July 31, 2016

Refrigerators and Freezers on a boat...?

We are sometimes asked by our landlubber friends [especially those planning a visit...] how we keep 'fresh' foods on our boat [they are thinking ice cream... and beer...] And by fellow boaters how much and what type of refrigeration we have onboard... [They are often thinking how do we preserve our fresh catch of the day... and beer...]

Well, our boat came with 2 refrigerators and one freezer. We also have 3 coolers [2 of which are a very efficient- meaning overpriced... brand.] The 3rd cooler is mounted on the aft deck and suits a double purpose as a seat- and is full of spare and dock lines for some reason...
For perspective, this reference is for 2 full time live aboard adults- one (your's truly) with a hearty appetite. We typically have a chance to shop in a store every 2-6 weeks- not including anything we harvest [fish, colds, etc...] 
By now you may have surmised we are definitely not vegetarians.... Only well heeled in Alaska can afford to be dedicated herbivores... Up here, when you are asked to bring a salad to the pot luck, you need to explore why you are on the fecal roster... 
Besides, salad is what food eats... 
But I digress...
The main fridge is a top loader built into the boat originally, and is roughly 9 cubic feet in size. 

It is a refrigerator only [no freezer...] and is cooled by a modern 12VDC air or water cooled [user selectable] refrigeration system and is pretty efficient. [More in related forum discussion at end of this post for those interested...] 

The top loader easily handles our refrigeration requirements  for several weeks at a time. [Two omnivorous adults with carnivorous predilections...]
We also keep a few heads of cabbage against the hull, and grow sprouts [we use our 25+ year old Biosta sprouter...] for crunchy green stuff after the fresh stuff runs out- or converts back to humus in the refrigerator... 
Delicate greens don't seem to do well being tossed around- even under refrigeration- on a routine basis... Not to mention they are typically near the end of their appeal by the time they reach Alaska, let alone by the time we acquire them...  
Either that, or they won't ripen for weeks after acquisition... [This might help explain why the Admiral- who was born and raised in Alaska- thinks green bananas are ripe... and throws away those rotten, yellow bananas... Therefore I cannot in good conscience recommend her banana bread despite her otherwise excellent baking skills... Don't worry; I won't get in trouble for this... she knows... deep down...]
Does anyone remember the eating scene from Soylent Green? [It could have been filmed in our pilothouse a few weeks after the last provisioning run...]
But I digress... [Again...]
Being a top loader, it invokes angst in anyone desiring something stowed below the top layer- which is always where what you desire is located... [We use stacking baskets, but still envy front/side loaders... For those at home, it is akin to your chest freezer... What you want is always at the bottom, isn't it?]
Here is a good article about organizing a top loader by Carolyn at the Boat Galley.
The 2nd refrigerator is an old [ç1980s] Norcold front loader [AC/DC; 4 cubic feet?] under counter fridge. It has the token small freezer compartment on top which usually keeps our fish bait preserved well enough to reduce associated odors and subsequently the number of sideward glances at the galley slave for the day... 

You can see the top loading refrigerator hatches in the counter top left of the stove, and the white door of the Norcold [lower left corner...] And yup, that is a microwave in the upper middle of the photo...

The old Norcold is inefficient [energy-wise] by today's standards and is therefore slated for replacement someday... [...sometime when the main mast is removed due to its size and location...]

We typically only use it when we have guests aboard, and in warmer weather sometimes to pre-cool drinks, etc. when we have extra electricity [e.g., when motoring or when the generator is running...] Even when using the extra capacity with guests, we typically shut it down overnight due to its excessive power consumption... 

The 3rd is a Engel chest type AC/DC [and by that I mean electrical preference...] chest cooler secured under a lower settee bench and used exclusively as our freezer. [84 quarts] We use this full time to store proteins for our consumption [and the occasional bit of ice cream or blue berries...] Engels are very efficient energy wise, and it quickly freezes our catch of the day maintaining the fresh quality of the protein...

We vacuum bag everything stored in the freezer [i.e, no styrofoam trays from market packaged meats- and the market will often do that for you if asked in advance...] and stack it vertically [with hand written labels on the bag tops- like file folders...] so it is quick and easy to pull what you need. [Slip items to be frozen between two frozen items and it quick freezes quite nicely...] 

We also keep a couple 'blue ice' type of cold blocks in the freezer for picnics  and for putting in main fridge to offset heat when bulk loading during provisioning, self defense, etc.

Perhaps worth mentioning is another refrigerator inherent with boating in cooler waters: stowing items against the hull [Yes, landlubbers, on the inside of the boat...] We routinely store a variety of items this way with great success. e.g. Beer, wine, vacuum wrapped hard, aged [4 yr+] cheeses, a few heads of cabbage, potatoes, onions [and no, the produce is not as well aged as the cheese nor wine, but sometimes ends up looking the part...]

As you can see, in this lifestyle we suffer greatly... and so will you when you visit...

Of course, many cruisers get by famously without any refrigeration, as did human kind until fairly recently... [Historically speaking... ] 

Meanwhile, others cannot get by without an ice maker. [Nature is our ice maker; on a prior boat, I relied solely on glacial ice for over a decade...] However, should we ever venture to warmer climes again, an ice maker might just gain priority on our list as well...
  To each their own...

What are your choices, and why?

Related forum discussion: 

Link to original forum post [19-Apr-2016]

Re: Water Cooled Refrigeration

Originally Posted by Martin S 
What's your experience of using water cooled condensers. I am considering the ISOTHERM range. Currently I have an air cooled condenser it seems very inefficient and has the additional problem warms up the already warm cabin.
Replacing looks reasonably straight forward. I'd love to hear from others who have tackled this. Thanks...
Hi Martin,

The previous owner of our boat spent 15 years in the Bahamas and S America.

They replaced the main refrigerator compressor set-up to one with both fan and optional water cooling.

They installed the water recirculation pump with an on/off switch and separate hour meter, and plumbed it to one of the 2 potable water tanks to eliminate raw water cooling concerns. [The boat has 2- 110 gallon water tanks and a water maker.]

Since that compressor can be air or water cooled, and each have a separate hour meter, it was easy to quantify the efficiency gains comparing run times of water vs. air cooled [30+% based upon 2 years of data in the same region where Cooling Degree Days in the warm seasons average mid 3 figures. i.e., the higher the number, the more cooling needed to reach your desired cabin temperature. Likewise re: heating for Heating Degree Days...]

Note that the boat is also air conditioned, but that was only as needed unlike the 24/7 refrigeration demand...

Since we are in cooler climates with that boat now, I have experimented with turning on the water cooling that same system. It does reduce the run-time somewhat [4-10% on average depending; more on sunny summer days, and also in winter when we are heating the boat full time...] but perhaps not significantly enough to justify it if I was starting from scratch and planning to stay in cooler climates. That would of course change if/when we take the boat to warmer regions.

Otherwise, given how happy we are with the efficiency of our Engel freezer, I also wouldn't hesitate to install an retrofit Engel compressor in our ice box...

One last thought, depending upon the compressor you currently have, it might also be worth evaluating adding one of these newer [and intriguing] compressor optimizing devices.

Best wishes with your project.




  1. I didn't trust any food products for a week after I saw Soylent Green. After all, who knows what our food is really made of? We've got a top loading cold plate fridge. It seems to work fine so far, but if we ever need to replace it, I'm quite interested in the Engels. They get such rave reviews from everyone.

    1. Hi Ellen,

      That's funny.... Have you read Real Food; Fake food yet? [http://amzn.to/2aqvVml]

      It sounds like you have a great fridge.

      The Engels are pretty nice. Very quiet and efficient, although I occasionally read others saying their's is noisy...

      As you probably already know, Engel makes front loaders and drop-in replacements, as well as portable chest types [that is what we have, only it is bolted down...] and compressors for retrofitting existing ice boxes. They are more expensive, but they have a legitimate reason...

      Cheers! Bill


We welcome your comments, suggestions, additions, updates and corrections!

NOTE: You must have 3rd party cookies enabled in your browser to post a comment... [It's a Blogger thing...] And you may be asked to demonstrate you are not a robot... [Sorry- we receive too much spam otherwise...]