Let’s get one thing clear right off the bat: this 2020 refrigerator buying guide is going to be much different than others. Most focus on the same few things—style, specs, special features, energy usage, and so on. Combining decades of experience as appliance service technicians with a product engineer’s understanding of how these refrigerators are built and work, we have the expertise and unique perspective that’s needed to help you shop for your next refrigerator.
In this guide, we will clear away a lot of the fluff surrounding refrigerators and focus in on what really matters:
With this info, we hope to help you find a refrigerator you’ll love.
Note: we will be talking more about refrigerator brands than specific models. The major differences among refrigerators exist between brands, as most models within a brand are relatively the same, just tailored to different consumer preferences.
Before you do any more research about a brand of refrigerator, first check to see what service is available in your area (at the end of the guide, we provide a table with links to each brand’s service locator). There’s nothing worse than buying a product only to discover when it breaks, whether a year or ten after buying it, that there is no way to get it fixed where you live.
A secondary concern is how easy the manufacturer makes it to service the product, which can be the difference between a great repair experience and a lackluster one,* support which we also rate at the end of this guide.
As with cars, there is a lifetime cost of ownership when it comes to refrigerators, factoring in:
The generosity of the manufacturer warranty
At the end of guide, we provide a table that includes warranty info for each brand. Additional warranty related items to consider include:
Yes, longer more comprehensive warranties are better, but as well, a better warranty usually indicates that a brand will stand behind its customers as well as its product.
How often it will require service
We have data going back years and years and know a thing or two about the reliability of appliances. You can check out the table at the end of the guide for our reliability grades, but here are a couple quick ways to spot reliability:
Still, do check out our grades at the end of the guide.
The cost and availability of parts
Don’t worry, we won’t send you down the rabbit hole of researching compressor prices, because you honestly shouldn’t be thinking about that when buying a refrigerator. Yes, higher-end models tend to have more expensive parts, but that’s because those parts are higher quality and rigorously tested, meaning they are less likely to break again. Having to replace a $50 part twice is more expensive than replacing an $80 part once.
What you should be concerned with is the availability of parts. Low-end brands have a habit of discontinuing parts for “older” models. If they do and something important breaks on your refrigerator, you are out of luck, no matter how few years it’s been since you purchased the refrigerator. Which means it’s time to buy a new fridge.
The average lifespan before it needs to be replaced
The range for refrigerator lifespans is actually quite large. Some low-end refrigerators won’t last a decade, the average lifespan is around 13 or 14 years, and high end models can last up to 18 or 19 years. And then there is the cream of the crop, Sub-Zero refrigerators, which are built to last over 20 years, with some even making it into their 3rd decade when well-maintained. (By well-maintained, we mean that the owner cleans the refrigerator condenser at least annually, which, while we’re on the subject, front access condensers are preferable for being easier to maintain.) Those extra years save a lot money in the long run.
We don’t want to boil it down to just a question of weighing costs. As servicers, we’ve seen firsthand, time and again, how anxiety-inducing a malfunctioning refrigerator can be. Worrying about your groceries spoiling or your floors being damaged by a leak on top of unexpected expenses is a sure way to ruin a day. In other words, reliability has a value outside of money saved in terms of headaches avoided.
But there are other ways brands can make a product easier or harder to own:
At the end of the day, a fridge keeps food fresh. If you’re not buying your refrigerator with that top of mind, why are you buying a refrigerator?
Seriously, 40% of all food in America is thrown out, which can cost a family of four up to $1500 a year. A better refrigerator saves you money and trips to the store, while also reducing your impact on the environment.
Question is: how do you know how well a refrigerator will preserve food ahead of time? Simple. Refrigeration is the art of promptly bringing food to a temperature and humidity at which it will stay fresh, and keeping it in that narrow range.It’s a complicated art, so, no surprise, maintaining a consistent temperature and humidity is a function of the technology and engineering that goes into the refrigerator.
Thus, it’s pretty simple to create a checklist of technical features a refrigerator should have to make for a good food preserver:
Some brands might tout other bits of tech and innovation, but be warned. Most of it is just gimmicks and fluff, some of which, like door-in-door storage or energy saver switches, actually compromises the capabilities of the fridge.
As for the truly revolutionary tech, like LG’s linear compressor, while they do provide incremental improvement over traditional technologies, they almost always need revisions to approach the same level of reliability. We recommend not being guinea pigs for the first few iterations of a technology.
For more on best practices for storing food, check out our food storage infographic.
Let’s get one thing straight, energy efficiency is a complicated issue. Yes, you should narrow your search to ENERGY STAR® Certified refrigerators. And you should check to see whether any rebates and/or special offers are offered in your area for choosing an ENERGY STAR® product. But don’t get too caught up in energy usage.
So while you should consider the energy usage, we wouldn’t advise putting too much weight on energy usage. Your best bet is to find the right brand and focus on buying the right size of refrigerator for your household to save on energy costs.
What’s the right size? The rule of thumb is 4-6 cu. ft. of space per adult (children need less space), with a little extra room since manufacturers overestimate their capacity claims.
You may think you need the extra room, but who really needs to store a full sheet cake flat on a shelf? If you do opt smaller, make sure it has adjustable shelving so you don’t further limit your ability to store various items.
That’s right, appliances can be an investment in your home. A recent Zillow report showed that homes with professional-grade appliances had sale prices that were 29% higher than similar homes without professional-grade appliances. Homes with Sub-Zero refrigerators saw an even more amazing 38% boost to sale price.
Why? Well, for one, high-end appliances provide a lot of utility and value to homeowners. The kitchen is the beating heart of most homes, and appliances are what make them run. So the better the appliance, the better the home. For another, high-end models are exceptionally beautiful status symbols. So it stands to reason that homebuyers would pay a premium for homes with professional-grade appliances.
And guess who else gets to enjoy these benefits as long as they own the house? You!
So if you’re considering some home renovations to increase the value of your property, just remember, replacing your appliances requires a whole lot less headaches and work than, say, remodeling a bathroom.
Some folks still get sticker shock when they see a $3000 refrigerator, but we want to encourage you to think in a different way about the cost of refrigerators. Remember, this is a product that is performing an essential task for your household, 24/7, for 14 years on average. When you break the $3000 down, that means you are ultimately paying $0.59 a day for fresh food, or $17.85 a month. Even a top-of-the-line Sub-Zero costing $10,000 and lasting 20 years or more costs only $1.37 per day and $41.64 per month. That’s a pretty cheap subscription service right there if you ask us.
And then you have to consider all the other added value and savings. Let’s assume, after reading this guide, you’re still not convinced it’s worth buying a $3000 Bosch refrigerator over a $1000 Whirlpool refrigerator.
Starting with food preservation, the Whirlpool refrigerator will be perfectly average at preserving food and the Bosch will outperform it every day. Buying the Bosch will cut down on your food waste, which as a reminder can cost a family of four $1500 a year. If it is conservatively 10% better at preserving food, it could save you $150 a year. Add that up over the Bosch’s 18-year lifetime and you’ve saved $2700 on food over the Whirlpool.
Then factor in that the Bosch refrigerator is very likely to break down less often than the Whirlpool, is covered by a far more generous warranty, and can offer better service support (i.e. less failed repairs), and you’re looking to save more money. According to Angie’s List, the average cost of refrigerator repair is $300, so even one or two less non-warranty service calls and you’re saving hundreds of dollars. And, of course, the Bosch refrigerator will have a longer lifespan, meaning it will still be running when the Whirlpool needs to be replaced.
Finally, the Bosch refrigerator will be adding value to your home (increasing sale price) and your life (the pleasure of owning it). Clearly, the cost of owning a refrigerator is more complicated than the price tag in the store, but price generally corresponds to quality, without the exorbitant markups you find in other industries.
Brand Customer Support Product Reliability How It Performs Warranty Service Locator 1 year limited, +1 year for non-electronic parts, +4 years on electronic parts 1 year limited, +2 years if registered in 60 days 1 year limited 1 year limited, +4 years on sealed system repairs 1 year limited (3 for SxS models), +9 years on compressor parts 1 year limited, +4 year for sealed system parts, +9 years for digital inverter compressor parts Full 2 year, full 5 on sealed system repairs, 12 year limited on sealed system parts 2 year limited, +4 years for sealed system repairs, +10 years on sealed system parts 3 year limited, +3 years for sealed system repairs 1 year limited, +1 year if registered in 2 months, +4 years on sealed system repairs 1 year limited, +4 years on sealed system repairs 1 year limited, +4 years on sealed system repairs 1 year limited, +4 years on sealed system repairs 1 year limited, +4 years on sealed system repairs
This one will matter less to the average customer than it will to the DIYers of the world, but it will impact their experience of the product, as no one enjoys having to call a servicer back out again and again because a problem hasn’t been fixed. Sometimes that’s on the servicer for not doing their job well, sometimes it’s because the manufacturer hasn’t given all the relevant information.
Samsung is the standout in this category, providing exhaustive documentation including diagrams for the components of their control boards. Other brands like Whirlpool will often offer no more troubleshooting than: “Change main board. Change User Interface board next. Change Motor control board next.” In other words, a procedural plan for part-swapping, rather than useful reference voltages and test data to fully diagnose the appliances in question.
Some manufacturers that score lowest in this category simply don’t offer tech support documents online at all, due to the size of the company. In the case of Frigidaire/Electrolux, there is data, but the bulletins and manuals aren’t indexed to the product model, making it nearly useless to a technician.