In most people's minds the answer is 'No'. Fridges are seen as an essential part of their home; even in the depths of winter people will pay to heat their homes then cool the air in a fridge. Domestic refrigerators have been available for less than a century, yet now most people see them as vital components of their homes. Cold appliances are responsible for 20% of electricity usage in British homes and are the number one consumer of electricity. It is estimated that 3-3.5% of UK greenhouse gas emissions relate to food refrigeration.
Our family successfully lives fridge-free and I want to share how we have achieved this. It delights me to have enviable electricity bills (currently £1 a month) and to be part of combating the myth that we need a fridge.
We discovered the joys of fridge-free living when we moved into a narrow boat about 10 years ago and realised that if we were going to use solar and wind for electricity, we could not afford the luxury of a fridge. When we later moved back into bricks and mortar, we felt a societal expectation that now we had mains electricity we would get one. However, climate change is a very real issue and although we accepted an ancient fridge as a gift we rarely turn it on.
So how do we keep our food fresh? Products like cheese, ham, salami last for a good few days in a coolish place. On the boat, we learned the hard way that we had to use clean utensils in jam, mayonnaise, pickles and margarine, otherwise they would grow mould. Products like pesto, marmalade, ketchup and jam, which tell you to keep refrigerated, will keep for months if they are not contaminated by other foodstuffs. We explain this to visitors when they sit down to eat and ask them to only use a jammy knife in the jam, not to put any crumbs in the margarine, etc. We put out lots of extra knives and spoons if it is a meal with bread and spreads. This is a good practice which everyone should adopt anyway. We tend to buy uncooked meat as we need it and cook it within a day. We eat leftovers within two days or compost them.
Fortunately, I became intolerant of cows milk shortly before giving up the fridge because cow's milk is one of the few products that does go off quickly without refrigeration. Instead, we drink rice or hemp milk, which keep well outside a fridge in all but the very hottest few days of the year, when it only lasts for a couple of days.
Our electric fridge is still useful because it fills the fridge space in the kitchen as a good cupboard, work surface and magnet holder. However, it was last on when a friend house-sat a few years ago. After years of fridge-free living, I have slowly come to realise how much I hate eating cold food, such as cheese, when it is straight out of the fridge. I feel it is unnatural to eat food that is so far below ambient temperature. I also dislike the noise pollution fridges cause. That said, I am grateful for the refrigerators in local shops and they are essential to our food storage system.
As for freezers, when our daughter was starting to eat solids I wanted one to freeze small amounts of home cooked goodies, but looking back I'm glad we didn't get one. If we ever grow enough of our own produce to freeze the excess, then I would consider getting one.
After about five years of being fridge-free, I read an article by Patrick Whitefield in PM65 on how to build an evaporation fridge. They are sometimes called a zeer (from Arabic) or a pot-in-pot refrigerator. I was immediately taken by the idea having delighted in drinking chilled water from botijo in hot southern Spain.
If, like us, you feel you'd like to reduce your carbon footprint and electricity bill by turning off your fridge, then an evaporation fridge could be useful. They are best kept in a well ventilated space because that helps the water evaporate off the surface quicker which draws heat from the inside. The temperature is dependent on the heat, humidity and air flow. Ours cools rather than chills and provides somewhere to keep an eye on what needs eating.
To maintain our evaporation fridge, we pour a jug full of water in the water tray every week in the summer, probably monthly in the winter. Occasionally, I clean it with water and baking powder or tea tree oil. Moss grows around the outside base and can be scoured but I've decided the creation of this habitat is another benefit.
Before we built the zeer we stored food in a cool place in the boat, then in an unheated room in our house. I absolutely do not need a fridge, but the evaporation fridge is good because now we have a dedicated place to store chilled food. Before, it occasionally got lost in our unheated room and I sometimes couldn't find the cheese. Having built the terracotta fridge, it's easier to focus on what we have and when it needs eating.
Other cooling options that may apply to your locality are using flowing water, digging pits, leaving items outside in a secure box through winter or building an ice house. I would encourage you to start using clean utensils in products and to experiment with turning off your fridge.
A fully illustrated version of this article including instructions on how to build your own evaporation pot appears in Permaculture magazine no 80. See also Patrick Whitefield's The Electricity Free Terracotta Fridge.
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