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Life Without Refrigeration

Mosquito Mountain Montana HomesteadOur refrigerator died! Well, maybe it isn't completely dead and we can fix it but at the moment it isn't working.

Being without refrigeration isn't a new experience with us. When we first began our homestead adventure we had no electricity and no refrigeration. But once you get used to having a refrigerator it's a bit of a shock to have it quit on you!

Upon discovery that it wasn't working, the first quip my wife made was that "it was time to practice what we preach." In our desire for self-sufficiency we vowed that we'd never become dependent upon anything we couldn't find locally or produce ourselves.

Even the decision to purchase a refrigerator was carefully thought out just to be sure we were not setting ourselves up to be dependent upon it. But once we had one we definitely began to take it for granted and now we were back to square one!

So, what do you do on an "almost" self-sufficient homestead when the refrigerator quits?

First, you do a quick check for a quick fix. We had electricity and the fridge was plugged in, the compressor was running and some cooling was happening but it was barely below the outside temperature. There would be no quick fix this time!

Step two, we looked at our options.

We had a motor home with a refrigerator but the propane tank was empty because we were putting it up for sale. I could run the generator to power its fridge on 110 AC but that was an expensive and temporary option at best. Its electrical draw was way too high to power it on our solar power system this time of year (reduced daylight hours). A "normal" refrigerator runs the compressor about 30 to 50 percent of the time. A three-way refrigerator like the one in our motor home runs on 12 volt DC, 115 volt AC or propane. It does not have a compressor like a normal fridge. It has heating coils. It uses 25 amps of power all the time it is on, which is a lot of electrical power for an off-grid system like ours. I could have done some work to the propane lines to allow us to run it off a 20-pound portable propane tank but we took another option instead.

Our youngest son (we have seven adult children) had just given us one of those apartment-sized refrigerators that his father-in-law had picked up at a yard sale. We checked the watt rating and it was slightly less than our non-working fridge so we plugged it in. (We are going to put it in our motor home that we'd made from a U-Haul truck. We'll just postpone that awhile.)

That gave us a place for some of the items from our larger refrigerator but we still had problems. We'd just returned from town and had two gallons of milk and a few other items that needed refrigeration. Fortunately it's fall and the nights are cold enough that we could leave those things outside on the porch until the next day. That bought us some time.

At this point my wife went to work and I'm going to copy the rest of this from her blog (you'll have to scroll down to the blog for Monday, October 13, 2014).

I pulled out canning jars and got busy. I started with all the meat, vegetables and broth that I had stored in the freezer.

Select the canning jars.

Here'are the jars on the counter, and a pan (right) with the bags of meat and bags of vegetables.

I had just chopped up an onion and distributed it among the jars.

Everything's ready for canning.

I added vegetables, meat, fettuccine noodles, and salt, pepper and garlic powder, and a bit of powdered dried spinach. Then I rain it through the pressure canner.

Sour cream ready for dehydration.

Then I lined a cake pan lid with parchment paper and spread sour cream on it to dry.

Cottage cheese ready for dehydration.

I lined some dehydrator sheets with parchment paper and spread cottage cheese on them.

This is one of the places we dehydrate food.

In the upper left corner you can see shelf brackets where I have two of the drying pans sitting. The top one is the cake pan lid with the sour cream on it. The bottom one is cottage cheese. This is behind our wood stove. That cement board on top of cement blocks leaning against the log wall is to keep our log wall from getting too hot. The black thing running up the right side of the picture is our stove pipe. Food dries quickly there behind the wood stove.

The other sheets of cottage cheese are in the oven drying. We have a propane range with a pilot light in the oven, and it keeps it warm and dry in the oven.

One of our sons gave us a small fridge his father-in-law had picked up at a yard sale for $20. It's just a little square cube, but it holds a couple gallons of milk, the cheese and butter, and a few packages of meat that I stuffed in it's little (and already frosty) freezer.

Our temporary substitute refrigerator.

It's also out on the porch and not running much with our 35-degree nights and 50-ish days. Not all small fridges are low-watt but fortunately this one is only 135 watts. We plan to have it emptied and shut off in a couple weeks. We don't have enough solar over the winter, and by then "nature's refrigerator" has kicked in up here in cold country.

I had just stocked up on butter and cheddar cheese because they finally ran a good sale. I had planned to freeze the extra pounds of butter, and use up the 2-pound block of cheese before it got too old. But now I've rounded up several half-pint jars and I'm going to can up the butter and cheese in those jars tomorrow. Fortunately the ketchup, mayo, Parmesan cheese and eggs are keeping just fine in the little cooler. I open it at night and set everything out on the table on the porch so the cold nights chill it good. First thing in the morning I set it back in the cooler and close it, and set it on the floor with a blanket around it for insulation.

We'll wait until spring to decide if we want to try a refrigerator again. Propane refrigerators are expensive and way out of reach for us. So it would have to be a small, energy-efficient fridge again. But we might have the same problem again with the electronics being fried by the variances in voltage and sine waves and other issues that come with a solar power system.

But that doesn't bother me. After all, life without refrigeration has been the norm for me for years ...

(Susan Gregersen is the author of Life Without Refrigeration.)