Our experience with a solar powered refrigerator
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.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.
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.
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.
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.