Living off grid, I get questions from time to time, mainly about how we live, some even think we must live in a cave and eat dirt and wear skins… I said I live off grid, but we don’t live that primitively! :) I do enjoy some of the modern conveniences of life, including having a place to keep perishable foods, aka a refrigerator.
When we first moved off grid, in Dec ’07, we brought with us a small, dorm sized fridge, but honestly we didn’t use it much, only plugging it up on the occasions when I brought home a gallon of milk or a pound of ground beef, once the perishable food was gone, we unplugged the fridge. What I quickly found out was the standard type of fridge used up a LOT of power and they tend to be very inefficient.
I kept reading about these smart off gridders who used a chest freezer to make a refrigerator, how can that be? Turns out that it is very simple, so simple even primitive off gridder could do it. Here is what you need:
One small chest freezer. Why a chest freezer you ask? It’s simple physics, cold air sinks to the ground, that’s what is wrong with front opening fridges (and freezers), when you open the door on a front opening unit, all the cold air drops to your feet, feels good in summer, but it’s terribly inefficient, the unit now has to work harder to cool the inside again, once you quit gaping into the open door and close it. :)
Also the freezers have more insulation than refrigerators
Next you need an external thermostat, this is easily purchased online, mine cost around $50.00, I use this one. I like the manual, analog, non-digital one, the reason is those do not need extra power to run, no extra batteries inside the unit itself. These will have a small box with the thermostat workings inside and a dial on the outside, a copper bulb on a long thin copper wire and the plug. The paper behind the thermostat is the instructions that came with it, we found it easiest to attach it to the wall along with the thermostat so they never get lost.
Once you have these two items, you pick out the best spot for your freezer-fridge unit, hereafter referred to as the fridge. You set the external thermostat, I keep mine at 35° F. Carefully unwind the copper coil (you don’t want to kink or break it), slip the bulb into the fridge box, if yours comes with a drain hole, that is a good spot to insert it, mine didn’t so I just placed mine through the back of the box between the box and lid, the copper wire is thin so it doesn’t interfere with the door. The bulb is where it measures temperature, I placed mine about 6 inches (+/-) from the bottom, you don’t want it fully on the bottom or at the top of the fridge, I’ve read that it shouldn’t be touching the side of the box either, but I don’t know a good way to get it to be fully separate from the wall either, it hasn’t been an issue for me.
Plug the fridge into the back of the plug on the thermostat plug, then plug that into power, close the door on the fridge and wait at least a half an hour, up to an hour. The unit will run for at least a half hour, cycle off, then on again a few more times. After the fridge comes to the temp you set on the external thermostat, that will cut off the power to the fridge. Mine runs a couple of times an hour for about 5 minutes at a time, and I’ve checked the inner temp of the box, it keeps everything at or near the 35° F I set.
Now you insert food. That isn’t as easy as it sounds, this is a box you are filling from the top, no pretty shelves to hold your food. :(
The remedy is simple. Plastic baskets. Since your fridge might be a different size than mine, I suggest you measure yours to see what will fit. I use 2 larger and 2 smaller baskets. The smaller ones go in the bottom of the unit, the larger ones go on the “step” inside unit. I put the less often used food items in the lower baskets and the more often used items in the upper baskets. Yes you will have to remove the baskets to get to the lower foods, but that is a small price to pay, don’t you think?
I just cleaned mine out the other day, so I’ll let you see inside of it :)
I put the smaller baskets on the very bottom (at the right), with the foods I access less often. There are 2 smaller baskets for the bottom space.
The larger baskets go on the top (at the left), two stacked up, with the less often access foods on the bottom and the more often accessed foods on the top.
Oh one thing to remember, I never put raw meat on top of other foods, I put raw meat inside of a zip baggie, place that on a plate or a bowl and put it in such a way that it can’t possibly drip down onto any other foods.
I do have to remove everything about once a month and clean the whole thing, mainly because of the water condensing on the inside. Even in our very dry area, there is still a certain amount of moisture or humidity in the air, each time I open the box, more moisture gets in, it condenses on the sides and rolls down to the bottom. I tried putting a towel in the bottom to soak up the moisture between cleanings. That was a big mistake, it became a stinky bacteria mat, trust me, it’s better for the water to sit in the bottom until it’s time to clean it out, besides it’s always a good idea to dig out all of the food, since I can’t see everything in the baskets, it’s amazing how many food items that get buried and forgotten about, out of sight, out of mind… I merely remove the baskets, check the food to see if something needs to go away or possibly just be repackaged, I clean the baskets with soap and water, I wipe out the water in the bottom of the fridge, I wipe down the sides and bottom of the inside of the unit with either a weak bleach and water solution or vinegar and water. I place the foods back in the baskets and place the baskets back in the fridge.
With the super insulation value in the freezer box, it even keeps my food cold on those few times when I use up too much power playing on the internet during cloudy days and run out of power, my fridge keeps my food cold overnight until the sun shines the following day and charges my batteries back up.
You could also do this even if you aren’t living off grid but just want a more efficient way to store your perishable foods, this will certainly cost less to run meaning more $$$s in your pocket each month.
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