When Hell Freezes Over – Risks and Rewards of Refrigeration

You’re god damn lucky. You really are. Out of all of the hominids born in the last few million years, you were born at a time of abundant energy and refrigeration. Yes, refrigeration – and on top of that, you were born into a society geographically situated and historically fortunate to be disproportionately wealthy, and actually have access to refrigeration. Most people take a technology like refrigeration for granted, not considering the profound ways in which it has altered  what you eat, when you can eat, where it comes from, and ultimately who controls the system that produced it. ‘Artificial cold’ is a blessing to be sure, but it is also a curse. To what degree does refrigeration serve you, and to what degree do you serve refrigeration?  How secure is our food system, and to what is the cost of artificial cold?

Aside from the wealthy aristocrat chilling a beverage, or having his servants concoct a frozen treat, few early 19th century North American inhabitants had any use for refrigeration – why would they be concerned over a problem they aren’t even cognizant of? People would have been getting along fine, more or less, utilizing traditional methods to grow, harvest, prepare, cook, and preserve foods. Certainly, a few individuals made use of ice harvested in winter lakes to help transport perishables to market, but generally speaking, the ice industry would require decades to mature, and to the early observers, success was not guaranteed.

A man by the name of Frederic Tudor got the hair-brained idea to ship ice, harvested in the northeast, to ports in southern latitudes.  The frozen water was to serve as ballast on a ships southern route, the ice would be sold to individuals or businesses unaccustomed to such things, and the ship would return laden with cargo destined for northeastern ports.  The enterprise was initially an abject failure, as he had no place to store the ice once arrived in port, which wasn’t the dilemma it sounds like because little to no ice would survive the trip. However, with perseverance, better insulation techniques, improved harvesting methods, and the establishment of a viable ice market, Tudor found success, even if he was constantly plagued with financial woes.

Long distance and international transport of ice would ultimately pale in size against the domestic market within the United States.  Almost every food would be affected by ice and refrigeration: dairy, beef, hog, chicken, fish, produce, and even beer. In the 20th century, refrigeration technology would change the homes we live in, where they are located, the commercial structures we do business in, and make possible all sorts of industrial processes.

Over the span of a century or so, refrigeration became an inextricable linchpin in our food system. No longer would people be limited to the produce available in their geographic region. Shipped from far and wide, stored in warehouse cold rooms, these foods were shifted temporally by making them available out of growing season, their ripening and decay artificially prolonged by the colds tempering of the bacteria on and within the skins. Grown on larger and more consolidated plots of land, where fruits and vegetables could be cultivated in more ideal conditions, then transported from afar to the market with the greatest demand, and at the greatest profit. Railroads crisscrossed the nation, and new communication systems helped to ensure a timely and efficient delivery. This bounty was now obtainable by a citizenry of new urbanites, wealthier perhaps than their forebears, packed into dense, sprawling cities, they were participants in the burgeoning market economy, and participate they did. All the while they became distanced from the source of their food, more commodity than sustenance.

The beef industry changed too. At one time, it was far less consolidated than we find today, as cattlemen had to drive their herds into the cities where they would be slaughtered for hasty consumption. Live cattle could be transported via rail, but at considerable expense, so dismemberment and curing was another practice as well. Growing cities could no longer burden themselves with the foul smells, and unsanitary detritus of slaughterhouses feeding millions of urban dwellers. Iced railcars and cold rooms would change all of this. Now ranches with thousands of cattle could be fattened on mid-west grain, butchered, chilled on ice, then shipped off to markets countrywide. Monopolistic tendencies were quick to rear themselves with beef barons joining the ranks of the fabulously wealthy and powerful.
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Posted in Personal, Philosophy, Refrigeration, Refrigerator

It’s Evolution Stupid!

The recognition of one’s own ignorance is a valuable component in the character of the individuals I care to correspond and share personal time with. In a world of “leaders” and followers, politicians and prophets, “experts” and arm-chair economic theorists, positioning yourself as ignorant won’t do much in the way of establishing credence amongst your fellow travellers on the ship of so called Progress. People are constantly looking for answers to seemingly urgent issues regarding the economy, government, and the environment, yet the questions we are able (or politely willing) to ask are so often curtailed by the base assumptions of the (increasingly homogenized) culture, and our steadfast determination that we are in control of our own lives. For all the bad blood in the world, the eons of fighting and conquest, revolts and reforms, as well as the advancements in the sciences, so few people are comfortable discussing (if even cognizant of) the role to which technology plays in almost every facet of our lives.

Our technology defines the way in which we affect the world at large, and affect each other, but this works both ways, and the encroachment upon our much prized free-will isn’t always apparent; suppose 7.6 billion of us were ignorant of the air we breathe, which by the way is being considerably altered by our technology. In fact it would be an arduous task to find a place on the surface of Earth untouched by the chain saw, the plow, the paver, the fishing trawler, or the fine particulates to heaps of plastic refuse cast upon the soil and sea.

Much debate surrounds the future of human kind and the habitability of life on Earth, with great emphasis on the all-important technology that will rescue us at our final hour.

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Posted in Organized Entropy Expansion, Personal, Philosophy

Technology, Autocracy, and Extinction

I’ve gone through something of a trauma recently.  Nothing to get excited over, more of an existential thing, or a re-analysis of my own values and outlook on the world.  I have spent so much of the last few years thinking, researching, and studying the history of refrigeration, I nearly forgot the seriousness of the predicament humanity finds itself in today.  Civilization is doomed, and I’ve known it for years, yet somehow in the course of day to day events, I fooled myself into believing it wasn’t really so.  That’s not exactly true; in the course of conversations with people concerning world events, I would invariably shoehorn something in there about the amount of plastic in the oceans, or the depleting aquifers, or the melting methane hydrates in the arctic, or the rapid evolution of pathogens to resist anti-biotics, or the precariousness of mono-crop agriculture, GMOs, oxygen devoid dead zones in the ocean, peak oil, peak copper, peak iron, peak food, peak water, peak civili-fucking-zation- the sheer audacity of industrial civilization trying to grow endlessly on a finite planet.  But alas, these conversations rarely touch on more than two or three of these topics or others, before I was countered with a shoulder shrugged:

“Yeah, but what can you do?”.

Stand and look at the fucking spectacle, that’s what.

When the people around me are unwilling or unable to recognize the big picture- the visibly broken railway track ahead while the fires of civilization are stoked further, I found myself gravitating- no, clinging to something of real importance and impact on society at large: refrigeration.  Since moving to Portland, I became infatuated with the history, technological and aesthetic beauty of domestic refrigerators prior to the 1960s.  Immersing myself in patent literature, and later the social history of refrigeration, an overpowering drive came over me to Read more ›

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Posted in Personal, Philosophy

Fridge Powered by Farts and Rainbows

The most difficult part of designing a durable, robust, long lasting refrigerator is dealing with the the question of how to power it.  Electricity is the answer most people would pop off before I get the last breath out.  But, that doesn’t really answer the question sufficiently.  Electricity from what source?- I might ask.

This may seem trivial to most people, but it really bugs me, considering the great deal of time I spend designing this machine and pondering all of the possible futures, homes, failures, and repairs it may go through.  This is nothing to be taken lightly.  Man-made, controlled electricity is not an entitlement to modern living, and it hasn’t been around very long, so the suggestion that elecctrical power could one day become scarce doesn’t strike me as anything odd.  The world has likely hit peak conventional oil production more than ten years ago, and the days of inexpensive coal and natural gas may be short lived, peaking in the next forty years or so, we’ll say.  On top of the fact that worldwide demand for energy shows little signs of declining, and when it does start to decline (and it will), then people are going to have much greater concerns in their lives than how are they going to pay the electricity bill (like where are they getting food to put in my fridge).

Efficiency improvements through technology:  Not an energy source.  Does not change the laws of thermodynamics.  Cannot replace energy with technology.

Then there’s nuclear:  Toxic.  Dangerous.  Insane

Fusion power:  60 years and still dumping money down that pit.

Again, my common friend will say that the economy will shift to sustainable sources of energy (“renewables” they call ’em) like solar, wind, and hydro.  Well first of all, I seriously doubt an expanding industrial economy can operate on these “green” forms of energy converters.  The economies of today formed around the basis of super abundant cheap energy derived from fossil fuels. Without fossil fuels to mine the raw materials and process them into the infrastructure needed to supply the needs to this wasteful culture, any notion of a solar economy is at best a pipe dream, unless we’re talking about the solar economy that life itself has operated upon for billions of years.

Rooftop solar is just a temporary band-aid, and only provides a false sense of energy independence.  This can produce electricity for home use, office, and light industrial, but the unsustainable nature of PV panels will shine light on the ugly truth.  Home-grown wind power might have a little more life, but again is very limited.  Hydroelectric power destroys rivers.  Life needs free flowing rivers.  Enough said.

I’m not holding my breath on some new breakthrough technology that will make energy so cheap that it is free.  I think that is the last thing this sick culture needs.  What we need is to look at the gluttonous monsters we are, and the way we are destroying the life support system that is our home planet.

I’m not going any deeper down this rabbit hole of doom and gloom, because I’m not the best resource for it.  If you want to read some good authors that take a realistic look at the authoritarian technic called “industrial man”, shoot me an e-mail.  This guy writes about refrigerators.

The answer, for now, is low voltage direct current.  The reason is pretty simple.  DC allows for an off-grid installation, and that is likely to be where the most interest in a refrigerator built in such a strange way, and with such strange principles instilled in it.  Focusing on this application also drives me to make it run in a way which requires the least amount of energy and considers the intermittent nature of power availability in home energy production systems.  DC inverter compressors also have the capacity to vary the capacity, leading to further energy savings and fun.

These compressors will someday cease to be manufactured, and/or the electronics which drive them will become unavailable.  The best I can do is to design a refrigerator that considers this as a possibility, and makes the conversion to another form of compressor as easy as possible so the owner can at least consider repairing the unit.  This is done my making the compressor mounting extremely adjustable so a variety of compressor mounting configurations can be accepted.  All of the copper plumbing should be easily accessible with sections designed to be cut for component replacement.  1/4″ flare Shrader valves are provided for easy access to the the system.  Integrated pressure gauges are installed providing for easier diagnoses if a problem should present itself.  All of the electrical should use standard components that will likely remain common for years to come.

I can’t be sure the refrigerator as I design it will always be applicable to the electrical sources available in the future, but I can be damned sure that I tried to give the owner as much help in making it run on whatever is available at the time, even if it is farts and rainbows.

-M.C. Pletcher

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Posted in Personal, Philosophy, Refrigeration, Refrigerator

Bringing Materialism Back

It is a worthy undertaking to redefine what we know as “materialism” in today’s culture.  The word is so often associated with excess, waste, and possessing more stuff than the neighbors have.  Keeping up with the Jones, or what not.  I have recently come to the realization, as have others in the past, that the materialist tendencies of our culture is a misnomer or at the very least a misunderstanding of the term, and if we really were as materialist like some critics may argue than we should have a real appreciation for material goods, rather than just merely consuming them- to be discarded like a used napkin when they no longer appeal to our needs or wants.

Our collective consumerist nature is no doubt a concern, and is a one of many defining characteristics of a diseased culture seemingly determined to destroy the natural world from which we have taken so much.  I would argue, as have others, that a materialist culture should set a high standard for their goods and possessions, rather than settling for mass produced junk I usually view as landfill garbage sitting on a store shelf, waiting to be thrown out.  I know I’m not alone in this assessment; it is common in our cynical culture.  Planned obsolescence as a conceptual term has reached the mainstream lexicon long ago, and although so many people demand something better, for various economic reasons fundamental to the system, and marketing strategies absurdly effective in their ROI, we live in a throwaway society.  Nothing will change until the conditions of the economic system change- a change will be made for us, based on true resource scarcity, rather than artificial capitalist driven scarcity.

The values we use to evaluate goods for their usefulness is obviously decided by the culture and conditions of our lives at the time, and unfortunately on the grand scale, the consumerist trends are going to continue until the material wealth (squandered for two centuries or so) no longer can provide the standard of living so many people take for granted.  Societies rise and fall, power centers shift, and ways of life which today seem natural and concrete, will one day be viewed as antiquated and silly, or forgotten completely.

So much is lost when a society collapses, and I doubt the Facebook server farms with your vacation pictures to Costa Rica will be a high priority when folks are struggling to keep from starving.  There is no solution to these problems- no technofix.  The time for change has come and gone long ago.

Everything I say and do comes back to refrigerators, and this article will be no different.  A better refrigerator won’t save our way of life, that’s absurd.  I don’t want to save this culture; it is diseased and claims to dominate the universe and everything in it.  That’s why I have said before that the refrigerator I want to build is for no one alive today- it is for the yet unborn.  It is to be a expression of my appreciation for a technology that will cease to exist one day.  Perhaps in a few hundred years, the knowledge and technical ability to mechanically cool food stuffs will have vanished.  Perhaps it will no longer be necessary as human beings return to a way of life similar to that of successful people of the past few hundred thousand years.

In the interim, we have a surplus of human beings, and refrigeration has proven to be  useful tool in the storage of food nutrients.  In fact, artificial refrigeration allows for expanded populations- a great threat.  It is in fact one of those dangerous technologies we have become dependent on like automobiles, electricity, and agriculture.  It is quite likely that folks will need refrigerators for the remainder of my lifetime, and probably after that as well.  I’d like my refrigerators to be durable, serviceable, and beautiful enough to foster the same appreciation I have for the technology, and the values I have to be communicated well enough through its construction, that it is not only worth restoring and maintaining, but those values encourage others to pursue a better refrigerator of their own, or the creation of other durable goods for a culture (or even subculture) that cares about real materialism.

-M.C. Pletcher



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Posted in Personal, Philosophy, Refrigeration, Refrigerator

Designing a Refrigerator at 55mph

I have purpose.  Purpose is good.

I’m building a refrigerator.  The question I get asked most often is, “Why don’t you just go buy a refrigerator?”.  They just don’t get it.  I understand that it is an unusual hobby, but maybe I’m just an unusual guy.  Honestly, I spend most of my waking hours pondering the construction and guiding principles of the design, and I have more trouble thinking of a reason NOT to build one.  This is by far the most satisfying work I have ever done.  Little concern is paid to the cost of tools to build my machine, as the rewards are worth several times expense.  I only wish it was summer again, when I was getting the most work done; the cold rain, wind, and short days discourage me from spending time in the shop- leaving me with a dissonance between the design in my head and the design on my bench.

The days are getting longer, and soon warmer.  In a few days I will have a TIG welder for the next phase.  Between that and the other metal working tools I have acquired recently, there will have to be a lot of experimentation and practice before I can proceed with the design as planned.  The current fridge is still built upon the same platform I made six months ago.  The next model will be completely made from scratch, and will incorporate welded stainless steel heat exchangers, a hyperboloid condenser, a better glycol evaporator (with drain and fill plugs to facilitate the change-out of solutions easily), an adjustable mounting system for the DC compressor, integrated circulating fan for the glycol tank, a finished looking control panel with gauges, and if I don’t get too excited to slap everything together, a plastic welded mating system with integrated insulation to mount everything into the refrigerator cabinet.

It is all quite a tall order, and will be very taxing on me over the next few weeks, but I am most excited to get to work.  I have solved many of the problems having to do with the general organization, serviceability, and the construction techniques required to assemble it.  The things that aren’t known have to do with the proportions and final dimensions.  I have to do some tests with stainless steel fins first to see if my theories hold up.

The strange thing is that I can keep the hole thing together in my head without drawing it, aside from one or two quick sketches to assist in a hurried explanation to the few that are polite enough to listen to me ramble out an outline of my thoughts.  A thorough explanation would take hours.  This is the first I’ve written of it in any detail at all.  Most of the real design work occurs at work while I’m driving around a delivery truck, hauling heavy equipment.  I keep a mental list of problems which need solving, and I’m sure a fly on the window of my truck would see me talking to myself as I check-mark each one solved and each one I need to put a pin in for later.

I spent some time thinking of a name for the project, but nothing has really satisfied my requirements.  One word reached the top of the list: Benchmark.  Although it is kind of clunky, as my wife reminds me, it does say a lot about my values as I go deeper into this.  No design is ever going to be perfect, and I always want to be striving for something better.  Each new model sets a higher benchmark from the last.  If this project is ever going to be a success, that is, if anyone is willing to shell out a few bucks for my machines, then it allows me to continue improving on my designs to get these things out there into the world.  I also view the word benchmark as appropriate because it could also represent a standard by which someone else views the integrity of a design.  I’m certainly not so deluded as to think I have the best ideas in the field of refrigeration, but I want it to be clear that every facet of the design is done for important reasons; they may not be novel or new, but they are value based, having nothing to do with profits.

Another word I’ve considered is “Heirloom”.  Although it sounds a bit too pretentious, like I’m trying too hard or something to make something that people would like, my hope is that I can build a machine worthy enough to keep in a family or community, rather than discarded to the rubbish heap or hocked on Craigslist for $50- you pick up.

I shouldn’t worry myself over a name, as the construction of the machine is most important, but since so much of my efforts are value driven, a name is kind of important.  As of this date it is just “Mechanized Chilling Module” or MCM.  It’s simple and descriptive, but lacks any soul.  It’s one of those things I work on when I need a break from mental construction, and will work itself out in time.

I’ve written a lot about the guiding principles of designing a decent refrigerator in the past, but I have much more to say on the subject.  Perhaps next time.

-M.C. Pletcher

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Posted in Philosophy, Refrigeration, Refrigerator

Modular Refrigerator Project Update- Part 2

See Part 1

Continuing with my project update.  This is over several months of work beginning in the summer of 2016, and concluding at the present.

For a while, I ran the machine with a glycol freezing evaporator and the copper static condenser.  Operation was improving everyday as I learned the characteristics of the system and how to adjust the system charge, as well as the thermostat set points.  The condenser had obvious drawbacks with its poor subcooling, and I knew I would eventually be replacing it with something else.  Storing cooling capacity in the glycol mixture (a non-eutectic solution) has the advantage of long run times with longer off times.  This is especially useful in a capillary tube system which can take a little while to come to proper run characteristics, such as dense suction vapor and good mass flow through the compressor.  So several short cycles aren’t normally gong to be efficient as few longer cycles.  There is also great interest in making the system DC powered for a battery off-grid setup.  Longer holdover times could be useful when energy isn’t available.  The disadvantage to a system like this is that during the run cycle it must discharge all of the ehat absorbed by the glycol during the run and off cycles; several hours of heat in a fraction of time it took to collect.  I have long sought to build a phase change material based condenser.



The cheapest PCM for the temperatures involved was white paraffin.  Pure samples could be used which have a majority hydrocarbon lengths (and melting temperatures) of a specific point, however thes Read more ›

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