How to Diagnose Walk-in Refrigerators and Freezers in Your Restaurant

Common symptoms usually point to a potential cause and its solution.

Walk-in refrigeration spaces for food storage are great for businesses, but run into problems from time to time, just like any other appliance. Diagnosing common maintenance issues with commercial freezers or refrigerators may not be as difficult as it seems. Some common symptoms usually point to a potential cause and its solution.

Indicators of Common Commercial Freezer Problems

Some key indicators point to maintenance issues in commercial freezers and refrigerators. These signs are good to know for employees as well as managers and owners, as the warning signs will be easier to deal with.

For example, a walk-in fridge or freezer will generally be quite power hungry, but keep an eye out for gradual increases in electricity consumption. This may indicate that the device is having trouble regulating its temperature. Ice may build up inside the coils or the compressor may wear out, making the fridge or freezer less energy efficient.

Abnormal amounts of ice or water buildup inside the refrigerator or freezer are also major signs that something is wrong. A device that creates a particularly high amount of noise may also experience mechanical problems. Any unintended temperature fluctuation should not be ignored, including when a commercial freezer or refrigerator struggles to maintain a consistent temperature.

These symptoms usually have something to do with one of a few common, easily diagnosed commercial refrigeration problems. Once managers identify the problem, they can take steps to fix it properly.

Food storage refrigeration temperature issues

Potential cause: Evaporator, compressor or door seals

One of the most common commercial refrigeration issues for food storage is temperature control. Typical signs of a regulation problem include fluctuations or a unit that is consistently too hot or too cold. Maybe the thermostat is set to a certain temperature but the refrigerator or walk-in freezer can’t meet it.

This can be the result of a few different mechanical issues. The easiest to spot is a problem with the cold room door seals. Gaskets that are aging, wearing out, peeling, falling off the door, moldy, or in substandard condition may be the culprit. Be sure to check the door seals and hinges, as these can cause the door to not close properly or not at all if it needs repair.

Door seals that are in optimal condition may mean a problem with the evaporator or compressor of the commercial freezer or refrigerator. The evaporator is responsible for regulating the amount of humidity in the device. Spools can wear out or clog due to ice buildup. This can force the compressor to work in overdrive to compensate for the reduced airflow through the evaporator. Unfortunately, this can cause the temperature to fluctuate or increase above the desired setpoint.

Accumulation of water in the refrigerator or freezer

Potential cause: evaporator pan, door seals or drain

Water buildup in a commercial freezer or refrigerator may be due to user error or a mechanical problem. It can show up as puddles on the floor of a walk-in food storage space or as excessive condensation in containers or shelves. The food may spoil more quickly than usual and the temperature is likely to be higher than it should be.

Diagnosing this problem can often be as simple as looking at the amount of food stored in the fridge or freezer. It can be easy to lose track of how much food is packed into a certain space, especially with something as large as this. However, each device has its limitations. A fridge with too much food inside can have a hard time keeping everything cold.

This is another case where the door seals may be at fault, as well as the activity of the fridge or freezer. Doors opened too often will inevitably start having performance issues. Gaskets that are not up to standard can cause air to leak inside or out, upsetting the internal temperature.

If fixing any of these issues does not resolve the water buildup problem, the cause is likely a mechanical malfunction. The drain, evaporator pan, or condenser coil may have failed. The condenser is responsible for removing heat from the refrigerator or freezer. If it’s clogged or doesn’t have good airflow, it will have a hard time getting heat out of the unit. This is why good air circulation inside and outside commercial refrigeration spaces for food storage is so important.

Ice buildup in a commercial freezer

Potential cause: Evaporator or defrost cycle

Sometimes a commercial freezer can get too good at its job and start accumulating ice and frost inside. At first glance, this may not seem serious. After all, the freezer is supposed to keep things frozen. However, poor temperature regulation can mean that a food storage space is not up to industry and government standards, posing a food safety risk. This is a major concern in the United States today, so any abnormal performance should be taken seriously.

Ice buildup is often caused by a problem with the evaporator or the defrost cycle of the commercial freezer. A key sign that this is the cause is a noisy fan. Additionally, the coils inside the evaporator could also be clogged or malfunctioning, resulting in poor heat and humidity regulation. Freezer coils can potentially indicate a pressure problem, but it usually requires a professional inspection to identify it for sure.

It is also important whether or not the freezer has an automated defrost cycle or not. The ice buildup could very well be due to the lack of automatic defrost. Without this feature, employees will need to regularly defrost the coils to keep them working properly.

Solve Food Storage Refrigeration Problems

When a commercial freezer or refrigerator isn’t working properly, it can be easy to get nervous, especially when food is at risk of spoiling. Fortunately, most problems fall into one of the common categories that are easily diagnosed. Focus on a close inspection of the problem at hand. Identification is half the battle to fix it, so maintainers must take one clue at a time to get their device back on track.

Karl M. Bailey