Monday, February 15, 2016

Refrigeration Alternatives Off-Grid

I love icy cold fruit juice and white wine.  How can we accomplish this at our off-grid cabin?
How do we store cheese and other dairy products, as well as fruits and vegetables? 

We rely on a mix of powered and natural methods that vary somewhat according to the season.  Each is highlighted below.  Non-powered methods include a cold-hole, canning, and drying foods, as well as the simple expedient of utilizing freezing temperatures, snow, and shade. Powered methods include a propane powered refrigerator and solar/wind powered electric freezers.  Some of these approaches can work for anybody, anywhere.     

Year Round:
Many years ago, we dug outside our food shed a “cold hole” that functions as a refrigerator.  It is not as big as a basement or even a root cellar, but it functions the same way.  It is the depth and size of two vertically dropped, welded, food grade 55 gallon drums. Over this hangs a beam from which dangles a metal cable on a winch.  When we lift aside the double layered wood and polystyrene lid, we attach the cable to a sturdy eyelet on the top of a set of five, layered lucite shelves that fit within the double depth of the canisters.  Each shelf can support 8 - quart jars of food, or a net bag of vegetables, or several packages  of dairy products.  The temperature varies from top to bottom of the hole, at different times of year, but it is always above freezing and below 52 degrees, so functional for refrigeration.  I have been very pleased by its reliablility for storing potatoes and unopened cheese all winter, for example.  It is not convenient for everyday use, but excellent for long term storage and occasional retrievals.

Revision thoughts:  The double lid was essential. It successfully kept out both voles (meadow mice, which previously slipped inside where they nibbled the food (even in plastic wrap)  or dropped to the bottom and died), and moisture, which caused some vegetables to rot.  Now that we have resolved both problems,  we fear that we may be overloading the shelves for the capacity of the beam above, so we are considering replacing the 4 x 4 with  a 4 x 6 and an upgraded pulley system.  Still,  the whole apparatus would be much more useful in the winter if we didn't have to dig around the lid after every snow over 4 inches!  Perhaps a simple roof?  A raised well?        

We do not use a powered refrigerator in the winter.  Rather we keep a marine cooler on the shady side of the back porch that functions as a handy freezer or refrigerator, depending on temperature, and have shelves right outside the backdoor for easy retrieval of items that can freeze overnight and thaw during the day, like fruit juice, that won't attract any birds.  Inside, we know that our log cabin is drafty and put that fact to use.  In a cold corner far from the woodstove that tends to hover in the 40s and 50s, we store fruit/veggies/condiments intended for use that week.  Like people  outside the US, we do not refrigerate eggs.  We know that they are fine for about 21 days at room temperature, on a shelf in the kitchen.  When I have  a surfeit of aging eggs, I make egg salad or deviled eggs, or chocolate mousse or other recipes to deplete the reserve.  We make our own wine and beer, which we store inside.  For chilled libations, I simply put cups outside, or bring a bowl of snow inside and set the cup in it . When we have picnics by the bonfire, we simply shove cups in the snow. 

In the food shed, we have two, inexpensive, electrical chest freezers, both unplugged all winter.  One stores meat and  perishables.  The second one stores bulk grains that we do not want voles to reach.  This year was something of a gamble, but given low autumn temperatures, we left a lot of meat, fruit juice, and frozen veggies  in the unplugged freezer during a protracted vacation of several months.  When we returned in late December, we could see that some liquid had leached out from some packages onto the now frozen bottom, but the meat we have cooked this winter has been safe to eat.  

Revision thoughts:  No complaints at all. The chest freezers have been useful year round, both when running (and at less cost, less power) and when not.  I am glad to have two, because once one “dies,” our off-road location could make it difficult to replace in time to preserve the frozen foods within.

Once the bears emerge from hiberation, our back porch food storage is no longer safe.  We thoroughly clean the marine cooler with vinegar and bleach to leave no tell-tale scents and then haul it back to the food shed, where we fill it with bags and cans and jars of foods for summer.  We no longer leave any foods on the back porch at any time, except for the kegs of wine and beer (we don't bottle it), which can stay a bit cooler in the shaded, north side of the porch.   For refrigeration, we paid a startling $1400 for a disappointing propane refrigerator about the size of one from homes in the 1950s.  The chest freezers, however, are much lower maintenance and efficient.  We have concluded that we need to power a freezer only 3-4 hours per day during the summer to keep things fully frozen, so we keep it/them on a timer.  I imagine that any home could save quite a bit on utility bills by running their freezers 1/6 - 1/8 of the day.  
Revision thoughts: The refrigerator  has proved a mistake in several ways, including stopping working one day after the warranty ended!  Among the actions that were apparently our fault, according to Customer Service, we should not have run it in the unheated food shed at below freezing temperatures.  So after we replaced whatever broke, we use it now only in the summer months for frequent retrievals, like condiments and produce.  Second, our solar and wind power have proved so effective that we could have bought and powered a much cheaper electric refrigerator (about 1/3 the cost) and saved the bother of  hauling out a bulky, heavy 100 pound propane tank by snowmachine.   (The tank lasts about 9 months, so two summers).  When this one fails, we will probably use it for vole-proof storage and buy a small electric replacement since our mix of cold storage options has made me less reliant on a refrigerator than I was in a city. 

Drying food:                                  
We do not have an electric food dryer because any heat producing appliance is a far bigger power user than we can justify.  However, I do preserve a number of summer foods with a  passive food dryer I bought online for about $35.  It is a dangling set of 5 – 3 foot wide nylon net shelves, surrounded by a net “wall” that hangs from a convenient velcro strip.  I strap this over a beam in the shaded, east side of our woodshed, where it is protected from wind, sun, and rain but in an airy spot.  Over the course of the summer, I spread out piles of herbal ingredients on each shelf.  The first are spruce tips in May and birch and alder leaves shortly after they leaf out. Throughout the summer, I collect flowers and leaves from such plants as elderberry, yarrow, fireweed, dandelion, chives, and hyssop, strawberry, raspberry, clover, and chickweed, plantain, equisetum and roses to flavor winter teas and meals and to make medicinal preparations.  As my garden grows, I also dry herbs, calendula, and echinacea.  I have discovered that I need to collect much more than I think I will ever use, and store it all in dozens of labeled glass jars for use during the ensuing year.  Some purchased foods are dried, too.  For example,  oranges, lemons, and limes do triple duty.  The citrus peels are zested when the juice is called for, and then the peels are dried for an aromatic addition to everything from beer to aftershave.  I have a second set of drying shelves that I thought I would try in the greenhouse (which gets hot) to sun dry tomatoes this Sept.

Canning foods:
I did not grow up canning and never like the taste of store bought canned vegetables, so I was slow on the uptake for this age old method of food preservation. First of all, for any novices like I used to be, home canned foods are stored in specially tempered glass jars, not cans, and are boiled or cooked under high pressure to create a pressure vaccuum which protects them from bacteria and degradation for a few years.  Second, I have been delighted by most of the results of canned meats, vegetables, and fruits.  My only disappointment to date has been  carrots, which  seem rubbery ( so I just add them to soups).  Homemade salsa and marinara taste deliciously fresh.  Startled by the long cooking time for meat, I worried about  a dry, gray mass, but I have enjoyed delicious canned rabbit and salmon. Canning is a wonderful way to store a bountiful harvest of fresh or purchased meat, fruit, or vegetables for later enjoyment. A great recipe source is by the company, Ball, which sells well regarded canning supplies. 

When I lived in a city, I relied extensively on my refrigerator and frequent trips to nearby supermarkets.  Here, I rely instead on a variety of ways to prepare and store food without handy access to a store or any powered refrigeration or freezer for 8 months per year.  To my surprise, I have found these new food storage methods easier than I expected, as long as I plan ahead,  sometimes by months, and always by several days.    


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