In June of this year we installed a small refrigerator back into our kitchen. We lived for just about a year without a refrigerator, but we always had our chest freezer running in the garage, and for most of that time, we tried to keep things cold in a cooler we stocked with jugs of water we froze in the chest freezer.
We learned that if you want to keep food cold at a controlled temperature, refrigerators are really good appliances for that task! Our main problems with our alternative method included:
1 – More wear and tear – and electric usage – on our chest freezer. Freezing jugs of water meant we were opening the chest freezer at least once every couple days, both to retrieve a jug of frozen water and to add a jug of melted water to freeze again. This more frequent opening of the chest freezer meant that it needed defrosting sooner. Adding water to freeze every couple days meant the freezer needed to run more often to freeze the water. So between the higher amount of frost collecting on the sides and the routine addition of unfrozen water, the freezer was using more electricity to run.
2 – Uneven cooling in the cooler. The items closest to the water jugs stayed the coldest, while those further from the jugs didn’t always stay cold enough. And as the jugs melted, the temperature in the cooler warmed up.
3 – Our unheated back porch made a perfect walk-in refrigerator for a part of the fall and winter. But for most of the winter, food tended to freeze there. Again, we learned that climate control is a significant feature of refrigeration.
4 – Some produce – especially fresh greens – just don’t last long without refrigeration. They will last a day or two if you keep them in water as you would cut flowers, but especially this time of year when gardening and the farmer’s market are a distant memory, and fresh produce comes from the grocery store, a refrigerator is really helpful.
5 – Inconvenience. (Of course.) We are willing to trade some convenience for energy efficiency, but in this case, if we really wanted to keep some food cold but not frozen, it turned out that there really wasn’t any net gain in energy efficiency!
We definitely learned that we don’t need or even want a standard-sized refrigerator. We bought a 4.4 cu. ft. Frigidaire compact refrigerator, and it is more than enough space for our family of four – especially since we removed the panels for the freezer compartment and are using the entire box for refrigeration.
We studied our electric bills for the past couple years, and the addition of the refrigerator (which means, remember, we are opening our chest freezer and adding unfrozen food to it less often) hasn’t noticeably increased our electric usage. The bigger electricity difference we noticed was last year, when we gave the large but energy-efficient all-refrigerator we had been using to a hospitality house we work with. The hospitality house recycled their 1980s-era refrigerator, plugged in the new one we gave them, and their electricity usage dove noticeably.
So, my advice at the end of this experiment – if you want to keep your food cold, buy the smallest, most energy-efficient refrigerator you can find. Note that our 4.4 cu. ft. refrigerator actually doesn’t use much – if any – less electricity than the large highly efficient model we gave away last year. Energy efficiency is more noticeable in larger refrigerators than small ones. But we like having more space in the kitchen – and not losing and therefore wasting food in a large refrigerator.