many cases. Fineline models are custom-built to the buyer’s specifi cations, with any size, color, shape or metal finish desired.


Polar King walk-in coolers feature a seamless fi berglass design and are constructed specifically for outdoor use. NSF-certified walk-in coolers incorporate closed-cell polyisocyanurate foam insulation encased in fiberglass, inside and out. This construction method provides quality structural strength, R-values and lifetime energy savings. Polar King’s warranty provides 25-year coverage for the foam insulation and 12-year coverage for the structure.


Thermo-Kool designs its walk-in coolers for maximum customization, durability and performance. High-density Durathane panel design allows the ability to manufacture in 1-in. panel increments for flexibility to fi t unusual space configurations and maximize cold storage requirements. Thermo-Kool pre-assembles walk-ins prior to shipment to ensure a trouble-free and quick installation, with each panel securely locked in place so no cutting and pasting are required in the field.


Fastcooler is U.S. Cooler’s Quick Ship Program with in-stock models shipping within three to fi ve business days. They are made with the same precision and high-quality materials and designed to provide a quick delivery with a low cost. Fastcooler models include: indoor and outdoor options, floor and floorless options, vert-ergo handle, adjustable hinges, light switch, digital thermometer and numerous lengths and widths.


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