Robin has been hinting that she’d like a full size refrigerator for some time (we’ve been living out of a dorm fridge for 2 years now). At first I tried to convince her of a few alternative solutions, but she finally hit me with one of those I’m-living-in-a-house-with-no-walls-and-no-wiring-lit-by-shop-lights-and-heated-by-a-woodstove-and-now-you-don’t-even-want-me-to-have-a-normal-fridge looks, and I relented. Domestic harmony is worth much more than a new refrigerator, and Robin is always very long suffering of my many projects and our rustic living conditions.
Anyway, as with most purchases, I embarked on a lot of research before selecting what we were going to buy. I’ll admit I’m a little OCD on the pre-purchase research. Perhaps it’s the engineer in me. I generally buy things new and keep them forever, so I want to make sure I’m getting the best product available at a given price. From flashlights to power tools, and from knives to drip irrigation, I read comments on product websites, join forums devoted to enthusiasts, and watch YouTube reviews.
Anyway, I thought I’d share my fridge research results, written from a homesteading standpoint, as it might prove useful to someone else. Refrigeration options are presented from most efficient to least efficient. My definition of “efficiency” will most likely differ from yours. For the sake of this post, efficiency is: “minimizes the cost to purchase, operator, and maintain”.
- 1st Place: No Refrigerator – This may seem extreme, but hear me out. Humans have somehow survived for 1000′s of years without mechanical refrigeration, and despite all the scary warnings on product labels and food safety bulletins, you can too! The first online anti-refrigeration voice was perhaps GreenPa, so I’ll just post a link to his post: No Refrigeration for 30 Years. Our experience agrees with him. Many people use their fridge as a cupboard for items that don’t need refrigeration, such as condiments and oils. Many vegetables do well without refrigeration (such as onions, potatoes, and tomatoes) and others do fine if you keep them wrapped to retain moisture (brassicas, greens). We haven’t refrigerated butter for the last two years and it’s fine. (We leave a pound out at a time. The rest is in the freezer. It does get a little soft on 95° days, and a little hard when it’s 37° inside.) We also let meat defrost on the counter (no fridge space) and we’ve occasionally used GreenPa’s method of keeping leftovers sterile .. although usually in the winter. Admittedly, we’ve never been truly fridge-less, but I think we could manage. There would be some complaining (sorry Robin), and some wilted celery (and green peppers), but it would be efficient! (It would also be much easier if we kept our chest freezer, which I find to be very useful.)
- Purchase: free
- Yearly: free
- 2nd Place: Passive Refrigeration – Most people are familiar with the root cellars of the early American pioneers. These were passively cooled high-humidity food storage structures. We once talked about building a root cellar here (an earth bag dome actually), but the reality is that Oregon’s moderate winter temperatures make it largely unnecessary. Storing food in the outbuilding which will house our well pressure tank should provide a temperature moderated space. For indoor passive cooling, an icebox is your best bet. An icebox might sound hopelessly antiquated, but a modern version could use high R-value foam and gaskets to be extremely well insulated. If you have a chest freezer like us, then frozen one gallon water jugs would provide a convenient source of ice. I like the fact that an ice box can look like a piece of furniture instead of a big metal appliance. Other options for passive cooling include the cold pantry (built over a stream or earth buffered) and the Coolgardie safe (an evaporative cooler). Passive cooling systems generally have no moving parts, can be built from readily available materials, have low operating costs, but require regular interaction to maintain. The icebox would provide the most consistently cool temperatures, but relies on a working freezer (small chest freezers are cheap though).
- Purchase: free – $500
- Yearly: free – $30?
- 3rd Place: Converted Freezer – Freezers are cheaper to buy than refrigerators, better insulated, and cool more quickly. The next most efficient method of refrigeration is to buy a freezer and convert it to a refrigerator. For some upright models, this is as simple as flipping a switch. For a much more efficient refrigerator, you can buy a chest freezer and convert it with a simple control circuit. The resulting chest refrigerator is about 10x more efficient than an equivalently sized modern upright fridge. (Less than $5 a year operating costs.) I was a big fan of this option, but Robin held out on the negatives: a chest fridge would take up more floor space and much of the space is hard to access. True. Effective use would require some form of pop-up racks like the fridge in William Lishman’s house.
- Purchase: $400
- Yearly: $5
- 4th Place: Used Refrigerator – A good deal on an older model refrigerator seems like the perfect homestead solution, but not so fast! Refrigerators of 30 years ago were built like tanks and many are still running today, but their operating costs can be very high. Even 10 year old refrigerators (the ones that haven’t quite worn out yet) can cost twice as much to operate as a new fridge. Ultimately, a bare-bones new fridge and that cheap used one are likely to cost about the same (when averaged over their lifespan). The other concern with a used fridge is that you may be buying someone else’s lemon, and repairs can be expensive.
- Purchase: free – $1000
- Yearly: $80 – $200
- 5th Place: New Refrigerator – It’s certainly the most convenient, but buying a new refrigerator is probably the least efficient option. All the various brands of refrigerators are made by only 3 or 4 companies, and they know that you won’t buy a new one until your last one wears out. As result, most refrigerators built during the last 20 years are pretty much disposable. You can check Consumer Reports and read reviews online .. I did until my eyes watered .. but every brand has it’s share of horror stories, and historical reliability is almost meaningless since companies regularly change suppliers and move their manufacturing sites to save money. My best advice is to pick something by the current reliability leaders (Whirlpool and Samsung at the moment) and hope for the best. Extended warranties won’t help — they expire before the problems usually start.
Once you’ve selected a brand, you now have to sort through a pile of different models with varying features. The cheapest fridge models have a top freezer (starting at $750). This is a classic design and the most reliable, but it hasn’t become any more convenient over the years. Putting the more useful part (the refrigerator) on the top adds about $250. If you can’t choose between or left or right swing and would like double doors on the top add another $400. If you don’t like opening the door for ice and would like a dispense add $500. (Also expect this feature to break first.) If neither white nor black matches your decor, you can have stainless steel for another $200. All prices are based on similarly sized Whirlpool models at a local big-box store. You might think that you can save money by picking a smaller model, but expect the quality to go down considerably. Our review of several brands suggested that the smaller volume, the more fragile the drawers and shelves. There is one exception: counter top depth models give you smaller volume but with nice hardware. For this privilege add $1000.
- Purchase: $750 – $3000+
- Yearly: $50 – $90
So, those are the options we considered. We philosophized about refrigerator-free living. We talked about iceboxes. Okay, I talked about iceboxes and Robin raised an eyebrow in a disapproving manner. I enthused about freezer conversion, and the eyebrow become more disapproving. I briefly considered a used model, but lemon risk turned me off. And ultimately, that’s how we ended up with the 5th option — the least efficient.
In fact, it’s worst than that. We didn’t just buy a new one, we bought a huge 25 cu.ft. fridge-on-the-top split door stainless elephant. Why would we do such a thing? Well, it was on sale with a good warranty, few likely-to-break features, much nicer hardware than the human sized model (19 cu.ft.) … but ultimately, when your house doesn’t have a light switch, a refrigerator that doesn’t require stooping is living the high life.