Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Off-Grid Gear -- Refrigeration
One particularly challenging aspect of being non-electric is the need for refrigeration. When we first moved into Little Shouse on the Prairie we were completely non-electric. No. Power. Anywhere. I had a milk cow, which resulted in fresh cheese and butter and yogurt, and nowhere to keep any of it cool. The cheese and butter were somewhat forgiving but the milk was not. If I couldn't cool the milk in a relatively short amount of time, and keep it cool, I ended up with a curdled mass that was only fit for animal use. Desperate for a solution, Sir Knight and I bought a heavily insulated cooler and filled it with blocks of ice. Although better than nothing, the cooler was a sad substitute for a real refrigerator.
Within a few weeks of moving in, we had a large propane tank installed and plumbed to the Shouse. Originally we had intended on using the propane only for our range. Quickly, however, we realized that we needed another solution for refrigeration.
Our original propane stove was an enameled Wedgewood from the 1950's. It was the gem of my kitchen! At the same yard sale that we had purchased the stove, we stumbled across a 1950's model Servel propane refrigerator. For a few hundred dollars, we bought the stove and the refrigerator. My initial thought was that we could use the propane stove only when we really needed it, but we couldn't turn the refrigerator off if we weren't using it, so not wanting to waste propane, we didn't hook up the refrigerator.
More than a few gallons of spoiled milk, blocks of ruined cheese and pounds of rotten meat later, we finally gave in and lit the propane refrigerator. Oh, it was heavenly! Although rather small for a refrigerator, the Servel was huge compared to a cooler. No longer did I have to fish wet packages, bags and bottles from the bottom of a swampy cooler! Now I could keep gallons of milk ice cold, leftovers fresh and I even had a small freezer for ice cube trays. Wow! What a difference a tiny blue flame could make!
Over time, I found that I absolutely loved our propane refrigerator. It was small, but efficient. In the whole scope of things, it used relatively little propane and made our lives so much easier. But, out of all of the reasons to love the Servel, silence was at the top of my list. Really! Propane refrigerators are completely silent. They don't cycle off and on. The flame just burns silently, steadily, providing continuous, silent refrigeration. Oh how I loved that little workhorse.
One morning, after using the Servel for about 6 years, I awoke to a warming refrigerator. Laying on the floor to inspect the burner, I quickly discovered that the flame had gone out. Sir Knight re-lit our refrigerator and it continued on as before - for about 2 weeks. Again, a pool of water on the kitchen floor indicated the burner has gone out. Sir Knight surveyed the situation and discovered that the burner had burned out. Calling a propane refrigerator repair center, I was quickly informed that the older model Servel that we owned had been part of a lawsuit (the burners quit working after over 50 years and a number of people had died of carbon monoxide poisoning in their cabins) and there were no replacement parts available. We were sadly reduced to the cooler once again.
Shortly after our propane refrigerator quit working, we helped a friend move his entire household. A week later, a pick-up came rumbling up our driveway bearing a gift from the friend that had moved - an older model Sunfrost refrigerator, specially designed for off-grid use. The Sunfrost was electric, however, it was designed with the alternative energy household in mind. Our refrigerator was large, with two compressors - one for the freezer and one for the refrigerator. It was short and wide, making the refrigerator inconvenient, however Sir Knight remedied that problem by building a sturdy box for the refrigerator to sit upon. Now, not only was the Sunfrost at a convenient height, but the box also provided extra kitchen storage!
I had a love/hate relationship with the Sunfrost refrigerator. It was huge, but had only three awkward glass shelves in each section. The shelves were positioned so that it was difficult to fit anything into the refrigerator except into the voluminous middle shelf. The refrigerator was so deep that I was constantly digging everything out to get to items in the back. It was nothing short of frustrating. Along with the poor organizational qualities, we found that our Sunfrost didn't work particularly well. The refrigerator froze everything that migrated to the back and the freezer refused to freeze anything other than ice cubes. While researching our refrigeration issues, Sir Knight discovered that Sunfrost tested their refrigerators differently than industry standards for a "regular" refrigerator. Sunfrost tested their refrigerator efficiency at significantly higher temperatures than their Energy Star counterparts. What this meant for us was that our refrigerator required much more energy than advertised. We turned our refrigerator down, trying to keep things cooler, causing the compressors to cycle off and on more frequently and still not achieving the cooling that we desired! On top of that, the fridge was not frost free. The entire top and back of the fridge would turn into solid chunks of ice, all while not freezing anything in the freezer!
After eight years of no popsicles, no ice cream and forgotten left-overs, we made the jump. For my birthday this year, Sir Knight bought me a used, Energy Star Amana refrigerator to replace the cursed Sunfrost. I was so excited! My "new" fridge had drawers, shelves and cubbies everywhere. It was a simple refrigerator with the fridge on top and the freezer on the bottom. The evening we brought it home, I anxiously waited to see how it would respond to the modified square waves of our off-grid system. I wasn't sure if the surge (when it came on) would be too much for our inverter, or if it would use a ton more power. I wanted to have a "real" refrigerator so badly that I was constantly checking the Tri-metric (volt meter) to see if it was going to be viable.
As soon as we plugged the fridge in, it cycled on. Really, it only used a little bit more power during the surge than our Sunfrost (our Sunfrost surge was about 12 amps and the Amana topped out at 15 amps). But, the really cool thing was that when the fridge was running it used less electricty (about 6 amps versus the Sunfrost's 8 amps) than our old refrigerator! Less! And, as icing on the cake - the Amana Energy Star refrigerator could freeze anything - hard, and it was frost free!
Suffering for eight years with a substandard refrigerator was ridiculous! We had read one too many solar articles, listened to one too many experts and based our decisions on faulty information. We couldn't be happier with a plain old Energy Star refrigerator, despite what the "experts" say.
All in all, my favorite fridge was the propane Servel. It had drawbacks (tiny freezer and small fridge) but I LOVED it's silent operation (and it was pretty cute!). But, if I had to do it all again, I would definitely choose a plain jane Energy Star refrigerator. When we had no alternative energy, the Servel was the only way to go, but with solar panels, the Amana is wonderful. It runs flawlessly, keeps cold things cold and frozen things frozen. It is convenient, easily organized and just plain awesome. Sometimes I walk into my kitchen and think "where have you been all my life" (I know, sad isn't it?).
If you are just starting your off-grid adventure and you have a reliable alternative energy system, I would highly encourage you to buy a simple Energy Star refrigerator rather than an expensive "off-grid" fridge. Although a DC Sunfrost might be worth the investment, we found that our AC model certainly wasn't. In the worst case scenario, a root cellar would still be the best off-grid cooler, but if you can get your off-grid system set up now, an Energy Star refrigerator is your best bet.