Sans Fridge

Sharon June 17th, 2010

Let me start by saying that I don’t live entirely without refrigeration – I have and I can, but I don’t do it at present.  I find life better with a little bit of coolth.  Five months of the year, coolth is available free outside – and all of us in northern climates could pretty easily take advantage of it.  The other months we do more complex things, but we still have just a little bit of coolth – just not the 15 cubic feet of it that is the American average.

That said, however, I don’t have standard refrigerator, and the reason for that is pretty simple – when we started the Riot for Austerity, we found that we simply couldn’t live on 1/10th of the average American’s electric consumption and still have a frig.  Refrigeration, and anything that generates heat with electricity (dryers, electric stoves, electric heat) are the biggest energy hogs in an average American household.  Getting your usage down means first getting rid of the wholly optional stuff (everyone’s hair and clothes will dry eventually with air, for example, at least to my mind) and then moving on to the things you think are essential, and seeing whether they really are.

Not everyone would make the choices that I do, and that’s part of the point – one of the points of the Riot for Austerity and other strategies for making radical reductions in energy is that everyone gets the same basic allotment of resources, and can use them however they want.  Other families might make different choices and that’s completely reasonable – the point was to get to 90% down – there is no ideological choice about how to get there.  If you consider your hairdryer a necessity, great – keep using it, just lose something else.  The point is that we all use the same fair share – but we also all need freedom of choice within our limits.

For me, the critical issue is that we have a chest freezer.  When we first started to farm, we attempted to do so without one – we got our first large freezer in 2005.  What we found, however, was that given that we sell meat from the farm, having a freezer was a necessity.  Twice in a row we scheduled butchering dates and slaughtered chickens and turkeys for our customers, and twice in a row, we found that people simply didn’t show up to pick up their birds.  They were used to the supermarket model, where things can be held indefinitely.  After two unpleasant occasions when we had to frantically call around to every person we knew, begging for space in freezers, and one in which we actually lost some poultry to rot, I decided we’d never do that again.  It simply isn’t fair to the animals we slaughter to waste their lives – we bought a superefficient chest freezer.

But while this was one of the lowest electricity consumers for its size that was out there, it still used enough wattage that we knew either the frig or the freezer had to go, and it was no contest for us.  The freezer was a basic livelihood thing.  The frig we could do without – moreover the freezer meant that we could have a little bit of refrigeration – simply by taking frozen bottles of water and ice packs and rotating them into a cooler.  We unplugged the frig.

Eventually we found that one side of Eric’s grandmother’s small side-by-side frig (long since unplugged) actually worked a bit better for us than the cooler, and reinvented the ice box.   Once a day during the warm weather we rotate a few ice packs and a couple of old soda bottles filled with water into our freezer.  The freezer is kept in the garage, which is partly insulated – it stays coolish in the summer and is very cold in the winter, and we’ve found the freezer uses less electricity there than in the house.  Given that the freezer operates more efficiently when full, and that this time of year it isn’t (we haven’t yet added all the preserved food), the energy used in moving and refreezing this water is comparatively small, much less than a refrigerator would use.

From November to April, we have all the cool we could want – we put the food out on the side porch, which is insulated enough not to freeze, but not so much that it keeps the food warm.  In fact, the walk-in porch fridge is actually a really lovely thing – nothing gets lost, much less food gets wasted, and you can see everything.  On a rare warm day in those months, we might transfer the food to the frig, which is the only real hassle.

This would be considerably easier, actually, if we lived in a city or large suburb, and could shop more often.  The reality of much of Europe, for example, was that the cold beer was down at the pub and one went shopping daily or regularly for ingredients for meals.  That’s not viable out here in the country, so I think being frigless is actually considerably more challenging for rural folks than urban and suburban dwellers.  It is, however, easier in a cooler climate, obviously.

We are a family of six plus a housemate, and we have only a small amount of refrigeration space, which encourages us to keep the quantity of refrigerables fairly small – and helps us usefully distinguish things that must be refrigerated and those that are commonly refrigerated but don’t need it.  I find that setting external limits for myself means that I do the right thing automatically – Greenpa has a great post on this subject that I agree with wholeheartedly, even though my limits are different than his: #2007/07/power-of-limits.html

Here are some things that most Americans refrigerate that don’t actually need it:

- Eggs – these keep on a shelf for 1-2 months without refrigeration.  In most of Europe, you won’t find eggs in a refrigerator case.

- Hard cheeses – in a cool spot, these will keep a long time – some people prefer the taste and texture this way.

- Most salty or vinegary condiments – ketchup, mustard, relish, many chutneys, fish sauce, soy sauce, hot sauce.  Obviously check to see what the manufacturers recommendation is if you are purchasing them, but these are things that will not spoil at room temperature. 

- Butter – use a butter keeper.

Many fresh vegetables can be kept moist, and that works as well as keeping them cool (basil and some tropical leafies should never be put in a frig).  So basically that leaves the frig for milk and dairy products other than butter and hard cheese, meats and meat-containing things, leftovers and the most delicate greens.  Eating more vegetarian meals alone reduces the need for a frig.

The majority of people in the world have no refrigeration, and they can eat safely.  Meat is eaten within a day of butchering, shopping is done often or people use their gardens.  Underground spaces, creeks, springs and other cool spots are used for some measure of natural refrigeration.  It is perfectly viable to live without one, and we could do without the freezer and frig – we would sell less meat and keep our animals on the hoof, butchering only when necessary as is done in much of the world.  Our present situation is a luxury and part of the realities of our work, but I don’t mistake it for anything other than that.

There are lots of ways to reduce your dependency on refrigeration – which besides the majority of electricity in the US comes from coal fired plants, also involves chemical coolants with dangers and when frigs outgrow their usefulness, create enormous problems in landfills.  One solution is to give it up entirely, and that’s completely achievable.  But most of us were raised accustomed to refrigeration and lots of it, so we need some transitional strategies to help us get off that dependency.

The first step is to ask whether your current frig is energy efficient – there are huge differences between older and newer models, and while I don’t like the abandonment of large appliances into landfills, there is a case to be made for choosing something more efficient.  And as long as you are doing that, you could go to a smaller frig – Aaron Newton, for example, uses a dorm-sized frig for his family of four.  Most of us don’t need nearly as much fridge space as we have.

Perhaps you could share with a neighbor, particularly if you live in close proximity – put the frig in the garage between your two houses.  Perhaps you could accept that cold beer lives down at the bar at the end of the street and that you will mostly eat meat in the cool weather.  Or maybe you can’t – but you won’t know until you experiment a little.

Another possible step is considering a chest-freezer conversion – some brilliant person discovered that you can put a temperature regulator on a chest freezer and create a frig that uses a tiny amount of energy.  Frankly, the reason I haven’t done this is that I simply don’t care enough – we’re happy as we are.  But if you cared a lot about a frig, this might be a good way to go: http://www.reuk.co.uk/Use-a-Chest-Freezer-as-a-Fridge.htm

Greenpa has been doing this a lot longer than I have, and has a long list of strategies for how to get along that way.  All I can say is that I’ve never had food poisoning from this (although from eating in crappy restaurants that’s different), I waste less food than I used to, and despite the fact that my husband and I use computers for our job and live in a place with no gas lines, I use only 9% of the electricity that the average American household uses.

#2007/06/urbanfoxfireunplugging-fridge.html

Is this the one true way, the truth and the light?  Nope, it is just how we do it.  At the same time, I think the need to reduce consumption radically is fundamental – it has to happen and it has to happen across the board, no excuses.  Losing the frig is one possible strategy.

Sharon

25 Responses to “Sans Fridge”

  1. Mulberry Hill says:

    Sharon,

    You’ve probably covered this question someplace, but what is the baseline electric usage for Americans from which you have reduced your usage to the 9% figure mentioned?

    Thanks,

    Brad

  2. Karin says:

    We are making the transition to fridgeless living. Our new home is an earth-bermed passive solar home. There is a cold room built into the berm. We will bring our chest freezer and we found a small dorm fridge on freecycle to use while we learn to use the cold room. At which point we will just use it for an extra cooler when company comes:)

  3. Chile says:

    This subject again makes me wonder whether it’s a possibility for us and, again, I’m not sure it is in our climate. “Normal room temperature” for us in the summer is in the 80s. Manufacturer’s recommendations on all the condiments you listed are “refrigerate after opening.” We have no hill or berm to build into to make a root cellar or cold room and being in a floodplain makes digging down unrealistic. I just don’t see how to make this work in the desert Southwest. And no, moving somewhere more workable isn’t an option either. Born a desert rat and will die a desert rat. ;-)

    I’ve thought about trying to have less on hand that needs to be refrigerated but that would mean eliminating some preserved foods that I can only make during a limited time of year. For example, pickled lemon rinds. Would they keep out of the fridge with their high salt content? Quite possibly, for a month or two. For a year? I’m not sure I’d trust that. With the fridge, I have been able to keep homemade condiments and relishes that are “good for one month” for up to a year or longer. That means I can do bulk processing, making a year’s supply at one time. It also means, though, that I need more space to hold it, and some of these things cannot be canned or processed in a way to make them shelf-stable without refrigeration.

    At this time, we are planning to replace our old inefficient refrigerator with the chest freezer-conversion. We are looking at ways to keep more summer heat out of the house which would mean it wouldn’t have to work so hard to stay cold. We are looking at ways to create a cooler room in the house that could be used to store more produce, although it won’t be humid like a root cellar.

  4. Zillah says:

    Hi Sharon

    We’re in the process of developing an evaporation based refridgeration system for the bakery we’re setting up. We hope to make it possible to have an off-grid bakery, and keeping dough cool is pretty useful if the baker wants to have anything approaching a normal working day.

    I wonder, as you seem to have looked into almost everything, if you have any useful sources for evaporation cooling?

    Zillah

  5. Tara says:

    @Chile – I was thinking some of the same things. We’re in Texas, and I’ve actually had opened jars of brined olives, salsa and such grow mold after a surprisingly short stint of sitting on the shelf. Even the more sturdy vegetables tend to spoil fairly quickly at *our* room temperature, and fruit? Forget it. I would LOVE to go fridgeless, but along with these warm-climate challenges, I too live in a rural area far from shopping, and need to buy in bulk. I’d love to hear more about the chest freezer conversion, though! I envy you folks with an outdoor “fridge” all winter long! :)

  6. Chile says:

    Hey Tara -

    thanks for experimenting for me, saving me the mold and waste. :)

    Sharon has a link in her post for the chest freezer conversion. I have two more in this post. These folks did it with smaller freezers (~10 cuft) than I would want but were able to get the energy use down to 100-200 kWh per year. That’s better than the most efficient fridge I can afford which would have less usable space and run about 400 kWh per year.

    Yeah, I’d LOVE to have a root cellar but it just ain’t gonna happen here sadly.

    Chile

  7. Sharon says:

    I agree that this isn’t viable in every climate – on the other hand, you folks in deserts can have solar panels that actually produce most of the year to power your fridges – mine have to deal with 80+ days of rain a year.

    That said, you folks can also use more evaporative cooling than we can (not with my humidity levels here), and for Chile, living in a city, shop more often and preserve in smaller quantities, so that you can condiments out for a few weeks or a month.

    BTW, my mustard, ketchup and hot sauce don’t say a word about “refrigerate after opening.”

    Different strokes…

    Sharon

  8. Sharon says:

    Brad, check out the Riot for Austerity links in the sidebar, and they’ll give you the figures. They aren’t bad working figures, although they do need an update – sadly, several of them are too low ;-P – American use keeps rising.

    Sharon

  9. Steve in Hungary says:

    What an excellent article Sharon! Thank you very much.

    I am in my third year of living here in Hungary – without either fridge or freezer. I appreciate what you say about having to freeze the stuff you sell.

    I have just gotten into goats but they are yet young and dairy produce is a while off. I learned in the first year to just stop buying milk. It went off in less than a day. Yes, I could have processed it into something else but that is knowledge I still need to acquire. I just bought little boxes of cream instead. Cheese I still buy on an ‘as needed’ basis even though it lasts a couple of days before starting to go dreadfully hairy. I don’t mind too much – if it does it goes in the dog :)

    I came here to do my own little experiment on trying to live as far as possible without any fossil fuel input – it happened to be a very civilised country where I could afford to buy property outright with my meagre savings.

    High summer is in the thirties (Celcius) and in winter it is normal to have maybe three weeks of minus ten or minus fifteen. It has been known to get down to almost minus thirty.

    I rarely comment, but I do read, mark, learn and inwardly digest all that you write.

    Once again, thanks.

  10. chile says:

    I stand corrected: my ketchup and mustard containers say nothing about refrigeration.

    Um, yeah, I do have sun but I don’t have the cash to buy enough solar panels & related equipment to power a fridge. And the payback time is so long that I can’t justify them on a financial basis…when that money (as earned over time instead of going towards paying a loan for solar) could be used to pay for rainwater harvesting, garden set-up, and other materials. Even with scavenging as much as possible, we’re looking at thousands of dollars (and a LOT of labor) needed to get our property up to speed and we just can’t do everything unfortunately. In fact, I’ve got to weigh whether to try to cut our other expenses even further or look for part-time work as it is because we don’t have the money to do just the basics.

    I try to avoid shopping, if possible, especially as I am now 25 miles outside the city with just one trip into “town” per week. At least 90% of our produce comes from my CSA share, our garden, or harvesting from friends’ yards and wild places. All my wheat and most of my legumes come from the CSA farmer; I buy extra from him each year. I make as many of my own condiments as possible; if made with seasonal produce, such as lemons, they must be preserved in larger quantities when available. I even freeze a year’s worth of lemon juice for all my canning needs so I can use local, organic, FREE lemons.

    It’s a balancing act and I often am out of balance, but I keep looking for ways to stay on the tightrope just a little longer each time. Should I go stick my ketchup and mustard in the cupboard now? ;-)

  11. Liz in Australia says:

    We went fridge-free as an experiment a while back, and found that in Canberra (hot dry summers, cold-for-Australia winters) it’s perfectly doable to turn the fridge off and use a deep freeze and frozen blocks in a cooler for nine months of the year. Then when we moved down here to Tasmania (about as cold in winter as Canberra but cooler in summer) we didn’t bother to bring the fridge in at all. Currently we’re using the deep-freeze, and an old dead bar fridge a friend gave us as a cooler. I don’t anticipate needing to use a fridge at all down here. About the only thing which occasionally goes off if we don’t use it fast enough is milk. I just buy it in smaller bottles, and am prepared to make paneer when necessary ;-)

    As far as low-energy living goes, living without a washing machine was FAR harder. No fridge barely even registers as an inconvenience by this stage.

  12. Els says:

    Nice to read from people who also live sans fridge. The past two years, since the start of what was to be just an experiment, we’ve relentlessly been pursued by family and friends who either thought that we were nuts or wanted to give us money out of sympathy (‘the poor couple can’t even pay for refrigeration!’). The funny thing is that both our grandparents object most strongly to living without the cooling machine, though one would think that the older generations were used to living without.

    We started living without fridge or freezer just to see if we could do it, and it turned out to be very easy. OK, we live in Brussels, with a few shops in walking distance, and we are flexitarians. We keep our cheese and other dairy on the shelf, and that goes for milk too. Just use the carton you have opened within two or three days and you’ll be fine. We smell everything before we use it, just for safety, but it is surprising how devious the ‘after opening, keep cool’ or ‘use within 4 days’ messages really are.

    The only thing I miss every now and then is not being able to make cold puddings like bavarois and tiramisu, which really need a refrigerator. Apart from that: beer also tastes good at 14 degrees C and lot of things are even tastier than when cold.
    For anyone hesitating to get rid of fridge and freezer: just try it for a week or so, and when you don’t encounter big problems, extend the experiment. Our experiment currently approaches its second birthday and will go on for quite some time after that, I’m sure!

  13. Sixbears says:

    I’m helping friends with their new off-grid home. They were given an old drink cooler from a defunct juice company. This cooler was about he size of large dorm fridge. It depleted their battery bank overnight. The compressor never stopped running. I examined it to discover there was almost no insulation at all. The outside of the cooler was very cold to the touch.

    Check the energy ratings before buying a fridge. There are a lot of family sized fridges that use a lot less power than a dorm fridge. My friends settled on a somewhat smaller than average fridge from a big box store for about $400. They could not afford once of those supper hand built ones you see for sale in alternative energy places. However, this one’s pretty good.

    Check the ratings. Compare them with each other.

  14. KF says:

    One quick caveat about eggs: they will keep a month on the shelf *as long as their natural coating is still intact.* Egg shells are porous, and the natural coating keeps bacteria and stuff from getting inside the eggs and making them go rotten. In Europe, it’s illegal to sell eggs that have been washed, so their eggs keep because of that natural bloom. In most of the US, it’s illegal to sell eggs that haven’t been washed, and eggs that have been washed just don’t keep as long. Also, eggs that come from the grocery store are already 2-3 weeks old and just don’t keep either.

    Bottom line: yes, eggs will keep well without refrigeration, *if* they have their natural bloom, and/or are fresh to begin with. Don’t try it with supermarket eggs if you don’t want a sulfur bomb in your kitchen!

  15. For those considering the chest freezer conversion – we did it, and it does work.

    However, we found that reaching DOWN into the fridge was a real problem – we had lots of spoilage from stuff that just plain got lost in there, and it was a real pain to get to everything. Condensation pools on the bottom too and things get soggy. You had to towel it out every week or so.

    We recently bought an *upright* freezer (you know, the kind that looks like a fridge, but is a freezer) and transferred the thermostat thingie to the upright freezer and voila, we have a fridge that looks fridge like!

    The old freezer we were using for our fridge is now in use again as a freezer (we too have meat butchered and needed another chest freezer).

    I ran the Kill-o-Watt meter on the new setup and found that it is taking a smidgen more energy usage than the chest freezer, but for that smidgen more, I got more cooled space (the new freezer is a bit larger in cubic metres) and much better access, so on a per cubic metre basis, I actually gained in energy efficiency.

    Something to consider if you’re looking at the chest freezer route. We are not at all sorry we switched!

  16. cornish_k8 says:

    On the subject of stuff now kept in the fridge, I have lots of stuff in mine that my mum kept in a pantry when I was a kid; jam, chutney, sauces, salad cream, tomatoes, carrots etc etc. Mine are now kept in the fridge cos of lack of pantry (pantry windows would now be seen as a security risk) and worries of food poisoning.

    Personally I detest cheese on toast with cold chutney but this is what I have to suffer in the name of progress and food safety.

    I would love to reduce our fridge/freezer capacity but are currently using excessive space for fizzy pop and reconstituted fruit juice from south america :-o . I look forward to when they are banned/no longer available.

  17. Claire says:

    We don’t have a chest freezer. We do have one of the 15 cubic foot fridges that only uses about 400 Kwh of electricity in a year. That’s a little over 1 KwH per day. Sharon’s Riot for Austerity monthly KwH target is 90 Kwh; that works out to an allowed 3 Kwh per day on average. So one could have a fridge like we have and still have something like 1.5-2 Kwh/day of electricity left for other uses. This is our long-term goal. It won’t be met till we find another means to cook and bake besides the current electric range and oven. I suspect it is the range/oven rather than the fridge that puts us over Riot for Austerity targets; also the AC, though we are leaving it off so far this summer except when we have guests in the house. I can fry myself but I can’t quite manage to feel like a good hostess when I fry the guests too. ;-)

  18. Southernrata says:

    Our first experiments with fridgelessness were cycle touring in France in spring, when it could still get quite warm. When we were staying at the same camping ground for a few days, we would buy a litre packet of milk, and stash it in a shady corner inside a shallow bowl of water with a damp cloth draped over it. The wicking worked fine, and we could go for four days on the same container of milk.

    When we shifted to our current house a year ago we decided to swap our fridge for a freezer, and use Sharon’s method and it’s worked fine, again. We now have one chilli bin in the cold laundry next to the freezer, and another in the warmer kitchen, both problem free. The only thing I miss is a flat space for wide shallow things sometimes, and our freezer top has done for that temporarily.

    It’s useful to have an absorbent cloth handy to wipe down the outside of the water bottles before they go back into the freezer. And I had a nasty experience trying to freeze a 3/4 full glass bottle of water. It expanded outwards as it froze before expanding upwards.

  19. Yael says:

    Haven’t posted here in a long time, but just wanted to say thanks for the great post–all really good food for thought :) Also, I saw you found a housemate–yay! Very exciting–glad you were able to work everything out.

    ~Yael

  20. Sara: in northern rural Alabama says:

    to Claire:
    – a couple of things to experiment with for “getting off” the stove and oven.
    .
    I just LOVE my Sun Oven! I use it to bake and to cook items I would usually cook on the stove top. Most of my neighbors have one, too, so if I need to cook a whole lot of things on one day, I borrow theirs.

    The other idea is to build an earth oven in your yard. It’s good for baking things like bread and pizza.

    You can make a small solar oven (instead of buying a Sun Oven at first) as a science project with kids.

    Blessings,
    Sara

  21. Sara: in northern rural Alabama says:

    oh. i also found a giant community sized solar oven on a website for Sustainable Village. I can’t find it quickly right now, but it is an oven for a whole village.
    Sara

  22. Brandie says:

    I lived in Mexico for a while and have a trick I learned down there for living without refrigeration. If you’ve made a pot of soup or other liquidy dish you want to save, put a tight lid on it and bring to a good rolling boil. Do not uncover after boiling. This apparently kills any bacteria that might have gotten into it, and it will keep until the next day.

  23. Nancy says:

    Thank you for this post. I would be very interested in more discussion about how to reduce electricity usage in all areas. I live in the hot and humid Southeast, have been doing the Riot for Austerity for a year, and electricity usage has been the hardest to bring down. A gas stove is not an option.
    Thanks!

  24. Claire says:

    Hi Sara – I appreciate your suggestions. We have a sun oven, but we don’t use it enough. My DH does most of the cooking, and he is sort of a last-minute cook. Part of the issue with the sun oven is thinking ahead long enough to, for instance, get a pot of rice going in the sun oven in late morning, when he’s not thinking about dinner and I am busy with gardening and all the other stuff it takes the household planner to do ;-) .

    We’ve managed to collect enough bricks to make a brick oven in the yard, but we still have to figure out where to put it. It’ll be the DH who makes it, and he won’t do it till he wants to and/or till I start suggesting it’s time to do it. We’ve also got plans for one of those cookers made from cans that only takes a tiny amount of woody material to use – but again it’s not high on the list of things for my DH to do at this point. All things in their time, or at least that’s what I tell myself. ;-)

  25. Suz says:

    Suz – Sub-tropical Australia. A fridge is a nice thing when summer lasts four or five months and temps are constantly in the 29 to 35 degree C range. At those temps, fruit barely lasts a day.

    We have had a chest fridge for over 18 months – we are all used to it and often surprised when new visitors ask us why we have a chest freezer in the space where the fridge ’should’ be! The chest freezer is more efficient than anything upright because the cold air doesn’t fall out when you open the door. On top of that the freezer has better insulation. The conversion kit is available at a local electronics store (kit is actually for people wanting a wine fridge) for about $40, or you can buy the ready made ones for a bit more. Chest Freezers are easy to get secondhand from auction sites and the like – they don’t have to be new. Ours is set to run at 1.8 degrees C – so it keeps things really well, much longer.

    We clean ours out once a week and leave a towel in the bottom to soak up condensation. This prevents things being forgotten in the bottom and only takes about 5 minutes on a Friday night with a glass of wine. Most used things go in the basket on top. Milk and the like sit on the floor or the little shelf inside. My son is now old enough to reach the milk – so he’s happy. Bending is no problem – it is a small 225L freezer, so it isn’t far to the bottom. It fits in the space where the fridge was, so very convenient. I wouldn’t go back to a regular fridge – this one uses so little electricity and that constant hum of a fridge in summer is absent.

    Size, as Sharon says, can be smaller if you think more about what actually needs to be in there. We used a borrowed bar fridge only for about 6 months after our big fridge died, so we really got used to only cooling what was needed. When we got our (by comparison) big chest fridge, the increased size was a luxury, but the reduction in power was a lovely bonus. It uses about 1% of the power of our old big fridge, and dropped our electricity bill by a bucketload.

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