Off Grid Refrigeration

This is a topic that is a key component to being self-reliant. How to keep food cold so it doesn’t spoil. A typical homeowner simply runs to an appliance store, selects a shiny new refrigerator from the vast display of models, arranges for delivery and when delivered, plugs in the new gadget and their food storage problems are solved. Little thought goes into the energy efficiency of the unit or whether it’s appropriate for an off-grid home. Let me tell you what choices we’ve made through the years to solve the off grid refrigeration problem.

Volt Ray 11.1 CF Refrigerator

Volt Ray 11.1 CF Refrigerator

Blocks of Ice in an Ice Shed

Over the course of the last 38 years off grid, I’ve tried many things to keep food cold. Would you believe I started out in Northern Maine by building an ice shed and making and storing ice in sawdust like the old timers used to do before the advent of refrigerators? Unfortunately I wasn’t very good at making and keeping blocks of ice.

Modified Refrigerator

Then I got the bright idea of installing an old refrigerator in the kitchen, cutting a hole in the top to run a 4 inch vent pipe out the roof and likewise, a hole in the bottom of the fridge that went through the floor to the crawlspace. The theory was that because Maine has a cool climate, I could take advantage of that fact. In the winter, cold air dropped down through the tube in the roof, through the refrigerator and out the bottom into the crawl space. It circulated well enough that I could keep food cold. Of course summer was a problem.

Modified Unpowered Frig in Maine

Modified Unpowered Frig in Maine

Another option would have been storing food in a spring house if I’d had a handy spring close by. I didn’t so I was never able to give the spring house a try. But we did have a root cellar of sorts and we used it to full advantage. In spring, once all the remaining root crops were removed for use, we used the 3 foot deep hole as a makeshift frig. Located in the barn, the hole was shaded and remained cooler than if it were outside, providing us with a cool space until the end of May/ beginning of June when the cellar hole became too warm to store perishables safely.

Propane Refrigerators

So eventually along came a small refrigerator/freezer that ran off of propane. Hardly the answer for a self-reliant homestead but it worked well and solved the problem of food storage during the summer months. Even after we installed the propane appliance we continued to use the natural cold our climate afforded us for food storage during the winter months. One of the biggest problems with it was the dinky freezer compartment that could only hold one box of my ice cream at a time. I’d down a half gallon at a sitting and then I had no box of ice cream as a back up. That was rough! The refrigerator compartment was tiny as well and it’s a good thing Johanna was a master of the food canner.

Under Counter Small Propane Frig in Maine

Under Counter Small Propane Frig in Maine

When we made the big move to the Canadian wilderness, gas refrigeration was not an option we would consider. There was no way we were going to be flying cylinders of propane in and out of the bush. I had no interest in lugging 100 pound cylinders off the plane, up to the house and then returning them for refills. Plus we didn’t want to be dependent on the gas company for our refrigeration.

12/24 VDC Refrigerators

Back then, there was a company called Sunfrost that made a great, energy efficient refrigerator/freezer. Very expensive, but it worked well. We purchased the RF-12 which was a mid-sized appliance perfect for our needs.

Sunfrost Refrigerator

Sunfrost Refrigerator

Other than one latch and one thermostat replacement, it ran flawlessly for 17 years. But when we sold the Saskatchewan homestead, the Sunfrost had to stay and the search was on for a suitable replacement.

I need to be up front with you. I searched the internet and studied the choices for energy efficient refrigeration. Unfortunately there are few refrigerators that will run direct off a battery. There are many small recreational type refrigerator/freezers but they are typically too small for a home. When I found a company that had a product I felt comfortable with, I approached the sales rep and offered to bring it to the attention of the off grid community if they would consider giving me a small discount on our purchase price in exchange for an honest assessment of their product. So what follows is my experience and thoughts on this product.

The manufacturing company is C4P (http://www.c4pinc.com/solar/solar-refrigerator/ )The distributor I dealt with is Scott at Northern Fridge (https://www.northernfridge.ca/ ) C4P Inc., has been around for 9 years in the North American markets but has extensive manufacturing experience over the past 25 years.

I honestly had never heard of C4P before and although it is a Canadian company, its products were targeted more for the European market. Now they are addressing the North American market too.

Volt Ray Off Grid Refrigerators/Freezers

When I talked to Scott at Northern Fridge I asked a lot of questions and then spent hours researching the company and specifications. Scott was responsive to every question and concern I raised and I couldn’t have dealt with a more competent man. He assured me the company made a great product and stood behind it. I compared it to another company touting off grid products. Ultimately, we selected and purchased C4P’s 11.1 cf Volt Ray refrigerator/ freezer.

After we set up the tent in early summer, (http://www.inthewilderness.net/2017/07/16/wall-tent-our-temporary-home/ ) we unpacked our new refrigerator with great anticipation. This is a 24 VDC model which matches our battery bank voltage. However, it will work equally well on 12 VDC. I made the connections, flipped the circuit breaker and… nothing. Huh? Where’s the purring of the compressor? This was surely a disappointment.

I contacted both Scott and C4P to report I had a dead unit. At this point, it was an interesting quandary. I’m thinking how could the company send me a dead unit while the company is thinking how could I immediately kill their fully tested refrigerator. The company helped me determine that a faulty control module was the problem and they sent a new module out.

In the interim, I dug out the chest freezer we hauled with us from Saskatchewan and we made ice by freezing gallon milk jugs filled with water which we used in our ice chest. By swapping the partially thawed jugs with completely frozen ones daily we were able to use our ice chest as a temporary refrigerator. Not ideal since this was a hot period in the summer but this procedure got us through.

Once the module arrived, I replaced it which was easily done, and the frig started right up. We were so happy until about a month later, Johanna asked me if I had heard the refrigerator running recently. My heart sank as I determined the unit wasn’t running.

Lots of terminals are located on the back of the control module and there is a terminal for troubleshooting. I was able to utilize my fluke digital multimeter set on “diode” function to determine the fault. The number of beeps the meter makes gave me the error code and from that, I determined that I had a dead compressor.

The company asked me to package up the unit and another refrigerator was shipped out to me. Arrangements were made to ship the old unit back and we had a new refrigerator arrive in a timely manner.

I was apprehensive as I wired the new unit into our electrical system. And even more nervous when I flicked the circuit breaker on. And do you know what happened? I flicked the breaker and the sweet humming sound of the compressor kicked on. The unit has run absolutely flawless for us! I was not willing to do any review on this product until it ran for at least 4 months problem free. And it has!

So here’s what we think happened. Every unit is tested before it is shipped. In fact, the company was willing to send me a video of them testing our new unit before it was shipped to me. Although I declined and took them at their word, I appreciated that they would go to that trouble and it shows commitment to selling a reliable appliance. Kudos to C4P on that.

When I inquired about quality control, this is what the company told me.There is an extensive QC testing phase before it gets boxed and shipped from the factory. After they’re shipped out, they’re tested again in our local warehouses when they arrive. Every unit is verified and signed off to be in working order and that the temperature is dropping at the proper rates. Before we ship out, we often do a final check on the unit to make sure that everything is prime and proper when our customer gets our appliances.”

I have no doubt our first unit was fully tested. Some shippers are a bit brutal on handling packages they have been assigned to deliver. I never told you about the fiasco I had with our battery delivery this past spring. Thousands and thousands of dollars worth of batteries were on one pallet shipped from British Columbia to Nova Scotia. And the forklift operator for the trucking company dumped the load en-route. Fortunately they were insured and another batch was sent out. But the point is shipping can take a toll on a product and we think our first refrigerator bore the brunt of some rough handling. That’s why the module was dead on arrival.

As far as the compressor, it is my understanding C4P is the manufacturer of all their compressors. Compressors are pretty tough and I have not been able to get a failure analysis report from the company other than the compressor died. That’s kind of obvious. What died on it? I have no idea but my hunch is there was a rare defect in that particular compressor.

Here’s the nitty gritty on this refrigerator/freezer. The company does an excellent job of packaging. I don’t see how they can improve on that. I believe my first experience with the refrigerator that didn’t work was a real fluke. There’s no way they would ship a defective unit to me knowing I was going to post my opinion on their product. It must have taken a beating on the way here.

These refrigerators are tall and narrow and take a little getting used to. It’s been made for the European market that likes these dimensions. (tall/narrow) Our preference would be a unit that is shorter, wider and a little deeper since that is what we are accustomed to. The refrigerator is at the top and the freezer is below. Johanna likes this arrangement as she is in and out of the frig more often than the freezer. The unit looks well made and has glass shelves in the frig compartment, something Johanna likes for ease of cleaning. Food safety is paramount so anything that makes the refrigerator easy to clean is a plus. The shelves on the door are very nice too. Wide enough to hold multiple 2 liter soda jugs plus lots of other stuff.

Volt Ray Interior

Volt Ray Interior

There are 3 clear heavy plastic organizing trays in the freezer. We opted to take the top 2 out (but left in the shelves the drawers sit on) because it allows us to put more food in for freezing. Johanna always has some bread or leftovers that need freezing and space is at a premium.

The company has 3 refrigerator/freezer models currently and they are also working on a 16 cf unit. If the 16 cf model was available when we made our purchase, that probably would have been the unit we would have chosen since it would be wider and perhaps deeper and closer to what we’ve used in the past. That range of sizes should cover the needs of any off grid home. Likewise, they have 3 chest freezer sizes. Once we make the move into the house, we likely will buy one of their chest freezers.

I’m very impressed with the energy efficiency of the unit. I have no capability to actually measure watts consumed over a period of time or determine duty cycle. It wouldn’t be a fair test anyway since the ambient temperature of our tent is all over the map. But I can tell you there is a thermostat inside the refrigerator that goes from 0 to 7. At roughly a setting of 2 on our model, ice cream is hard. Keeping ice cream frozen is a tough one so I use that to easily judge how well any freezer is doing. At the time of this writing, I have 2, count em, 2 boxes of ice cream on hand.

With the inverter off and the refrigerator the only load, this 11.1 CF fridge drew 3.8 amps as measured by my system shunt and metering system. Battery voltage was 25.1 VDC. That’s less than 100 watts while the refrigerator runs. That’s actually a little better than the published specs on C4P’s website. Of course, how many minutes does it run per hour to determine the duty cycle is part of the overall equation and I can’t fairly quantify that for you. I don’t have the equipment or a controlled environment. But I can tell you the unit kicks on, runs for a few minutes and then it’s off again for awhile.

Energy Efficiency is a Must

You may wonder why we didn’t just run to the store and select a shiny model from the local appliance showroom. Energy efficiency is the answer. There are very few truly energy efficient models to choose from. The insulation is relatively poor when compared to one of these Volt Ray refrigerators or the old Sunfrost. Just like a house, frig insulation really matters. Not only that, but the overwhelming majority of refrigerators run on 120VAC which is slightly less efficient than running on straight DC battery voltage. The clincher is the thermostat. Unless it is a mechanical thermostat, meaning it requires no electricity to monitor temperature and it acts simply as a mechanical switch to turn on and off the compressor, the modern electronic thermostats will take a little power 24/7 which ultimately increases the energy consumption.

So here’s the bottom line. There are few good choices for energy efficient off grid refrigerators. C4P is dedicated to meeting the needs of us off gridders. I am convinced our first unit was mishandled somewhere in transit before arriving to us. The replacement is working very well and I couldn’t be happier with the performance thus far. The warranty is 1 year for upright refrigerator models and 18 months for chest freezers and both Scott the dealer and C4P honored the warranty with no problems.

If you are in the United States, you can do an internet search for Voltray Solar Refrigerators to find a dealer near you or Scott at Northern Fridge services both Canada and the United States.

I know I was frustrated in my search for an appliance suited for our off grid home but I found a company building a range of products specifically for this market. I wish the company all the success in the world and I hope our experience helps in your decision when it comes time to buy your refrigerator or freezer. Feel free to drop me a note at any time to inquire on how our unit is doing. I’ll be happy to update you.

Until next time, keep the dream alive! We wish you a great day!

Ron and Johanna

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2 Responses to Off Grid Refrigeration

  1. Philippe says:

    Hi Ron & Johanna
    Thank You for once again writing a very informative article.
    So interesting to follow your progress and to open my eyes to a alternative and achievable lifestyle.
    Hope all is well with the two of you and greatly look forward to more of your postings.
    Thanks

    • Ron & Johanna Melchiore says:

      You are more than welcome Phillipe. I’m sorry for the delay in response. For some reason, your comment went to the spam folder. We are very glad you are finding our information of value. All the best! Ron

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