Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Epic Battle for my Refrigerator

It's good to just REMEMBER the silliness of trying to cool down a box inside your house down to 40 degrees in the winter, while another appliance tries to warm your house up to 65. And it's good to realize this during an ice storm - when I heard reporters wailing that the worst part of losing power was that "all the food will spoil!"
--Z, comment from Crunchy Chicken's Blog
Well, those of you who frequent blogs like... er... well... this one, have probably noticed a certain amount of kerfluffle lately--much ado, if you will--over refrigerators and whether or not they are a necessity to have, or an unnecessary drain on our resources. The kickoff seems to have been Crunchy Chicken's post (with an extensive and worthwhile comment section), and additional notable posts have occurred on Greenpa's blog. The situation seems to have grown beyond itself, landing articles in the hallowed halls of the NYT, Treehugger, and Consumer Reports (the links to these are on Greenpa's post; I'd link them myself, but that's, like, work). Anyway, I thought I'd throw my $.017 into the ring (hey, the dollar just keeps devaluing, ya know), partially because I think I have a couple of novel things to say, but mostly because I'm a hopeless follower.

So the first thing I should discuss here is my own psychology. And my own psychology dictates that statements on environmental lifestyle changes like those found in Crunchy's comment section--the ones that look like "OMG, that's like, barbaric! No one can live like that!"--are almost pure crack cocaine to my brain, driving me to do exactly what they say would be an insanely depraved lifestyle. So I'm working with a handicap here, people.

Anyway, The Crunchy One gave several reasons why giving up on one's fridge will actually cause greater energy waste than keeping it (let me be clear here--she was not the one giving the ZOMG IT'S IMPOSSIBLE! arguments; hers actually involved thought). To me, to be honest, they look verse and line like the Standard Rationalization for Not Changing Your Lifestyle #2. I'm not trying to be cruel to Crunchy, but arguments that look like hers make me instantly skeptical. And the comment section contains several useful rebuttals to her claims (none of which, I must point out, got picked up by the NYT, or even Treehugger [now that was disappointing]). My basic response to her claims, which follows Sharon Astyk's & Greenpa's comments, is that yes, she's right. If you unplug your fridge, and do nothing else to change your lifestyle accordingly, then yes, you'll end up using more energy. Hm. But more on that later.

Some technical issues. The NYT reports in its coverage of this ongoing controversy that the typical American household spends only approximately 8% of it's energy usage on refrigeration. The intention here, I suppose, is that this is such a small amount when compared with, say, heating and cooling (which ring in at 43%), that it's not worth the time & inconvenience of changing. And here's where the lecture I did in my Critical Thinking class on Wednesday comes in, the one where we discuss the human mind's apparent complete inability to grasp proportions appropriately. Okay, let's look at this a different way: what do you suppose the effects would be if everyone in the U.S. cut their energy consumption by nearly 10%? Um, stonking huge? Yeah. Eight percent really isn't trivial. Another way of looking at this situation: we here in the U.S. use way way way way way too much energy already. Saying that our refrigeration costs are so low when compared to our energy usage for heating and cooling is a red herring, because we need to spend way less on those things too. And yet another way of looking at the situation: um, the energy usage figures came from where? In the NYT article, they came from Frigidaire. Frigidaire. Yeah, Frigidaire. But I'm sure they are a reliable source. The Consumer Reports article, on the other hand, used numbers from Energy Star, which really should be more reliable, and probably is. But if only I knew what the Energy Star methodology was! How do they calculate energy use for refrigerators? Do they just plug one in for a year and see what the kill-o-watt reader says at the end? Is it "optimally filled"? Is it ever opened? Is it in a household with at least three people who are content to sit in front of the open fridge and read a short novella while thinking about what they want to eat? I can't help but be somewhat skeptical of the numbers given. And even if I buy them in toto, I'll just go back to my first two issues with this analysis.

So there's that.

But the real issue I think is the one about whether or not unplugging your fridge would result in a net increase of energy use--this is the Crunchy's claim. Mainly, this would be due to increased costs associated with having to go to the market more often (no cold storage to keep food fresh), no leftover storage so cooking smaller meals, so more wasted food, and similar issues. But, as is pointed out in her comment section, these problems are predicated on not changing your lifestyle at all, beyond reaching behind the fridge and pulling the plug.

In fact, it might seem bass-ackwards to some, but I think having a refrigerator actually increases our energy use, even beyond just the electricity required to run the thing. Why? Because a refrigerator is part of the "just in time" lifestyle--the one where we believe that we can--nay, we should!--be able to have fresh fruits, dairy, vegetables, meats, and anything else our heart desires at the drop of a hat. We can go to the store any time we want for these things, and then we can put them into the refrigerator to make sure they stay completely fresh until our heart desires them! What is the obvious result of this lifestyle? A complete lack of planning and foresight. If you are counting on your refrigerator to keep everything fresh, you don't really need to do much planning. You can buy what strikes your fancy (within budget, perhaps), and just shove it in the fridge. Where it will probably rot, because there was never any plan for using it. Or if you discover that you need at least three other ingredients (probably also fresh) that you didn't realize you'd need because you had no plan. So, what do you do? Back to the store! So you buy in excess of what you really need, and then still need to make additional trips to the store to get more. Huh.

But really, it is more about the lifestyle than anything. Going without a fridge is another way of removing oneself from the convenience lifestyle to which we've become accustomed. Or, to put it another way, the convenience lifestyle to which we've become accustomed cannot exist without the refrigerator. If you don't have a refrigerator, you don't expect to have fresh food whenever you want--and why should we have such an expectation? That is a pure, and unnecessary, and energy-costly, luxury. It's an expectation novel to our current lifestyle (and, maybe, to some of the monarchic courts of old, and even they didn't expect fresh tomatoes in December). It's part of the source of overproduction and waste of our lifestyle. Even if getting rid of your refrigerator created no net reduction of energy use, it is still worth doing just to get our brains back out of the "anything we want, any time we want it!" mentality. Breaking ourselves of this attitude goes far beyond just our food systems (although it will be crucial there, too); it means learning to make do with what we have, and not expecting to be able to find whatever we want at any hour, or even at any time of the year.

Okay, so is my household fridgeless? No, it's not. We actually have a huge, Energy Star Behemoth in our kitchen that we bought when we got our house. But it's becoming increasingly insulting to me that we have it, love it though I do (it's just sooooooo pretty--black, french doors, *sigh*). But especially in the winter, and especially when I've got a cold pass-through right on the other side of our pantry that I can easily maintain at 45*F or lower, it is very hard to justify. I mean, seriously, I was talking about a convenience lifestyle earlier. Am I actually so wedded to my convenience that I'm not willing to walk an extra 12 steps (I counted) from the main cooking area to the pantry exit, rather than the 4 steps to the fridge? Is that really worth the cost of keeping my brain full of the just-in-time lifestyle? So I will be looking seriously into modifications here. My most basic goal will be to not use the fridge at all next winter (because, really, damn); I may experiment with a return to the "ice box" method of days gone by, since we do have a deep freeze downstairs that I'm not planning on getting rid of.

One stupid problem--our fridge is big, and it's a very tight fit into its place in the kitchen. Moving the fridge to unplug is a PITA like you'd not believe, and it also tends to rip the linolium under it. I'm hoping that we have a "just for the fridge" circuit downstairs that I can just throw, because unplugging the machine from the wall is, well, difficult. But I shall persevere!


  1. Not HAVE a fridge?!!!!


    (that's the sound of me hitting the floor in a dead faint!)

  2. That was my initial reaction, but after reading a bit about it, and given all of the adjustments in my life I've already made, it's actually becoming *hard* to justify having it at all. The only thing I keep in my fridge that actually needs to be in there, even in the summer, is liquid milk. Cheese, sour cream, and yogurt were all designed to be ways to keep milk *out* originally. The condiments? They don't need to be in there. During the winter we don't have fresh produce because it doesn't grow fresh around here; in the summer, it comes in out of the garden, CSA or Farmer's Market--no refrigeration necessary. Our eggs are farm-fresh and are shelf stable for at least a month. What else is in my fridge? Um.... tortillas? Nope, it's very hard to justify; impossible during the winter, when I could just as easily move this stuff out on my cold porch. Even just freezing a gallon of water in our deep freeze and putting it into the fridge each night to keep it cold (the old-fashioned "ice box") would be sufficient for the liquid milk.... why am I using this thing? (um, besides it being very pretty)

  3. You know you are SO right! I have been trying to remember when my gran actually got her first fridge - it must have been the early 70's. (Bout the time grandad brought her her first twin-tub washing machine).

    Before the arrival of this most impressive feat of engineering nana had a pantry with a marble slab - it was cold even in the hottest of summers. The marble slab kept her butter (never marg) and steralised milk quite fresh. Bread was kept in a bread bin. Even cheese stayed fresh in the pantry - wrapped in greaseproof paper.

    I think the problem for me (UK) is that houses are just not built with specific larders any more and of those older properties that are around the larders have been taken out to 'enlarge the tiny kitchens.

    Hummm, I have been exploring long term storage of bulk food 'in order to support a 'what if.... the electricity went down' scenario . In the house we have - I am already running out of suitable dark cold spaces to store anything long term.

    But nonetheless, this is an excellent 'thought-provoking' post.

  4. Yeah houses aren't built with real larders or cold porches in the US anymore either. We bought this house pretty early in our evolution as lifestyle-shifters, so we didn't really know what all we would ultimately want, but we did want walkable/bikable locations and we did want terribly old-fashioned. Our house was built in 1902, and many of the great features of it, we didn't understand the value of when we first moved in, like the cold porch, and the high ceilings.

    Also, while its kinda hard to justify the fridge portion, the basement freezer, and even the freezer section of the kitchen fridge are both stuffed.

    JediDaddy, AKA Brian M

  5. I think I'm going to try the icebox thing any time it's cold enough to freeze water outside. Just put a couple gallon jugs out to freeze, swap them out with the thawed ones in the fridge...

    I'll think about unplugging the fridge but...I'm unsure. Our fridge uses 1 KWH/day, which doesn't seem like much. Our "cold" room is usually about 50 degrees, and I think that's not cold enough for safe storage of a lot of foods. Hmm, maybe I'll experiment with a few things like carrots and cabbages and see how they fare...though even my hard winter squash have up and died in the last week.

    Still pondering. Not quite to the adoption stage on this one!

  6. Emily--yeah, we're not quite to adoption yet, either. I think this post was a sort of "pep talk" to myself about this issue, to kind of work through why we have a fridge and if we really need one. Comes to that, that is pretty much what this whole bloody blog is for. ;-)

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