Less Refrigeration, More Defrigeration

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I’m switching off my fridge, it seemed like a good idea at the time

A few  months ago, whilst listening to a fantastic talk by Sandor Ellix Katz about fermentation and other preserving methods, I had a spark of inspiration, or madness, as many would suggest. He made the observation that we’re living in a fridge bubble, i.e. we live in the only time in history when people have had access to easy refrigeration technology, something that I had previously completely taken for granted. As he pointed out however, each of us is only alive today because our ancestors survived quite happily without fridges and in many parts of the world people still don’t.

I began to wonder, could I cope without a fridge? I searched around online and found other people were doing the same thing. Why couldn’t I? Well, after months of procrastination, I decided to set a deadline. On the 1st of January 2011, my fridge would be switched off.

It’s the 31st of December as I write this… Help!

Why switch it off?

There are lots of reasons for me why it seems like a good idea, and admittedly a few why it seems like a crazy one.

1. Quite simply, if we want to prevent climate change we have to reduce our energy usage, and my fridge is one of the biggest uses of energy I have. It doesn’t use a lot in any one go, but it sits there quietly switched on 24/7 and so over the course of a year it adds up to quite a lot. If I can do without it, well, that’s another small chunk sliced off my carbon footprint, and my electricity bill.

2. Another huge incentive for me is the world wide energy shortage that is coming our way. We will have no choice but to use a lot less energy as we go about our lives, because there will be less to go around, and it will be a lot more expensive. This is going to mean changes to our lifestyle. If I can go without a fridge now, and learn different ways of preserving my food while I have the opportunity to practice and if all else fails, switch the fridge back on again, then that seems a much better idea than waiting until I have no choice.

3. There are lots of different ways of preserving food that don’t require refrigeration, such as drying, pickling, jams and fermentation and I’ve been meaning to learn some of them for a while. However when there’s an easy and convenient preserving machine sat in the corner of the kitchen, the incentive to learn isn’t so strong. It’s like when I gave up my car, initially I did so because I needed to save money, but after a while as I was forced to use a bike and public transport I slowly realised that I no longer needed, or even wanted a car. So I’m removing the easy option of chucking everything in the fridge and forcing myself to learn some new skills. Necessity is the mother of invention after all.

4. Personally, I like setting myself a challenge, and I have a pretty strong competitive instinct, so seeing other people managing without a fridge is like a red rag to a bull.

However, the reason fridges are so universal and popular is that they are easy, convenient and effective! Yes, not having a fridge is at times going to be a pain in the posterior, and as I write this, part of me is dreading the moment tomorrow when I switch it off.

Ultimately though the only way to use less energy is to get on with it and actually use less energy, and the only way to learn how to be less dependent on fossil fuels is to start trying right now, play around with it, make mistakes, learn from them and start again.

The fridge is dead, long live the fridge.

As part of my minimal preparation for switching off day I looked up other ways of cooling things down, and stumbled upon something known as a ‘pot in pot’ fridge.

This consists of two terracotta pots, one inside the other, with a layer of sand in-between them. Water is poured into the sand, which gets absorbed by the terracotta pots and evaporates from the outside. Because it takes energy in the form of heat to evaporate water, this energy has to come from somewhere and so some of it is taken from inside the pots, cooling down whatever happens to be inside. Voila, an electricity free fridge.

That sounds like a good idea, I thought, and so a couple of weeks ago I found myself struggling back from the local DIY emporium with my bike heavily and precariously weighed down under the weight of a couple of large terracotta pots and what felt like a tonne of sharp sand. I cursed myself for not taking my trailer, but the bike, my back, and the pots just about survived the journey.

A few weeks later I stopped procrastinating and got around to assembling the fridge. First I plugged the drainage holes in the bottom of the pots and then put an inch or so of sand in the bottom of the large pot, enough so that when I put the smaller pot inside, the tops were level. Then I realised I had a problem. I had left the sand outside and it was wet. Perfect for sand castles, but rubbish for pouring evenly down between the pots, and so I decided to let it dry out in the airing cupboard so that it would flow easily into the gap.

Best laid plans

And then I had a better idea! Rather than wasting time and energy drying out the sand, only to have to add more water to it later, I decided to add even more water to it to create a slurry, which would be easily poured down the gap between the two pots.

I amaze myself with my genius sometimes.

I spooned the sand into a chopped up old juice carton that I used as a funnel, and then added more water to wash it down between the pots. It worked! Soon I had a nice wet layer of sand almost right up to the top of the pots.

Then, like so many good ideas, the law of unintended consequences kicked in, and it all went horribly wrong. I’d used so much water that I almost had sandy water rather than wet sand in between the pots, and so the inner pot started floating upwards like a boat on all that water, and it slowly, and then not so slowly rose upwards and all the sand and water got sucked underneath it.

Maybe I’m not such a genius after all.

The only thing I could do was dig out all that sand and water and start again… with dried sand, which is what I should have done in the first place.

I dried out the sand and tried again, this time successfully, the dry sand poured nicely between the two pots. To finish it off I’m using a large old plate, and a couple of cloths as a lid for now, but a better fitting and more insulated lid will be better in the long run.

And after all this, how does my new fridge work? To be honest, a bit disappointingly, but it was never going to be as good as the white box in the corner. It does cool, as tested with a thermometer, but sat in my kitchen, on a wet winter day, it only cools the inside down a couple of degrees at most from the ambient temperature. Still, that’s better than nothing, and I suspect it will become more effective as the temperature rises, and on less humid days, especially as I intend to put it outside at some point so that the wind can help the evaporation. I would try now, but frost and wet terracotta pots don’t go very well together.

A fridge like this is never going to be the magic solution to all refrigeration problems, but as a little helping hand, it’ll do for now. The whole point of this experiment is to find out what’s possible, and what isn’t. Tomorrow I’ll be switching off my old fridge, and the real experiment can begin. For now, I’ll take the last beer out, and get ready for midnight, a new year, and a new challenge.

The day after the day before tomorrow

I woke up with a sense of dread this morning as I contemplated the imminent start of my fridge free experiment. As if I haven’t got enough to stress about without adding wilting vegetables and off milk to my list! It feels like I’m having a comfort blanket taken away from me. Oh well. I’m leaving myself the escape clause that I can switch it back on at any time, but it still feels like a royal pain that I could do without.

But as a wise person once said, you don’t make an omelette without cracking eggs, and hey, eggs don’t even need to be kept in the fridge!

So, I’ve done the deed, and switched off my fridge. It’s sitting slowly defrosting as I type. I can almost hear it singing “Daisy Daaaiisy…”

Two things have become clear having transferred some of the items in it into my new evaporation fridge.

1. There’s not much space in the new fridge.

2. The cold items I’ve just put in have lowered the temperature of the new fridge more than the evaporation itself managed. That’s disappointing, to say the least.

However, now that it’s switched off, the formerly electric fridge has now become a rather handy insulated box. I’m sure that might come in useful, all I need is some ice to put in it, and I’ve got myself a fridge! The ice that’s in it now suddenly seems a lot more valuable than it did a few minutes ago, so rather than encouraging it to melt, I’m going to chip it off and collect it in the salad tray! I knew that salad tray would come in handy one day.

One option in the winter months is to leave some water outside at night, ideally to freeze, and then transfer it into the fridge in the morning to keep it cool. Whether it will work or not, we’ll just have to wait and see. That’s the point of this experiment. Although conventional fridges are currently very convenient, they’re not the only way, and by taking away that option it frees us up to discover and re-discover different ways of doing things. Of course, the summer months will bring new challenges, but also new opportunities.

Here’s to 2011, further adventures and experiments in the transition to our oil free future, and delicious warm beer.

4 thoughts on “Less Refrigeration, More Defrigeration

  1. Ornella Trevisan

    Dear Dave,

    I thoughroughly enjoyed your article!!
    If I can share my experience with you, this is what happened when I tried a similar experiment time ago: I put my fridge practically out of the house, on a balcony that is closed in with glass, but not heated, and facing North. The idea was that it would use less electricity to cool down food. Well, it got so cold that the fridge … simply switched off. Regrettably, all the food that was in the freezer got lost, and that’s a great pity, but I can’t help thinking that there’s also a little funny aspect to the story!
    Let’s keep trying, with new ideas!
    I suggest to stop using milk as our food, for example.

  2. Peter Henshaw & Anna Finch

    We’ve lived without a fridge for c10 years, and it hasn’t been a problem, certainly not a winter (though the recent snow meant we had frozen milk!) In summer we keep milk (and the occasional bottle of white) in a bucket of water outside, and we’ve got used to not having chilled fruit juice. Our house (’60s bungalow) has an old fashioned cupboard-style larder, which keeps cheese and other perishables cool enough for a few days at a time. We tend to shop two or three times a week instead of once a week/fortnight, but that’s not a huge hassle.
    Anna lived without a fridge in Sydney, Australia, at a summer temp up to 33 degrees C (though she didn’t have cheese or milk) and ate up leftovers next day.
    In short, living without a fridge isn’t a problem – you have nothing to lose but your CFCs!

  3. Liz Jackson

    I am so old that I can remember the days when, as a child, we didn’t have a fridge. My mother used to boil the milk so that it didn’t go bad so quickly – ( so that used some energy). It tasted disgusting and there were floating bits in it. Food didn’t last so long, which meant having to shop twice a week. With a fridge one would need to go shopping only once a week and not so much food would be wasted. If you get food poisoning that, also, is false economy. Thank your lucky stars that you live in 2011 and turn your fridge on again!

  4. Helen C

    Brilliant experiment – how’s it going?
    Have you found that you’ve wasted more food? I’d assume in most peoples busy lives living without a fridge would put a greater demand on our limited resources – we already waste so much food and if you don’t have the time or live close enough to shop everyday/every other day. I guess if you do have the time though it’s a great thing, these solutions don’t have to fity everyone – but I’m not sure comparing our living requirements with that of our fridgeless ancestors is a useful comparison – as there were a lot fewer of them living a much different quality of life!
    How much have you had to change your diet?
    Have you thought about the energy used in some preserving techniques? E.g. buying dried milk? I’ve never looked it up, but might be interesting.
    Be really interesting to hear more about your progress.

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