Anyone looking to invest in a built in refrigerator needs answers to a few simple questions: Which refrigerator is best? How long will it last? What’s the warranty? Can I get service in my area? Is the service reliable and prompt? And perhaps most important: how can I get the best deal? The last question is key today when a built in refrigerator is likely to eat up $5000 to $12,000 of the kitchen appliance budget. And since the size and design of a cabinet for the fridge is specific to the brand and preferred installation style, complexities and costs multiply.
This last fact came as a nasty surprise to me recently. Our 10-year old 36-inch Viking built with a bottom freezer [below] needed multiple repairs, following a major repair last year. The gasket had split, the freezer basket was starting to rust and the main crisper drawer no longer functioned properly. We decided to cut our losses and replace.
Some people go to the appliance store, take the salesman’s advice and purchase what’s recommended. Or, they buy based on price. Others, like me, do research and feel compelled to digest the high end (built in) refrigerator market, which offers close to a dozen brands. Built in refrigerators are definitely a first world consideration with an escalating variety of features and marketing claims. They are desirable because they can take cabinet panels that permit them to fit flush and blend into the cabinets. Here at Atticmag we call that Refrigeration in Disguise and it can get elaborate. Those of us who are happy with stainless steel doors, want a “pro” refrigeration look and performance, and prefer dual compressors, or all-fridge and all-freezer units will also go with built ins.
My old fridge had a stainless steel door. It was installed in an existing cabinet measuring 84-inches high, 36-inches wide and 24-inches deep. It was flanked by pantry cabinets on each side and — importantly — fit flush with those cabinets.
Only the handle of the old fridge protruded. But it quickly became clear was that no new refrigerator would fit flush. Over the past ten years, as built in refrigerators became more popular, installation requirements have changed. At 24-inches, my cabinet is not deep enough for a new refrigerator to fit flush.
Today, the most critical measurement for any built in refrigerator is cabinet depth. The exact depth requires varies by brand and model. For an integral (flush) refrigerator (with or without cabinet panels) the cabinet requirement is about 26-plus inches deep. Alternately, there is the standard installation — more or less equivalent to a slide in — where a frame covers the edge of the cabinet all around [below].
With a standard installation, the thickness of the doors, vent grill (if any), and the handles sit “proud” or in front of cabinets. Standard installation cabinet depth ranges from 24-inches to 25-plus inches. (This showroom example should fit more snugly but it does show the frame).
I found a photo of a standard installation to gauge how it would look in my kitchen.
Armed with that information I could consider Bosch, Thermador, Miele, GE and Sub Zero built ins. All those brands made models that would fit. That sounds easy but it wasn’t. The specification sheets also showed that the electrical outlet behind my refrigerator and possibly the water line would need to be moved. Those requirements change from brand to brand. I spent about 10 days researching, studying spec sheets, and determining which refrigerators to see in person. I also spent time discussing options on Garden Web’s appliance forum where helpful suggestions were made.
At the appliance stores I examined interior set ups, lighting, door style, and build quality of each refrigerator. Primarily, I chewed on whether to go with a French door to improve clearance on the aisle, or stick with the single-door style I had. After opening and closing French doors in the showrooms, I knew it wasn’t for me.
One dealer near my house had most of the brands on display. Additionally, they had built ins which weren’t installed in cabinets so I was able to see the frames and exposed sides. That helped me understand exactly how the new fridge would fit. Most important, I was able to compare the build quality, which varied a lot while prices were surprisingly close. With some brands it was difficult to understand what I would be paying for.
My choice narrowed to Miele and Sub Zero single-door fridges with bottom freezer — the same configuration as the old fridge. Each offered dual compressors, great lighting, standard installation. Each required a small alternation in the cabinet or electrical outlet. Both required a professional installer who could adjust the cabinets — a substantial additional cost. SZ [above] had an extra door shelf and crisper drawer I preferred though I didn’t love the honkin big grill at the top.
Miele had amazing lighting, no ugly vent and a great freezer layout but only 1 crisper drawer. The warranties were similar, service for both brands is excellent in our area. SZ was about 15% more expensive without 15% more features or quality that I could discern. However, the reputation and prestige of the brand might help if we ever sold our house.
I had done my due diligence on all the important points: installation style, door style, interior, warranty, service, quality, price. After consulting by phone with the respective tech support departments, I went with Miele [top photo] after Sub Zero told me that power outages, which happen several times a year in our area, might cause the controller board to eventually fail. The dealer, who sells a lot of Sub Zero, didn’t appreciate hearing that but it was impressive that the company told me the truth.
The switch out took about four hours. The night before I had covered all the floors with red rosin paper, wrapped the peninsula across the aisle from the fridge with moving blankets, and taped another blanket across the counter. I’d stripped the fridge. As a precaution I put a second layer of red rosin paper in the area directly in front of the refrigerator. Lucky I did.
When it was time to wheel the old fridge out of the kitchen, they tipped it onto the dolly and water poured out onto the floor. I forgot to remove the drain pan and so did the installer! It mopped up fairly easily and the floor was not affected.
Both the electrical outlet and the water line required relocation. Additionally, a mounting board the Viking needed had to be removed from the top of the wall. The installation went smoothly until the very end, when the fridge could not be completely pushed into the cabinet. The base molding had to be cut back and routered out so the frame could be properly recessed into the cabinet base molding. I’d measured the bottom but though the frame would fit against it.
My heart was in my mouth as the installer pried off the painted cabinet molding off on each side. Considering the level of difficulty and the delicacy of a painted finish, the result was excellent. Apart from a few discreet scratches, it’s difficult to see any change.
The new fridge is now two months old. Our decision to replace was right. We love the great lighting and the additional space gained by placing drink cartons on the bottom shelf of the door. Food — especially delicate salad greens — stays in prime condition for much longer. Mr. AM’s ice cream is held at the perfect temperature for scooping and he prefers the deeper ice basket because no pieces fly out when it’s opened. I miss the meat drawer but the new refrigerator is a great improvement. My only lingering doubt was whether I should have gone for the “Remote Vision” module that would permit Miele to monitor the operation wirelessly. I decided to pass on that. When the power goes out, the internet goes down. After the last ten years of constant appliance repairs, the last thing I need is emails telling me that something went wrong again in the kitchen.
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