Refrigerator tests and reliability ratings
This report covers full-size refrigerators. If you're looking for a dorm fridge or other small refrigerator, see our report on mini fridges.
Very few professional reviewers do extensive comparison testing of refrigerators, but ConsumerReports.org is a notable exception. Testing is reasonable, balanced and clearly explained. Editors name best choices in a variety of refrigerator types, and top values are also singled out. The Good Housekeeping Research Institute conducts refrigerator tests as well, but its lineup is limited to 21 French-door and side-by-side models, and energy consumption isn't measured. Still, it offers considerably more discussion of each refrigerator's pros and cons than ConsumerReports.org.
Some overseas testing organizations, such as the U.K.'s Which? and Australia's Choice magazines, perform good comparative testing of refrigerators. Many of the brands covered are sold in the United States but model numbers are different, making those reviews less useful to U.S. consumers.
One of the biggest issues with refrigerators is their long-term reliability, which professional reviewers often can't evaluate. That's why user reviews play an especially important role in pointing the way to the best refrigerators. Sites where you can read owner reviews include BestBuy.com, AJMadison.com, Sears.com, HomeDepot.com and Viewpoints.com. General fridge discussions and recommendations -- focusing mostly on brands rather than specific models -- can be found at user forums about appliances like the one at GardenWeb.com.
Speaking of reliability, certain refrigerators -- and features -- are more problem-prone than others. Through-the-door ice makers and water dispensers are especially likely to affect reliability. According to owner surveys, 20 percent of refrigerators with these features end up needing repair. Those with interior ice makers can also be problematic, but not as much as side-by-side or French-door refrigerators with a dispenser in the door.
Among refrigerators with ice makers, GE-branded models receive the worst reliability ratings in owner reviews. According to one survey, all GE refrigerators -- top- and bottom-freezers and side-by-sides, with and without ice makers -- are more likely to require repairs more frequently than other fridges of the same type. Whirlpool and Kenmore, by contrast, seem to be the most reliable refrigerator brands overall.
Energy efficiency is another big consideration. Fridges bearing the Energy Star label are at least 20 percent more efficient than the minimum federal requirements for a refrigerator of their type. One particular brand, Sun Frost, can trounce most Energy Star models, beating the federal standards by as much as 53 percent. The refrigerator buying guide at PlanetGreen.com, a part of the Discovery.com network, praises the Sun Frost RF19 (*Est. $2,800) for its energy-saving design and ability to connect to solar power systems. However, we could find no professional tests or user reviews to confirm that this refrigerator's performance matches its efficiency.
A word about refrigerator drawers
Refrigerator drawers are specialty refrigerators that can be mounted under a kitchen counter or in an island. Most models have two drawers, but single- and triple-drawer units are also available. While they don't include freezers, refrigerator drawers can add extra cold storage in the kitchen or to a wet bar. Experts, however, say they're generally not the best choice. Such drawers provide only 3 to 6 cubic feet of capacity, far less space than a freestanding fridge, yet cost more overall -- anywhere from $1,200 to $2,600. They don't cost very much to run, but considering their small size, they're actually very inefficient. Experts say you can get a better deal by buying a compact refrigerator at a fraction of the cost.