Backbar units tend to be tall and have interior lighting for displaying beverages at the bar. In the case of a bar serving alcohol, operators often incorporate these units with beer-dispensing systems. In addition, operators often use reach-in style backbar coolers in the underbar part of the bar. The approximate height of the cabinet is 36 inches if set on the floor or 42 inches if on 6-inch legs.

Size and Capacity

istock 687905942Sizes vary significantly, and operators let the application influence their purchasing decision. Undercounter units can measure 24 to 108 inches long, although the most common sizes are 28, 36, 48, 60 and 72 inches. The standard depth is about 30 inches, but operators can specify narrower units that measure 27½ inches for tighter footprints. Heights vary from 30 inches to 83 inches. The smallest footprint of an undercounter refrigeration unit is usually 24 inches by 24 inches, although these units may have ventilation requirements that prohibit boxing them in on the sides. The capacities can handle up 5 kegs or up to 33 cases of longneck bottled beer.


Undercounter units typically come standard with black or stainless exteriors. Doors can be glass, nonlaminated, laminated or wood covered, depending on the model. The tops may be finished or unfinished. Finished tops typically feature stainless-steel construction, but operators can also opt to buy units with laminated finished tops. Doors are standard, while drawers are optional, and drawer and door combinations within one unit also are available.

Features and Options

Many backbar refrigeration units offer two locking and two swivel casters to prevent the equipment from rolling around inadvertently. Five-inch casters come standard, and optional 1½- or 2½-inch heights can help operators comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Automatic evaporator fan motors on some units stop when the door opens to prevent condensation from developing by mixing cold interior air with ambient air temperature. Some units include a 30-second stay-open door alarm. One-piece magnetic door gaskets are typically standard. Operators can manually adjust high-tech digital controls to reach the desired temperature setting. Cold-air distribution systems provide uniformly maintained temperature within the interior cavity. Top- and bottom-mount compressors are available.

Backbar coolers can come with or without a finished top. The versions without a top are for designs that have them mounted below a backbar top for a built-in cabinet-style look.

Optional Features

Some manufacturers allow operators to convert part of a backbar cooler to keg dispensing, allowing one unit to store bottled beer and serve draft beer.

These units may offer a choice of door swings and handles.Operators can elect to install legs on units in lieu of casters. Also, operators can choose between self-contained and remote refrigeration systems.

Food Safety Considerations

External digital temperature displays and internal thermometers ensure the interior temperature remains less than 45 degrees F.

Many are not aware that most backbar refrigerators are not open-food listed. These units should only store non-potentially hazardous closed containers. As a rule, operators should not store any food that has the potential to spoil in these units. Some manufacturers have designed their coolers to meet open-food standards and have also paid the extra fees associated with having their coolers be officially open-food listed to NSF standards. Backbar refrigeration systems must keep temperatures below 40 degrees F for open food.

Green Solutions

A two-zone cooler provides two temperatures in one cooler, which eliminates the need for two separate coolers, each with its own compressor. More energy-efficient compressors and fan motors are available. Variable speed compressors on some units speed up and slow down, depending on the usage demand.

Choosing Backbar Refrigerators

When choosing refrigeration for the backbar, identifying space requirements behind the bar and accessibility, or space around a unit, are key considerations. Other critical factors include the needs and volume of the bar, which will determine whether a front-opening or pass-thru unit will work best.

Confirming storage needs is another critical factor. “Will the unit be used for backup kegs, a beer dispenser, or bottles and cans?” says Rick Sevieri, president of RJS & Associates, based in Old Lyme, Conn. “Will this be replacing existing units or is it a new build-out?”

As a rule of thumb, white wine is best served between 44 degrees F and 57 degrees F, light red wine between 53 degrees F and 63 degrees F, full-bodied reds at 63 degrees F to 69 degrees F, and sparkling wine between 38 degrees F and 50 degrees F. “When choosing the correct temperature for products, newer models have various controls that regulate what’s needed for white and red wine, beer, and soda,” says Sevieri. “Compartments can be zoned to allow this feature.”

Operators also can choose from a variety of finishes, including stainless steel and laminate. “Stainless steel is the most common as it provides a bright finish to reflect light and is difficult to dent, although it can be scratched,” says Sevieri. “Vinyl laminate can chip and scratch, allowing the exterior to peel, although laminate inserts can coordinate with interior designs for a custom look.” Damaged inserts can be easily replaced.

Glass or solid doors that either swing open or slide are available with these units. “Solid doors typically cost less, unless an architectural feature is added,” says Sevieri. “Solid doors are more energy efficient with additional insulation, while glass doors offer visibility to the cooler’s interior. The latter can help with increasing sales of beverage products through the use of LED lighting, and glass also helps bartenders find products more quickly.”

If space is tight between the backbar and front bar, experts recommend investing in sliding doors to help prevent blocking walkways for multiple bartenders. Drawer sections are a newer feature and provide space for cradled bottles.

Sizing backbar refrigeration appropriately will ensure enough storage space. “One could estimate approximately 114 bottles or 180 12-ounce cans in a 24-inch-wide space,” says Sevieri. “Backbar depths range from 25½ inches up to 32 inches. For tight backbars, operators should look for narrow or slim designs.”

Heights vary depending on the unit. “This is one of the most important factors in design,” says Sevieri. “Will the backbar be designed to slide under a custom millwork/granite top to appear as a built-in, or will the backbar come with its own stainless-steel top to serve as part of the backbar?”

Ice-cooled bins can be added to the tops of these units, providing additional merchandising capabilities.

Cleaning and Maintenance

Backbar refrigerators have, on average, a service life between 12 and 15 years, depending on the bar volume.

In terms of maintenance, the main thing is to make sure the interior remains as clean as possible. “Operators should clean spills immediately,” says Adam Armistead, service technician with Baltimore-based EMR. “Because condiments are often kept in these units, there’s a chance of spilling acidic fruit or vegetable juices, which then run the risk of the acids being sucked into the evaporator. This can eat away at the cooler.”

Wiping up spills as soon as possible and picking up food that may fall into the bottom is important.“We recommend cleaning backbar refrigerator interiors with bleach cleaners to keep bacteria and acid down as much as possible,” says Armistead. “Also, operators should make sure air filters are cleaned. Heat is a killer for condenser units, and this component is expensive to replace, so good airflow is important and should be checked weekly.” Operators should also check for broken glass and proper door closing on a regular basis.

A number of signs may indicate a backbar refrigerator requires service. “If the unit is not maintaining proper temperatures and the air filter isn’t clean, or if the air compressor is making louder-than-normal noises, it should be checked by a service professional,” says Armistead. “Operators also should watch for water accumulating in the refrigerator’s bottom.”

If doors get to a point where they won’t stay closed, the fix can be as simple as leveling the unit or replacing a hinge. But this needs to be done quickly since air loss can compromise products.

Some instances require replacing a backbar unit. “This includes when molding is peeling away or when hinges can’t be reattached,” says Armistead.

Gaskets should be checked for tears since bacteria can grow and create big problems.

“Lightbulbs inside cabinets are often overlooked, but it’s important to keep them working so products are visible,” says Armistead. “Condenser coils and evaporator coils need to be cleaned chemically, and because these are not accessible, this requires yearly maintenance by a service agent.”

Other maintenance tasks include wiping out the drain pan and drain line, keeping space clear around the unit so as not to impede airflow, and wiping down the interior and exterior regularly.