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The Ultimate Guide

Introduction

Self-Defrosting vs Manual Defrosting Freezer Comparison Guide

Learn the key differences

Ice in freezer

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What do you have more of: time or money? Your answer to that question may help you decide whether you prefer a higher-cost but convenient self-defrosting freezer or a low-cost but time-consuming manual defrosting freezer.

The self-defrost or frost-free freezer cycles on/off periodically, melting the ice that would otherwise build up in the freezer's interior. A freezer without self-defrost is known as a manual defrost freezer.

Self-Defrosting vs Manual Defrost Freezer: Major Differences

The major difference between the two types of freezers is how excess ice and frost is eliminated from the cavity. With a self-defrosting freezer, the appliance's heating elements cycle on and off throughout the day. During the defrosting process, water from melting ice is discharged through a small hose at the back and down to a drip tray positioned at the base of the unit. A manual defrost freezer relies on the owner to remove the excess frost and ice from the cavity.

Self-Defrosting vs Manual Defrost Freezer Comparison
  Self-Defrost Freezer Manual Defrost Freezer
Appearance Upright and chest styles Upright and chest styles
Repair and Maintenance Little maintenance Labor and time-intensive defrosting
Noise Noisy  Less noisy
Energy Use Uses more energy Uses less energy
Installation No difference No difference
Cost More expensive Less expensive
Lifespan Up to 14 years Up to 14 years

Key Features

Self-Defrosting

Self-defrost (or frost-free) is a cleaning design feature in freezers. Self-defrosting is an automatic defrost cycling process requiring no intervention from the user. It works by heating coils inside the freezer at regular intervals to prevent frost build-up. Also known as a frost-free or auto-defrost, it's something many consumers love for ease of cleaning and saving time and labor.

Manual Defrost

A manual defrost freezer does not contain any automatic heating elements to prevent the build-up of frost or ice. It requires the owner to manually defrost the freezer coils as frost builds up. When the coils are covered by too much frost and ice, airflow is restricted and the freezer won't efficiently cool food.

Appearance

Self-Defrosting

Most—though not all—upright freezers have a self-defrost feature. An upright freezer has a door that's mounted on the front, and it looks like a regular refrigerator.

Besides the convenience factor, upright freezers are configured with shelves to make it much easier to organize, locate, and retrieve frozen foods. You'll also find that most combination refrigerator-freezers have a self-defrosting feature. Some chest freezers will be labeled as frost-free.

Manual Defrost

Most (though again, not all) chest freezers have a manual defrost. Chest freezers also lack the organizing potential and retrieval convenience of an upright self-defrost model. A self-defrosting or manual defrost chest freezer will also usually require more horizontal floor space.

Best for Appearance: Tie

It depends on what style freezer you prefer. If you want a chest freezer, you'll likely have to manually defrost the appliance though you may spot a frost-free model.

Repair and Maintenance

Self-Defrosting

Self-defrosting freezers are more popular than the manual defrost type because they reduce freezer maintenance considerably, but they do have a few downsides.

The drip tray is usually located behind the bottom trim plate of an upright freezer. Usually, there is no need to empty this water tray; the water tends to evaporate on its own. You'll always need to be on the lookout for a cracked hose or misaligned drip tray to keep the self-defrosting mode working smoothly.

Manual Defrost

It's typically recommended that a freezer should be defrosted when the frost has become about a quarter- to a half-inch thick. Defrosting a freezer manually is a hands-on, time-consuming, and tedious task. The process involves unplugging the appliance, removing everything from the freezer, and pulling off large pieces of frost to speed it up. Chest freezers with manual defrost will typically have a drain at the bottom of the chest to let out the water.

Best for Repair and Maintenance: Self-Defrosting

Those who use a frost-free freezer enjoy the minimal maintenance. Oftentimes, owners will often not want to return to a manual defrost freezer model.

Noise

Self-Defrosting

The constant cycling on and off of the setting in a self-defrosting freezer creates a noisier operation. As the cycle happens, you may hear whooshing, crackling, popping, or whining noises, all of which are normal. Better compressors also make some noise as it works throughout the day. However, many freezers are located in out-of-the-way areas where noise may not be an issue.

Manual Defrost

Just like a self-defrosting freezer, a newer model manual defrost freezer may have a more powerful and higher speed compressor which may make slight noises.

Best for Noise: Manual Defrost

Manual defrost freezers are generally quieter than self-defrosting freezers. All you'll hear is the compressor and possibly the normal expansion and contraction of the freezer liner at times during the day.

Energy Use

Self-Defrosting

A self-defrosting freezer model cycles on and off periodically, which uses more energy than a manual defrost freezer. Because of the on/off cycling defrosting routine, temperatures tend to fluctuate often, and the self-defrosting freezer must work harder to restore the ideal interior temperature. (As a side note, because of the cycling on and off, foods are also more prone to freezer burn in a self-defrosting freezer than in a manual defrost freezer.)

Manual Defrost

Though manual defrost freezers require more cleaning, they are cheaper to buy and cost less in energy to operate. The energy-saving aspect occurs for two reasons. First, there is minimal cold air loss with a chest freezer (which is usually manual defrost). The door opens from the top of the chest which allows much less cold air to escape than a front-opening door does. In addition, a manual defrost freezer maintains a more constant freezing temperature.

Best for Energy Use: Manual Defrost

A manual defrost freezer may use up to 40 percent less energy than a self-defrosting model. A manual defrost freezer does not contain heating elements, which reduces the overall energy use of the appliance. It's important to note that both self-defrosting and manual defrost freezers can carry an Energy Star rating. Freezers with Energy Star ratings are at least 10 percent more energy-efficient than the minimum federal standard.

Installation

There is no difference in installation for a self-defrosting or manual defrost freezer. In general, a freezer should always be plugged into its own outlet with the appropriate voltage rating. This will provide the best performance of your freezer regardless of its defrosting function.

Cost

Self-Defrosting

Self-defrost functionality, however, does increase the price of a freezer. Consumers should confirm the presence of this feature before buying since it's not always easy to detect its visible presence. Nor is it often noted on the appliance tag or details.

Manual Defrost

A manual defrost upright freezer the same size as a self-defrosting model will cost slightly less because there are fewer components. A manual defrost chest freezer of about the same size (in cubic feet) will cost even less than a manual defrost upright.

Best for Cost: Manual Defrost

A manual defrost freezer of any style will be less expensive than a self-defrosting upright freezer. There are still plenty of models across most brands of manual or self-defrosting freezers.

Lifespan

You may hear that freezers last about 20 years. The reality is that regardless of whether you have a self-defrosting and a manual defrost freezer, your appliance will last between 10 to 14 years. However, the average lifespan of a freezer is more typically 11 years, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

The Verdict

There are pros and cons to self-defrosting or manual defrost freezers that even out the choice. Consumers should consider all freezer features along with operation, energy, and maintenance before making a decision about buying a freezer. When it comes time to make your freezer decision, consider what's most important to you: the convenience of a self-defrosting freezer or the cost, energy savings, and choice of style of a manual defrost model.

Top Brands

  • GE sells both upright and chest freezers of all sizes. Look for models with temperature alarms and power on lights so you don't lose costly food.
  • Frigidaire's upright and chest freezers feature technology that keeps food frozen for over two days in the event of a power outage.
  • Whirlpool offers a number of budget-friendly upright and chest freezers with auto-defrost, as well as manual defrost.