There are a lot of different kinds of refrigerators out there. There are the obvious differences like color, size, door configuration. And then there are the not so obvious or common differences like counter-depth, built-in, and integrated models. So begins our tale.
Our refrigerator search began with one layout requirement: single (not French) door, bottom freezer. I don’t understand why anyone would want a top freezer - you access the refrigerator more often than the freezer, so why should the freezer be at eye level and the refrigerator be at waist level? But evidently the marketplace disagrees because single door, bottom freezer models seem to be much less common than their inverted counterparts.
Refrigerators are like children: they should be neither seen nor heard (and should chill the hell out).
The next obstacle in the search for a suitable refrigerator is that refrigerators look like crap. I’m not sure why anyone wants to see 18 square feet of refrigerator staring back at them. Whether it’s stainless steel or builder-grade beige, it’s still unsightly. And don’t even get me started on any sort of dispensing through the door(s) nonsense.
So if you want a refrigerator that doesn’t make you want to throw up when you look at it, your options are to spend ungodly amounts of money on a showpiece refrigerator that’s at least about as nice looking as 20-30 square feet of steel gets, or pay slightly less than ungodly to get an integrated refrigerator that ends up disappearing entirely behind cabinetry.
Built-In vs. Integrated
It’s important to note that when considering refrigerators, “built-in” and “integrated” are not the same thing. It’s sort of like rectangles and squares: every integrated refrigerator is built-in but not every built-in refrigerator is integrated. A built-in refrigerator is meant to be fully enclosed in a cavity, but doesn’t necessarily sit flush with the surrounding cabinetry; it may protrude a bit. And while it may accept panels, it also likely has a ventilation panel at the top that adds extra busyness to its look, and often trim around the door panels that is still seen even with a custom panel insert. If you’ve ever seen a kitchen where a refrigerator’s doors are covered with with panels/cabinetry, but you still see metal frames around it all - that’s built-in. I wonder why people even bother with built-in. If you’re going for that look, go fully integrated. Built-in units are often even more expensive than integrated, so it’s not like you’re sacrificing looks for price. You’re paying more to look worse.
Integrated is beautiful. An integrated refrigerator is hidden completely behind custom cabinetry panels. There’s no exposed vent grill. There’s no exposed frame. It’s flush with its surroundings. All you see is cabinetry. If you’re going to panel something (a refrigerator, a dishwasher) why not do it so it’s fully concealed?
There’s a bit of a third, more nebulous member of this group: “counter-depth”. Once again, almost all integrated (and even many built-in) refrigerators are considered counter-depth. But there are a cheaper , more mainstream counter-depth refrigerators to be had as well. Counter-depth refrigerators solve the problem of your refrigerator sticking several inches out past your cabinets. Some are truly counter depth — typically 24 inches deep — while others are simply less offensively fat but still stick out a bit. It’s not a particularly well defined or rigid product category.
If you take a typical mainstream refrigerator and make it counter depth you end up losing a lot of space. The higher end built-in and integrated models end up being much larger - typically around 80 inches tall — to make up for the lost depth (and also to make room above or below for their compression systems which aren’t at the rear like normal refrigerators). When you go with an integrated, built-in, or counter-depth refrigerator, you typically want to go wider to make up for the lost depth.
The whole reason that built-in and integrated refrigerators even exist (besides looking neat) is because in order to fully encase a refrigerator into a recess, it has to work differently than a typical refrigerator. The unit has to ventilate itself from the front (typically through a prominent top vent grill on built-in units or a bottom hidden vent on integrated units) because the sides, top and back will be enclosed and restricted from air flow. If you tried to take a typical refrigerator and build cabinetry all around it for a built-in look, you would probably end up damaging the unit as it won’t have enough air flow where it expects it to properly function and would overheat.
There are lots of companies that make high end refrigerators but the leader is definitely Sub-Zero. They make incredibly beautiful, incredibly expensive appliances. It’s almost de rigueur for a high end home to have a Sub-Zero refrigerator. Of course, ours is not a high end home. Ours is a funky 60’s mess that we’re slowly updating. In an already inflated budget, a Sub-Zero was out of the question from the start. But with our splurge on high end cabinetry, we felt like sticking a typical stainless steel mass market fridge on a wall would ruin the look and the feel we were going for. So while a Sub-Zero wasn’t an option, we’d set our hearts on an integrated refrigerator.
On the plus side, the market for fully integrated, single door bottom freezer refrigerators is relatively small. It’s not like wading through thousands of regular refrigerators for a given size/layout. On the minus side, these babies aren’t cheap, even once you rule out Sub-Zero. You’re probably paying three to four (to five) times more than the typical Home Depot/Sears/etc. offering.
Once you start researching this segment of the market, you quickly find that there are several distinct brands, but fewer distinct manufacturers. If you buy a Thermador, Bosh, Gaggenau, or Miele for instance, the same company (BSH) actually builds them all, they just have subtle detail differences between the brands, but the unit is by and large the same (especially the inner workings). GE Monogram, KitchenAid, Jenn-Air, Viking, and many more offer their own high-end refrigerators, although I’m not familiar with who is responsible for the actual manufacturing behind these. We looked at Liebherr (which is distinct from and slightly less than the BSH brands) but every single floor model we’ve ever seen had a nasty funk in it. Every single one. So we nixed them early on.
In the end, we decided on Thermador as our choice. We saw one in person and were hooked. We felt it was a substantially nicer build quality than Liebherr, has slightly nicer touches than its Bosch cousin, and is a bit more budget-friendly than the all-stainless interior of the Gaggenau cousin (although that was tempting).
We tried three times to purchase one through ebay (twice even going for a French door model - trying to sacrifice a bit of style for the budget) but we learned quickly that for major purchases, if you’re not using 3rd party bidding systems, ebay is basically a rigged game. And even saving a couple thousand dollars off of the retail price, paying thousands of dollars for something sight unseen with questionable warranty status and condition is a big gamble. So after a few failed attempts at that, we’re biting the bullet and getting our refrigerator new.
We’re buying it locally. Initially we resisted looking at buying appliances locally, since the lure of free shipping and no tax online is strong. But with several high-end brands, including Thermador, many online retailers are restricted in their shipping area by the manufacturer. In the end, we’ll pay roughly the same as the online retail price; tax included (with a builder discount). And we’ll have the peace of mind of professional installation on something you don’t just slide into the corner and plug in.
It’s our other big splurge of the project but we think the integrated refrigerator, hidden seamlessly behind our beautiful walnut cabinets, is going to look amazing.