This has been the coldest stretch of winter weather I’ve experienced as yet in Indiana. More than two weeks with highs in the teens or single digits and lows down to -10 have kept me busy tinkering with my kerosene heaters and making last minute upgrades to my winter routine. One of the first things that happened when I moved out of the bedroom to the futon by the heater in the front room, both for a little more warmth and a convenient eyes-on of the heater at night, was that I noticed the refrigerator in the kitchen was running nonstop. Uhoh. I checked it out, and yes, the freezer compartment was full of thawing food. Cold snaps like these are the time for refrigerator problems, and people don’t expect this. Seems to most of us that refrigerators should work better when it’s colder. In the Army in Alaska one of the common jokes was that Eskimos buy refrigerators to keep their food warm. This is not true. Well, if any Eskimos do, they’ve been misled by the sales people.
Just yesterday on Craig’s List I saw an ad for a second-hand refrigerator, up for sale in Terre Haute. The owner said “Just come get it. Don’t ask me what’s wrong or what I have tried. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s a $100 fridge.” I suspect that’s a really good deal, because it’s very likely there’s nothing at all wrong with the fridge and if he gets a brand new one he’ll probably have the same trouble. In this kind of weather, if you close off your kitchen to save on the heating bills, and just keep it warm enough that the pipes don’t freeze, your fridge will stop working right. It’s just the way they are built, the design is intended to work at what we usually call “room temperature.” That’s usually around 70 degrees, and if the temps are hotter than that this is actually better than if the temps drop around the fridge. You need a substantial heat differential between the outside temperature and the boiling point of the coolant, or the system doesn’t work efficiently.
When ambient temperatures fall to 50, that boiling point issue isn’t the only problem. It’s air flowing from freezer to fridge that cools the food in the refrigerator compartment, where you find the actual thermostat for the whole system. That’s a feedback loop, and in cold temperatures this gets bollixed. Air coming into the system is already cool if you harvest it from a cold room, so the fridge part cools off quickly, while the incoming air into the freezer warms the freezer compartment. Below 50, the frozen food section begins to thaw, and this is what I saw in my freezer. The food in the path of the air circulation was already thawing, flexible with crystals of ice mixed into it, and the food to either side was frozen only a little harder. Let this set of conditions continue and everything in freezer and fridge will slowly approach ambient room temperature.
One thing you can do to fix this is to keep the kitchen warmer. Don’t close it off to save heat. Keep the room temps around 60 and it will work fine. Let the temperature drop into the 40’s and the refrigerator won’t work at all, but the fridge part will be ok. Heck, you could put the food on the counter in that temperature and it would be fine. When it’s that cold, you don’t need a fridge. You’re living in one. It’s the freezer part you need to worry about.
I’ve checked temps in the fridge sometimes during this cold spell (currently warmed up to -1 at 10:30 a.m. on this bright sunny day) and it’s holding at 42. The fridge seldom runs at all. That part of the system is no problem. It’s the freezer that’s the issue, but there’s a simple solution to that in this kind of weather. As soon as I noticed this problem I shifted the frozen food to shopping bags and hung them outside under the porch roof on the north side of the house. I shut the freezer control down to its lowest setting (not coldest, but the setting at which freezer runs only when absolutely necessary), and let mother nature handle the freezing part outside on the porch for now. The only tricky part is hanging the bags out of reach of the raccoons, but I have some experience with this.
As we warm up a bit this next week I may experiment a little further with ambient freezing. The unheated entryway to the house has been below freezing for weeks now so I put my second fridge, a little Vassani half-size fridge, in there and I haven’t even plugged it in. Since there will only be a few days of above freezing temps next week, I’ll shift the frozen food into it and throw some blankets over it. Two days into the warmup I will open it and check temps before I move food into the active freezer again. I’m just curious. The way the long term outlook is going, my frozen food will be hanging on the porch most of the winter.