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Our experience with a solar powered refrigerator

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Having lived almost 30 years in an off-grid home with no electricity, and no refrigeration, we finally bought a new solar powered refrigerator. Here are our impressions.

By Greg Seaman Posted Sep 16, 2009

I admit to being something of a Luddite. It’s not that I dislike technology, it’s just my feeling that many modern ‘conveniences’ and technological marvels can get in the way of enjoying the simple pleasures of living in a beautiful natural environment. And so my wife and I chose to live in a rural “off-grid” community and raise our two children in this setting.

One of the difficulties of living the simple life in a rural area is income. Although we try to be self-sufficient by growing our own food, bartering and trading for things we cannot make ourselves or otherwise provide, large discretionary expenses have always been out of the question. We feel our lives have been rich beyond compare, but money has never been part of the equation. In the past few years, however, this has begun to change. Our sons have now both finished with school, the tuitions are paid, and our family business, Eartheasy.com, has grown to the point where we could now afford a few ‘luxuries’ – and topping the list was a refrigerator! In past years we had gotten by with a small 2 cu ft RV refrigerator, run by propane. But propane now costs $1 a pound, the bottles are heavy to pack in, and I was always concerned with the risk of fire, the pilot light being just a few inches from my cedar house. Because of these limitations, we only ran the RV fridge during the hottest few weeks of summer.

Researching the right brand and model

Of course, not just any refrigerator would do. It had to be solar-powered, since we are still off-grid, and it had to be very efficient, since we have only one solar panel and two batteries. Researching the right brand and model was easy, because all the homes in our community are off-grid and quite a few homes have been using solar refrigerators. The consensus seemed to favor the SunDanzer line of DC-powered solar refrigerators as the brand delivering the most refrigeration using the least amount of power. We had a chance to buy a used model but were advised against this, as problems were reported with older SunDanzer models which were made outside the US. And so we settled on our model or choice – a brand new SDR165, a 5.8 cubic foot chest-style unit that draws only 60 – 75 watts of power.

Sticker shock

Solar refrigerators are not cheap. The cost was about $1400 plus $300 shipping to our remote location. (The actual cost of the SDR165 is about $1200. I paid more because of an ordering error.) Of course, we rationalized that many years of expected use and the savings we would gain from better storage of food would bring real value for our investment. So we shook off the sticker shock and placed our order.

Buyer’s remorse?

I was perhaps too casual when phoning in my order to the nearest SunDanzer retailer, or he may have got things muddled in passing on the order to the manufacturer in Texas, but in any case I managed to order and pay for the wrong model. This I did not realize for several weeks when a well-packaged, but larger than expected refrigerator arrived at my home. At 8.1 cu ft, it was the size of a large chest freezer. After a few anxious measurements and another visit to the SunDanzer website, my mistake was as obvious as the shiny new white elephant now sitting on my porch.

The prospect of returning the unit for a replacement was dim. The logistics of getting the refrigerator here involved trucking, a ferry, another truck, a trip on a small boat, transfer to a smaller boat, and packing it up the hill to our home. I was beginning to feel cornered into living with a larger model that would take too much power and would not fit in our pantry.

Then a second problem surfaced. The refrigerator had a little sticker on the side that said “freezer”. The company had sent me a freezer by mistake. My mood was darkening. It took about a week of phone calls and figuring out the alternatives, but eventually a local technical wizard simply changed the thermostat and the unit was converted to a refrigerator.

Warming up to the new cold

Hooking up the refrigerator to our 12 volt system was easy, and the big moment finally arrived to turn it on. It purred quietly for a few minutes and then went nearly silent. Within an hour the inside temperature had dropped to 8 degrees C, and in another hour it went down to 4 degrees (approx. 40 degrees F, the ideal temperature for a refrigerator). The batteries held firm at 12.7 volts, and seemed more than adequate to run the appliance. And then the love affair began. The butter got hard. The celebratory beer got cold. It seemed miraculous! And to top it off, we learned that the larger 8.1 cu ft model (SDR225) required only a fraction more power than the smaller model we had planned on.

Enduring love

Buying the larger 8 cu ft model turned out to be a fortunate mistake. Since it requires hardly any additional power than the smaller model, what’s wrong with having a bigger refrigerator we reasoned. Our pantry is slated to be rebuilt next summer, so the extra space will be provided. Gradually, all our perceived problems and anxieties melted away, leaving me with just a slight feeling of embarrassment about all the fuss. For several months now, the refrigerator has operated smoothly and silently at a constant 4 degrees (C ) at the ‘medium’ setting. There has been no frost or moisture buildup. Our batteries seem to hardly notice the draw. My wife is given to occasionally draping herself over the refrigerator in a giant hug, murmuring the sweet nothings I wish she would say to me in our tender moments. And so all’s well that ends well, and we are thrilled with the new cool that’s become the centerpiece of our summer food storage system.

Greg Seaman is the editor of Eartheasy.

Posted in Food and Health Tags ,
  • http://intensedebate.com/people/greg_eartheasy Greg Seaman

    My research led me to the SunDanzer as the best unit with regards to power consumption. There are other brands which have benefits such as combined refirigerator/freezer, but these required more power to run.
    I learned of problems with the wire soldering in older SunDanzer units which were made overseas. For this reason, I did not buy a used model. The new models are made in Texas and I have not heard of any recurrence of the wiring problem.

  • http://www.intensedebate.com/people/greg_eartheasy Greg Seaman

    We have just the one main panel and two batteries rated at 232 amp hours each.
    For about 8 months of the year this powers our refrigerator and a few peripherals such as laptops and rechargeable batteries.
    In the cold months we will turn off the reefer because we don't need it. The power from our panel will be used for several LED lights which run at 6 watts each. (incredible!) So if our power is reduced by half in winter, we still have enough to power 4 – 6 lights. (by comparison, the reefer uses up to 60 watts.)

  • Michael_Walker

    this is just the information i was looking for, thanks! we are in a similar situation as you in central montana.
    can i email you with a couple questions?

  • Davis

    I really enjoyed this article Greg. I'll be looking forward to my next opportunity to visit you again, to help out with meaningful work in the outdoors, and to enjoy great meals and conversation. Thanks again for having me.

  • Dirk Becker

    Thanks for a great article! It is important to understand that it is not solar powered, it is 12 volt which can be generated in a number of ways; one of which is by charging 12 volt batteries, which then run the said appliance.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/greg_eartheasy Greg Seaman

      Good point, Dirk. Besides solar power, the refrigerator could also be run using micro-hydro, wind-power, or any energy source that can charge a 12 volt battery.

  • Bradley

    How heavy is this unit, do you know? We're looking to pack one in to a remote camp and the weight is a factor. Thanks for the article.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/greg_eartheasy Greg Seaman

      The large model (225) weiged about 140 lbs with the carton. These units come very well packaged, and I would suggest that you leave the packing on till you get to your destination, even though you'll have packed in a bunch of styrofoam. We were able to give the styrofoam to someone who had a large item to ship, but you will likely have to pack it back out.

  • http://www.registrycleanandrepair.com/ bestregistrycleaner

    Out of interest, those small fridges that cool a couple of cans of beer – how do they work? Do they have cooling circuits like regular refridgerators? I wonder if they might be good for someone alone, off-grid and who needs only limited facilities.

    Congrats on your good luck with getting the bigger model though. As you say, why not? Your costs only go up as you add more and more food (to be cooled).

    Chris

  • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

    Great comments Thomas. We have 9 guests at our cabin right now and our refrigerator is packed, and just humming along. Yours is a good suggestion about keeping salad greens from contacting the side walls. Another thing we noticed is that, since we stack cartons of eggs (usually 3 – 5 cartons) on the bottom level and against the left wall, the column of cardboard containers has an insulative effect which causes icing on and near the left wall. We have learned to use this as an advantage – the egg “column” can be moved a bit to the right which forms a small “freezer” compartment for things we want extra cold.
    So far we have had no problems with the handle (over 2 years in use) but I will take your experience into consideration and go easy on the handle when opening the lid.
    Thanks for your comments and keep cool!
    Greg

  • Christian Shearer

    Hi Just wondering if the 60-70 watts of power is your hourly useage of power or daily? And if hourly, how do you manage this on only one solar panel?

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      The refrigerator is on full time year round. The other devices (laptop, rechargeable devices, router) are used part time as needed, averaging 4 – 6 hours per day.

  • Curious One

    Loved the details! I’m looking at buying a solar fridge but know nothing. What type of battery pack/solar panel would I need?

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      For our initial setup we used a 123 watt panel wired to a 10 amp charge controller which was connected to 2 6 volt golf cart batteries. For more info see
      eartheasy.com/blog/2012/…/our-simple-diy-home-solar-power-system/

  • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

    The fridge is still running. It hasn’t been off since being installed. There have been no problems with it. Glad we ended up with the large model.
    We would go with the same setup again.
    Other people who have these refrigerators have had problems. I assume they were older models which have had faults since addressed by the manufacturer.

  • http://www.intensedebate.com/people/greg_eartheasy Greg Seaman

    Good questions. Yes, the solar power is diminishing as the days get shorter. But so far there is no problem powering the refrigerator. Right now I'm also running my laptop and charging a battery for a drill/driver while the panel and batteries are powering the refrigerator.
    I can't tell yet what if any effect the ambient tremperature has on power requirements for the unit.
    Yes, you can get a separate freezer thermostat. It takes about 2 minutes to install. And you can also get an ice cream thermostat for even colder freezing needs.

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