Refrigerator Types by Design – What Type and Style of Refrigerator Are You Looking For?

We’ve all seen a modern refrigerator, the type that has a freezer on the left, cold storage on the right. There are variations, of course. Some have a fridge on bottom and a (usually much smaller) freezer above. Is that it? On to brand, price, features, and so forth? Hardly.

It turns out that pair do not exhaust the alternatives, and learning about all the options can do more than save you money. It can help you select a type that suits much more closely your family’s ideal lifestyle.

Freezerless Refrigerators

One type of refrigerator that few of us probably have ever seen deserves the name better than any other. This type is a fridge and nothing but a fridge; it has no freezer at all.

Why would anyone want that? It should come as no surprise that there are actually several pros to this type, along with the obvious cons.

They tend to be much lower cost than the more common 2/3 fridge – 1/3 freezer style we’re all familiar with. They’re cheaper to manufacture. For one reason, because the insulation and heat-extraction technology required is much simpler.

Still, since you tend to own a fridge for many years (20 or more in some cases), that lower initial cost probably isn’t a major benefit to most buyers. More important is the fact that, lacking the freezer portion, you can have a truly huge cold storage space for the same price.

Some of the cons are obvious, perhaps one or two less so.

One blazingly plain negative is that nearly everyone is going to need a freezer some of the time, these days more than ever. It’s very rare for any family never to use some frozen foods, even if that only consists of ice cubes. And even if you eat nothing but fresh meats, or fruits and vegetables, just about anyone is going to want to store them at very low temperature once in a while.

One less obvious drawback is that a freezer can be used for much more than low-temp food storage. Some medicines, certain hobby items, and the occasional school science project will call for a freezer.

You can, of course, fulfill those needs by buying a separate freezer – and that’s not necessarily a bad way to go. But it does require extra space, typically quite a bit. Hence the reason standalone freezers so often end up in the garage or a special room. They also are usually more expensive, when you add the cost of the two appliances together, than a standard refrigerator/freezer combination.

So, assuming you opt for the more usual route and get the common combination appliance, which style is best? Naturally, that depends on a host of things: budget, available space and kitchen layout, personal taste, and other factors.

Top Mount Refrigerators

From about the 1930s to the 1970s, there was really only one type of fridge/freezer combination: the top mount. This uber-traditional style has the (much smaller proportion) freezer on top and the refrigerator on the bottom.

It’s not common knowledge but this wasn’t always so, and for very good scientific reasons. Refrigerators do not directly “colden” the interior. Rather, the refrigerator (and/or freezer) extract(s) heat from the interior and propels it into the room. On balance, the total system is warmer (as required by a law of physics). But, the area you care most about – inside – does have a lower temperature as a result.

Apart from that, heat always flows “spontaneously” from hotter areas to colder areas; that’s another physical law. So, since the space inside the fridge is warmer than the freezer (by design), the refrigerator space tends to heat the freezer. And, since “heat rises”, it’s always less efficient to have the freezer on top. That’s all before you come to consider the motor and the heat it generates.

Consumer preferences, for many years, outweighed these engineering realities. And, it’s still a popular style today. But there are more variations today, as we’ll see.

Science aside, and the costs associated with working around the facts above, it’s pretty convenient to have the frozen dinners with easy reach. The elderly and the back-injured especially appreciate not having to bend over. On the flip side, one might have to bend more often to get things out of a lower drawer from the refrigerator section.

You can open the compartments separately, natch, which keeps the temperatures inside more stable and the appliance operating efficiently. But the freezer compartments of this style tend to be smaller these days. In days past, when they were larger, things often got tucked in back and then piled on top of by other items (where they were usually forgotten about for months).

In our grandparents’ day buyers just accepted that. Today, we demand much more storage space, and more usability, especially of the freezer section. Microwavable foods, sporting lifestyles (fishing, muscle-injury icepacks, and more), and many more modern habits all contribute to that.

Bottom Mount Refrigerators

The bottom mount refrigerator might seem be essentially the same type, just with the positions reversed. True, to an extent. But there’s more here than simply reversing the two compartments.

A bottom mount may or may not be more efficient. If, as is still very often the case, the motor is on the underside, thermal efficiency is still less than optimal. Much of the heat from the motor might go into the bottom compartment. That’s one reason that electric-motor-powered fridges from 100 years ago actually had the motor on top!

Thanks to modern insulation materials and engineering, that’s less important than it used to be. Only a small amount of extra electricity is required to keep the freezer at the right temperature today.

What’s more important to the average buyer today is that bottom mount freezer compartments tend to be larger than those of yesteryear. Manufacturers have tended to allot a larger portion for the freezer section, or simply to make a larger overall unit in this style. As a result, you can get more uber-cold storage space with this style.

There also tend to be more shelves or sub-compartments – handy for storing caught fish, ice cream, and other foods away from the stuff you might want to grab more readily. Ok, maybe that’s not true of ice cream, but you can imagine your own examples.

Oddly, this type does tend to be more costly. It’s not entirely clear why – probably just a fad, since it doesn’t really cost more to make. In any case, be prepared to pay a little extra if this is your preferred style of refrigerator.

Another possible downside… Depending on the model, a bottom mount freezer compartment is sometimes accessed by pulling out a large drawer. That makes the items stored inherently harder to reach than a swinging door you can step around.

Side-By-Side Refrigerators

Far and away, the most popular style of refrigerator of the past few decades has been the side by side type – freezer on the left (usually) and refrigerator on the right. No doubt that’s the result of a combination of things: economics, engineering, and – back then – simply a desire for something different by consumers.

Of course, what was once different is now more or less standard. Even so, the side-by-side does have certain inherent advantages.

For one thing, manufacturers (and therefore consumers) have a choice of how much space to devote to which side. Some models offer about the same capacity for each; most favor the refrigerator side (in a ratio of about 2:1).

Another advantage is gained by geometry and kitchen layouts. A side-by-side invariably has doors that swing open by opening outward from the middle.

That design method often solves the problem of allowing a large refrigerator door to swing wide all the way. Less likelihood of cabinets blocking the ability to open it safely all the way. That’s especially appreciated by apartment dwellers, but it’s often a big benefit to those who live in houses as well.

One potential downside to this style, more likely to affect those same apartment dwellers, is the size limitation. Side-by-side refrigerators rarely come in the smaller capacity that might be enough for a particular buyer, while taking up no more than the needed space. It’s rare to find a model less than 22 cubic feet of interior space.

One other limitation of the side-by-side, one we tend to overlook after so many years of being in common use, is that each section tends to be much more narrow. A top mount or bottom mount fridge typically has wider shelves.

That’s often a small compromise. We don’t usually store big sides of beef or long fish in the freezer today. However, if you favor large platters, that can be a problem. The older style had that advantage and it can be a big one for some buyers today.

As or more important, to some buyers anyway, the side-by-side refrigerator type tends to come in models with many more features.

Ice/Water Dispenser

If you want an external ice and/or water dispenser – so you can get a few cubes or a bit of filtered water without opening the door(s) – a side-by-side fridge is the more likely option. There are specialized top mount or bottom mount refrigerators that offer these extras, but they’re rare and usually more expensive.

Here again, it’s not clear why. If the feature can be designed into a swinging freezer door that is long vertically, it could be made in one that is longer horizontally. The ice cube/water dispenser components themselves are not large. But, that’s the way it is for whatever reason. Specialty models always cost much more.

Water Filters

Filters for the water are therefore usually found only in this model. If you want filtered water – important in some locales, essential in a few – without having to buy a supply at the store, this is your best option.

There is a possible drawback, however. Not everyone remembers, or is willing, to replace the filter on schedule. If you don’t, the water you get might be worse than unfiltered water straight out of the tap.

To keep the water free of chlorine, iron, or even calcium carbonate (the common white, chalky stuff that forms what we call “hard” water) you have to change it regularly. That’s an expense – usually $30-$50 today – and one more thing to remember to do every six months or so.

Shelves, Drawers, and Compartments

Some top mount model refrigerators, and many bottom mount styles, offer numerous shelves and compartments for the freezer. Side-by-side fridges always do. Most buyers consider that a benefit, especially since you can typically move or remove shelves in the freezer if you want a larger open space.

Similarly, though most refrigerators of any style offer drawers and door compartments today, a side-by-side model will usually offer better ones. Sometimes they’re larger. Often, they are more flexible, able to be rearranged. Some pull out; a few will swing out; others will flip up (or even down). Whatever the specific options, you almost always get more variation in a side-by-side.

French Door Refrigerators

A more recent style (at least in the U.S.) is the French Door refrigerator. It offers some of the advantages of one model above, blended with benefits from another.


For example, one popular variation is a fridge with cold storage at the left, another at the right – and an additional freezer at the bottom. The two different top compartments can typically be set to different temperatures.

This type may devote the top 2/3 of the total space to the usual compartments, with 1/3 allocated to the freezer below. If you have a lot of varying-temp storage needs, this can be a great alternative.

There’s even a type that offers two compartments at the bottom rather than one. This is the so-called 4-door style versus the more common 3-door style.

Not surprisingly, this type of refrigerator is (currently) often much more expensive than the more usual options. Often, but not always. Also, as tastes change, that could change as well.


Future models of refrigerator will no doubt incorporate Internet-style technology. You could, for example, “program” your fridge to thaw certain items in an interior section in advance of arriving home. In some instances, and in smaller ways, the future is here. You can see that with the controls and display on some contemporary refrigerator models.

For now, the major types of refrigerator/freezer are more often variations on geometry. Still, even in their relatively “primitive” versions, they’ve served us well. You might prefer a top mount, a bottom mount, a side-by-side, or a French style refrigerator. Either way, there are dozens of models in a variety of prices and capacities. All are much more energy efficient than your grandmother’s model of the same style. Be of good cheer!