The Milkweed Diaries

Thursday, March 5, 2009

On Refrigeration

At left: our strange and wonderful fridge.

Refrigeration Revalations

In building our little house over the past two years, CF and I have nerdily obsessed over many things, logging hundreds (thousands?) of hours of research in choosing the most ecological options within our limited budget. One of the things we decided to spend some serious money on was our refrigerator.

Our goal is to be on a solar/photovoltaic (PV) system in the near future. With that in mind, we have been working to get our energy load as low as possible so that our whole house can soon be powered by a small and simple solar array. In the meantime, we want to buy as little as possible of Progress Energy's power, which mostly comes from the Evil Twins of energy: coal and nuclear.

As a sidenote here's an energy-saving tip: I have found that when you refer to your appliances and gadgets as the "coal- and nuclear- fired whatever," it tends to help motivate you to reduce desire to use it. For instance: "I'm going to go get the wrinkles out of this shirt with the coal-fired iron" kind of puts ironing in perspective.

So back to the fridge. Refrigeration is a big energy suck. Almost 100% of American households keep a relatively large amount of food chilled and frozen 24-hours a day, which requires a lot of electricity. In a typical US household, refrigeration can account for up to 20% of the total energy load. In our household, we calculated that refrigeration would be a lot larger percentage of our total since our total load was so small relative to the typical US household. So we set out to see how little energy we could expend keeping food cold.

The refrigerator we finally decided upon after much agonizing is pictured above: the Conserv by Vestfrost. Tall, elegant, efficient, and made in Denmark, Vestfrost fridges are styley enough that some people buy them just for looks. But they are brainy as well as beautiful.

Here are some of the very cool features of Vestfrost refrigerators:
  • No CFCs used to manufacture or run the appliance; CFC-free refrigerant and foam
  • Freezer on the bottom because cold air sinks and warmer air rises. Duh! Why are all fridges not designed this way?
  • Smaller footprint (see "downsize your fridge," below)
  • Less than 1 kwh/day to run, which is way ahead of the standard "Energy Star" rated fridges widely available on the US market. More information on the inadequacy of "Energy Star" ratings here.
After much consideration, we ordered our Vestfrost about a year ago from out of Brooklyn, which had the lowest price and best deal on shipping that we could find. Oasis Montana also sells them, and has a lot of good information on Vestfrost fridges here.

Our Vestfrost was shipped as freight and was definitely more complicated to acquire than a standard fridge from the local bigbox. It was also considerably more expensive up front (just under $1,000), though it will pay for itself in electric bills, no doubt.

These fridges are known to be reliable over many years, and are not complicated to repair. We know a family in our community who has an older model Vestfrost that they've been running for more than a decade, and there are lots of reviews online from satisfied long-term Vestfrost owners.

Typical American super-sized fridge full
of crapola.

Downsize Your Fridge

One way that the Vestfrost saves energy is by being smaller than the typical super-sized American fridge. The average capacity of a standard fridge in the US is 18-26 cubic feet. The Vestfrost has about half that: 7.1 cubic feet of refrigerator space and 3.4 cubic feet of freezer space. In terms of energy efficiency in refrigeration and freezing, it is better to have less space and have it packed more tightly than to have lots of empty cooled space.

"But what if we don't have enough space for all of our food?!?" Despite our decidedly counterculture leanings, CF and I obviously had some level of buy-in to the "BIGGER! BETTER! MORE!" mentality that pervades American culture. We found ourselves asking this question with an edge of panic in our voices as we discussed refrigeration options.

If a Big Mac is better than a regular cheeseburger, then a Big Fridge must be better than a small one, right? In addition to the status-symbol factor of fancy appliances (see Dwell, Natural Home, or any number of fancy home magazines), I think that our culture places a high value on having a large fridge full of lots of perishables at all time--it's a kind of false security. It's as if we believe that a big, packed fridge will make us safe in an unsafe world. So CF and I decided to let go of the false sense of food security that is engrained into us by mainstream American culture and--gasp--downsize our fridge.

In other parts of the world, people don't think that everything has to be kept at 38 degrees all the time. And they don't think that they need a large quantity of refrigerated stuff to be happy and secure. In my travels throughout Europe and Latin America I have observed that people tend not to refrigerate everything, and also not to stockpile food the way folks do in the US.

When I lived in Ireland, I noticed that no one refrigerated butter or eggs. In many countries, it is more typical to buy fresh produce at the market, bread at the breadshop, and a small bottle of milk daily or several times a week than to fill up your giant fridge with gallons of milk, dozens of eggs, and stacks and stacks of processed food products that need refrigeration. My guess would be that cultures that buy food more frequently and stockpile less are wasting less food, too.

A beautiful old root cellar

Alternatives to Refrigeration

When storing quantities of food is necessary, there are lots of ways to do it that don't require ongoing use of electricity, and in some cases don't require any electricity at all. Many of these preservation methods are ancient culinary traditions that produce delicious foods.

Alternatives to refrigeration include:
  • Brining. Examples: pickles, sour kraut, relishes.
  • Salting (meats). Examples: Cured ham.
  • Drying (meats, shell beans, herbs, vegetables, fruits). Examples: raisins, dried apples, sundried tomatoes, dried beans.
  • Souring or culturing (dairy). Examples: cheese, sour cream, buttermilk, yogurt.
  • Canning/heat processing. Examples: tomato sauce, canned fruits and vegetables.
  • Cellaring/Cool storage. Examples: potatoes, cabbage, apples, and all manner of root crops. This can be as simple as storing potatoes in a cool, dark basement or as complicated as building a root cellar.
  • Buying or harvesting food fresh more frequently and storing it for less time (see my comments above on what people in other parts of the world do).
  • Eating in season fresh from the garden. The taste beats the hell out of refrigerated food, too.
On Upsides and Compromises

Don't get me wrong, I'm not a total refrigeration Luddite. I am grateful for the technology of mechanical refrigeration. It improves my quality of life, and I know it has many important functions (such as preserving medicines and medical supplies) that are invisible to most of us. If nothing else, I am grateful to have a constant supply of mayonaisse available to me without a lot of effort, thanks to my fridge.

So, I am not suggesting that we all revert to root cellars, kraut crocks, and spring houses alone, but I do think that it is worth thinking about refrigeration and how much energy we spend keeping things cold.

Lastly, there are ways to make regular old inefficient fridges MORE efficient. If buying an over-the-top fridge of the future like the Vestfrost is not in your budget anytime soon, here is some great advice from Chelsea Green on how to make the most of your current refrigeration technology:

So there you have it. A whole post on refrigeration. Who would have thunk?


el said...

Great post Milkweedy! We're looking into a Sunfrost fridge for the kitchen. It's pretty small (something like 12 refrigerated s.f.) and pretty ugly but hey it's super-efficient. My problem, this year, is that money's very tight and these things are very expensive.

Our power is Nookeelar.

And I think we Americans' wacky thing about refrigeration has a lot to do with our wacky fear of death and dying. My MIL eyes our butter on the counter every time she comes over: I swear she'd stick it in the fridge if she thought she'd get away with it! But yeah. A decent cheese-loving Frenchwoman would tell you she'd just as soon stick her baby in the fridge as her cheese.

Milkweed said...

Thanks El!

YES. I think you are exactly right about the fear of death piece. That butter on your counter is threatening the whole American way of life! Butter is supposed to be a nice, neat, compact, refrigerated rectangle! Think of the germs!

Meanwhile, there's nuclear waste piling up while the MILs of the US of A are concerning themselves with unrefrigerated perishables.

Our culture is so focused on hiding sickness, aging, death, and decay --the examples are too many to count! From all of the "anti-aging" therapies to hiding our massive waste stream away in landfills to the ubiquitous practice of flushing our excrement off to a sewage treatment plant to the funeral industry with its indestructible, non-biodegradable coffins -- we try to whisk away all that unpleasantness! I think you're right that somehow refrigerating everything gives us the sense that we can prevent or forestall the natural cycles of decay.

Your comment makes me think of the book "The Denial of Death" --what I recall from the book is the idea that all of the crazy things we do to try to pretend we aren't mortal, fragile, beings made up of the same stuff as the rest of the planet really distort our psyches over time.

All of this is one reason I love fermentation - working WITH the natural cycles of decay and change, rather than trying to keep everything fresh and perfect. Sandor Katz has a great bit about denial of death and fermentation in "Wild Fermentation" - fermenting food seems to me to be a way of hands-on interaction with and celebration of the reality of rot.

We looked at Sunfrosts and they do look good too...don't they make a model that runs on propane?

I love your bit about those cheese-loving French...and I heart your blog! Thanks for commenting....


el said...

Yeah I think Sunfrost makes fridges that run on DC current too from solar panels. I think their market is very cabiny/woodsy/boaty so they're all over the alternatives. And ugly, like, they need a designer. (Maybe I should volunteer.)

I like Sandor Katz too. What I find amazing is much of his search for the wild came out of his own illness. I am sure his continued good health has a lot to do with eating foods that are not dead! And it makes me think that most folks' intestinal and even immune system problems are because they eat things that are quite microbially kaput. Is this book on your list if not your bookshelf? Preserving Food without Freezing or's kind of a French Foxfire book without all the cool music. It's pretty great.

Although, with having a 40' hoophouse, your need for food preservation and/or refrigeration can be fairly minor. (A good thing!)

happy digging!

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