Top Freezer versus Side-by-Side Refrigerators

Learn more about the benefits and drawbacks of top-freezer and side-by-side refrigerators.

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With its separate compartment for frozen foods and holding ice, the top freezer refrigerator is a traditional part of the American kitchen and household. Side-by-side refrigerator models came next offering an organized layout and modern appearance. Aside from nostalgia, consider your budget, size of household, and space in weighing the advantages and disadvantages of top freezer and side by side refrigerators.


By style, top-mounted refrigerators carry the lowest prices. Depending on the brand, space, the number of compartments, and other features, these units commonly run between $500 and $1,000. By opting for built-in icemakers, you can expect to add between $25 and $100 to the cost of the refrigerator. Side-by-side units have higher prices because of features such as external ice and water dispensers, and larger size options.

Capacity Inside the Refrigerator

Top freezer refrigerators generally offer more usable storage space than other types of units, especially for their width. A typical top freezer model spans 30 to 33 inches in width. Side-by-side and French door models can run between 30 and 36 inches wide. In units with in-the-door dispensers, the housing for dispenser parts and components occupies space otherwise available for storage.

While some side-by-side refrigerators have a greater overall width, the vertical sections are narrower than top freezer units because one side is devoted to frozen items. Top freezer models can more readily store pizza or large dessert boxes with wider doors and storage areas. Also, cooks can refrigerate long platters waiting to be baked or served.

Door Swing

Top freezer refrigerators have large doors that swing out the full width of the refrigerator. This means you will have a less available room to maneuver in the kitchen when the refrigerator door is open.

In narrow or small kitchens, the side-by-side refrigerators fit better because the doors are split down the middle of the unit. When the door opens, it is not as wide. Consequently, the side-by-side selections need less clearance for opening doors than top freezer models. If you have an island, dining table, or bar in the center of your kitchen, you might have difficulty fully opening a top freezer model.

Energy Use

Energy efficiency constitutes a plus for top-freezer refrigerators. The California Energy Commission states that refrigerators account for 13.7 percent of a household's energy use. Only air conditioners use more, at 16 percent. These units typically consume less energy than others because the temperatures behind the freezer door don't change much, especially when the door is shut.

At first blush, in-the-door ice dispensers seem efficient because users need not open a freezer door to fill cups with ice. The more freezer doors remain closed, the more constant the temperatures remain. However, according to the California Energy Commission, the dispensers add about 14 to 20 percent to a refrigerator's energy use.

Filtered Water

With their own water and ice dispensers, side-by-side models contain their own water filters. At first blush, the absence of the dispensers on top freezer models might be a drawback. However, according to Consumer Reports, replacing filters for side-by-side refrigerators could add $50 and $100 per year to operating costs. However, top freezer models do not offer filtered water, so you need to find another way to get fresh water.

Maintenance Costs

Owners of refrigerators with icemakers, especially in side-by-side models, can face considerable repair expenses. According to Consumer Reports, higher repair rates come with ice maker units. A 2011 “Repair or Replace” survey noted that top and bottom freezer refrigerators without an icemaker underwent repairs at a 15 percent rate. For refrigerators with icemakers, that rate was 28 percent. Side-by-side units were repaired at a 36 percent clip, according to the report.

Reaching Items

A drawback of a top-mounted refrigerator lies in having to bend or squat for most items. Refrigerators devote more space to refrigeration than frozen items. In a top freezer unit, most of the non-frozen items are stored below eye level. With side-by-side refrigerator models, you get the benefit of organization. Since the refrigerator and freezer sections split in the middle, some fresh and frozen food is at eye level.

When you shop for a refrigerator, keep in mind its essential function. Refrigerators keep foods fresh and preserved. If kitchen space does not present a challenge, a top freezer refrigerator affords an economical and efficient method of storing your perishable foods. Side-by-side models offer different options and benefits. There is a perfect fridge for every home.