Over the course of the next several years I will be illustrating a plan for a long lasting, modular refrigeration system which encompasses my values in the realm of design and simplicity. Here I will begin that process by trying to describe these values in a somewhat coherent manner. Writing, or even conversing openly about this project is very difficult, as putting these concepts to words in an easy to understand format is fraught with many mental blocks. Providing the necessary background information to understand the needs of a new direction in refrigeration engineering seems to be my greatest shortfall.
From my perspective, the well crafted machines of the 1920’s and 30’s represent a beauty and simplicity which remains unmatched to this day, in my opinion. I have a nostalgia for appliances from my grandmother’s youth. This is strange to some, considering my age, but I am not alone as there are many collectors of vintage refrigerators, as well as restoration experts, and clueless yuppies willing to fork over a pile of cash for an old looking fridge with modern cooling equipment.
Where I feel I may differ from many of the others, is that I want to bring back some of these technologies which were developed at that time. Engineering problem solving produced modular cooling units that were separate from the ice box and could be swapped when a problem occurs, also detailed service manuals were produced to make repairs. Refrigerants of the day (other than the Freons) were often inexpensive, naturally occurring, or produced by simple chemical synthesis. Many of the most successful insulating materials were again naturally occurring, or produced from a simple industrial process. When implemented well, they were resistant to rot and vermin attack. The structural components of the compressor unit and ice box were common materials like wood, felt, cork, mineral wool, glass, and metal. Time has shown that many of these models were handsome, sturdy, reliable, and long lasting. In retrospect, the scientific community has shown the ecological dangers of the Freon group, adverse health affects of asbestos, lead paint, and mercury. But, they were all good ideas at the time, I guess!
To suggest that a modern refrigerator is superior to these old gals from the 30’s would be erroneous and short sighted. I can certainly appreciate the progress in operating efficiency, superior insulation values, larger storage space, and improved temperature control, but along with that progress we inherited engineered short life spans. This shit is made to break, and it is rarely economical nor desirable to repair it.
There is simply no reason that a refrigerator can’t last more than twenty years and remain as useful and efficient as when it were new. The blow-in insulations, largely urethane with a refrigerant blowing agent, have high R-values when new, but degrade over time. This could be acceptable if they were replaceable and recyclable, but they are neither.
Larger storage space is a no-brainer; simply build larger boxes, but with thicker “integrity planned” insulations. Lifestyles have changed since the 30s, so it is understandable that refrigerators would get larger, but I feel North Americans would survive with a few less cubic feet of fridge space per capita. Just a thought.
The mechanisms that cool a refrigerator have remained mostly static since the 1930’s: Compressor, condenser, filter/drier, capillary tube, and evaporator. Developments surround the use of multiple evaporators, better heat transfer surfaces, and the application of fans and dampers to force air circulation in unnatural ways and keep humidity consistent.. The advent of automatic defrost adds substantially to energy usage and comes standard in all but the most basic model. More advanced features such as individual compartment temperature control, requires integrated circuit controllers and proprietary valves to operate the various evaporator coils.
Serviceability is becoming a thing of the past as increasingly, condensers are placed beneath the skin of the cabinet exterior to radiate heat in a manner that is less sensitive to dirt build-up, but certainly returns a portion of said heat to the cabinet interior, and more to the point, makes repair impossible. The thinner copper used in domestic refrigerator, air conditioners, and dehumidifiers, increases operating efficiency, but makes damage more likely. Also, the placement of the evaporators in an all plastic cabinet interior presents quite the challenge to the repair technician attempting to perform some brazing work.
It seems that I have presented quite a few problems, now I need some solutions. This effort to build something better has to obviously include the technical design, but it also must include the thoughtful rationale for doing so. This is the purpose and drive to move forward; a desire to extend a piece of me out there into the world and on into the future, to say “yes, technology can be evil, but this comes from a well intentioned place”.
I have been busy in my shop, trying to improve upon a modular freezing unit. I will post more about this system as I make progress. For now, it is in a very crude state as I prove some concepts and outline the long-term goals. I have consciously chosen not to pursue cabinet design at this point, as I have neither the space nor the skill necessary. Someday I would love to try my hand at fine woodworking, or even just outsource the task to someone skilled in the art. Also in the future, I would like to attempt a very different cooling technology based on ammonia absorption in water. The system I have in mind would represent my most idealistic version of a long lasting and simple refrigerator. For now, I’ll stick to vapor compression.
Fortunately for me, there is no shortage of useless refrigerator cabinets on this planet. The intended application of this technology is not specific, but the dominant one for now is retrofit of existing cabinets, whether they be industry manufactured, or custom built. By its very nature, a retrofit unit is somewhat modular, so I intend to take that modularity as far as I can by making the installation and removal easy, and the swapping of components for different applications possible. The components are arranged in a manner that not only allows for the user to modify it, but hopes they hack it for their purpose and share the work.
Maybe one day my creations, and the echoes rung back from the user/hackers, will be appreciated as much as I appreciate the refrigerators of my grandmother’s childhood.