Top Load vs Side Load Refrigerators

When most people think of a refrigerator, they probably think of the massive monstrosity sitting in their kitchen. These towering units have so much space inside that food can be lost in the back of them for years! 

Boats don't have unlimited space inside them, so these mammoth appliances from your local department store are not typically found inside of a boat. Instead, boats use much smaller "marine" versions of refrigerators.

Some boats have fridges commonly found in college dorm rooms, offering a few cubic feet of storage space and tucking neatly into the galley cabinets. Other boats will have refrigerator systems built into the boat, blending in with all the other interior joinery.

Power boats tend to have side load refrigerators, which is similar to the kind found in houses. Sailboats tend to have top load refrigerators, which may take people some time to get used to. You must be wondering, why have one style over the other? You should look at the pros and cons of each style and decide which is right for you.

Side Load Refrigerators

Side load refrigerators make it easier to access the food stored inside. They also are more familiar to most people, since this is how most household refrigerators are setup.

The problem with side load refrigerators is when you open the door, all the cold air will rush out the bottom and be displaced with warm air. This means that the refrigerator needs to run more often to maintain a cool internal temperature when the door is opened. Standing there for a few minutes looking around for the right item will ensure that all the cool air rushes out and is displaced by warm air. In the long run, these units will consume more energy to maintain the space inside them cool.

The other problem with side load refrigerators is the side of the refrigerator opens. If the refrigerator is positioned with the door towards the midline of the vessel, on one of the tacks the food will be resting into the back of the refrigerator while on the other tack the food will be resting into the door. Should the door be opened when all the food inside is resting into the door, all of the food inside will pour out and into the cabin. Some boats use a small latch on the door to prevent accidental openings, but if you are pounding in rough seas, the last thing you want is for the latch to slip and all of your food to spill into the boat.

If your side load refrigerator is positioned so that the door faces fore or aft, there is less risk of your food escaping when opened underway. As you know, when sailing in rough weather, everything will shift and move meaning the contents of your refrigerator may have shifted. When you open your fridge, be ready to catch anything that might fall out and keep your toes clear of frozen foods.

Top Load Refrigerators

Enter the top loading refrigerator! They have an opening lid rather than an opening door. This means that you can open them and look around on any tack without fear of food flying across the hull. The only way your food would accidentally fly out of the refrigerator is if you capsized, and honestly the food would be the last of your concerns.

The other advantage of a top load refrigerator is they tend to run more efficiently. When you open the lid, the cold air which sinks to the bottom will stay in the bottom of the refrigerator. This means that you can take a little bit of time to find what you are looking for without sacrificing too much cold loss.

While top load refrigerators might seem like a perfect solution for a boat, but they do have their draw backs. Food in a deep refrigerator will have to be stacked. If you want to access food at the bottom, you need to dig for it. This typically involves unloading everything in the top levels to reach the lower levels. Food at the bottom is hard to reach as well, I have long arms and can reach everything if I stretch, but my wife Maddie has trouble reaching food stored along the back wall. It's simply too deep for her to get to comfortably.

The other problem is you need to lift the lid every time you want get into your food. This might not seem like a huge problem, but large doors are heavy and you have to hold it up the entire time you are in there! This is why most top load refrigerators will have multiple small lids, each weighing much less than a giant massive lid.

Sectioning the top into smaller lids means that you now have a smaller hole by which you must access all of your food. You really need to know where you put something, or you might spend a long time searching through a tiny little access.


Neither style is a perfect solution. Top load units are more energy efficient but are not as easy to access. Side load units are less energy efficient, risk spilling all your food, but have great access and feel more familiar to people.

Power boats tend to have side load refrigerators as most first time boat owners gravitate towards power boats. They feel that boats are simply large cars with "entertaining" space inside. Therefore, side load refrigerators are employed to make these boats seem as comfortable and familiar as possible to everyone.

Sailboats tend to have top load refrigerators because opening the fridge while heeled would be a mess. In recent years though, more and more sailboats are offering the combination of top and side load refrigerators. These offer the best of both worlds, allowing you easy access when anchored or in port via the side door, and also through the lid while out sailing. These sailboats should have very robust locks on the side door to prevent accidental openings.

I feel that these combination side and top load refrigerators are being installed to bring more people to the wonderful world of sailing by making them feel more at home when they are in the cabin. Imagine how much easier a sales persons life got when they no longer had to explain why the refrigerator opens from the top, and instead gets to say: "See, the refrigerator opens here, just like at home." 

If you are in the market for a new boat or are refurbishing your galley, consider which refrigerator style suits your needs and desires best and will make you feel most comfortable while aboard.

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