I’ve been without refrigeration for three years, unless you count the ability to put a can of Coke out in a snowbank. I had the opportunity though, right? In the camper, I had a small fridge that worked initially but used SO MUCH PROPANE, I just couldn’t stand the waste then later when I tried starting it up again, it had stopped working. I could’ve purchased a Yeti cooler or a small fridge at any time but I had a dangerous combination of misconceptions and aversion to luxuries that kept me even from doing the research.
And looking back on it, I’m like, WHY? I think the ultimate answer is, along with being a dirtbag comes the spartan philosophy of, I’m sacrificing a variety of luxuries and comforts in order to fully pursue my passions. Like this existential pride of frugality, minimalism, living off the land, simplicity. I remember when I hit the road in May of ’18, I was unplugged and now fully reliant on solar power, solar showers, and cooking on the Biolite.
Many times, on bike tours or backpacking trips, or just backcountry running trips, I’ve thought about things like indoor plumbing and it just stopped making sense. Like how absurd that someone had to build all of this infrastructure and it cost SO much money in order to run underground pipes and have water treatment plants and sewage treatment plants, then there’s the folks who manage an individual’s accounts so they can pay for someone to manage their plumbing in and outputs. And then there’s whoever invented the toilet and now whoever designs and markets all the different toilets and sinks and there’s specialty stores and websites for all of this STUFF and it’s expensive and it feels like the absolute opposite of simplicity. If that wasn’t bad enough, how about all the accessories you need for your bathrooms and kitchens, and all the cleaning supplies.
Meanwhile, I’m drinking creek water that’s been gravity filtered. My newfound simplicity blew my mind, and I was full of pride. Plus, without all that energy wasted on such trivial matters, and the expense, of course, I could focus on what really matters: mountains. And training. I also had transitioned to a new ideal of working, where I would work enough to cover whatever particular expenses. I’d been gearing up for this for a while, starting to think about consumption not in the way of like, can I afford this? But in sort of an inverse, is it worth working more upfront in order to be able to buy this thing? And what about the opportunity cost of that work?
So here’s the practical reasons of why I didn’t buy a fridge sooner:
- I believed I would need a larger solar setup, both in terms of panels and battery storage, and possibly a bigger inverter, in order to run a fridge. OR, I have friends who have added a second deep cycle marine battery to their setup that they’ve set up somehow to be charged by their car’s alternator while they’re driving. This sounds cool, and I imagine I’m capable to have figured it out, but it sounded outside of the realm of me wanting to deal with it. Plus, another panel would cost about $100 and another battery something like $160 if I remember right.
- I believed the type of fridges that you might be able to run off solar in a van, without knowing ANYTHING about the type of fridges (except possibly one reference in a vanlife buildout video that his fridge cost like $900?) would far exceed what I’m willing to spend. I was very frugal with both the camper setup and the van buildout, because if I overspent on either, I wouldn’t ultimately be saving on rent, and of course, I would’ve had to work more to make the money to spend in the first place, and that would take away from something more important.
So there’s my practical misconceptions, then when you combined that with what I realize now was this stubborn need to resist luxuries because I’m some kind of dirtbagging martyr, all you have is three years of wishing I had cold Coke to drink, and a lot of complications related to buying groceries that aren’t going to keep long and unfortunately watching too much stuff go bad, especially now that it’s in the 90’s, even at 8,000ft. I had lots of workarounds, including the many times I’ve brought empty hydroflasks way up high so I could transport snow back down to camp so I could have “alpine Cokes”. Obviously in winter it’s as simple as keeping your refrigerated stuff in the snow, but I’m not going to say that system is without complications either.
Here’s something I hadn’t realized until writing this, I had a lot of pride specifically around resisting climate controls. You know when you live in a house and it’s cold and instead of turning up the thermostat you put on a sweater or a blanket and you pat yourself on the back because you’re so environmentally conscious? I have that times 1,000. Maybe I should be embarrassed by this realization of how righteous I’ve been?
The idea that I could be free from the waste of using fuels to change the temperatures of things delighted me. Have you ever used a solar shower? I actually am in love with solar showering just in general, but how fabulous that you need no hot water heater, but only the sun? (disclaimer, let me also admit that how much I loved staying at my parent’s house or housesitting for friends because I also delight in using a hot water heater and a fridge, I may be righteous but I’m not crazy).
But those things are luxuries, right? And of course I enjoy a good luxury here and there, but I don’t want to make it my life. Anyway, the point of this whole post is, I BOUGHT A FRIDGE AND I LOVE IT. Like I already mentioned, it’s 4,000 degrees in Ouray and I was tired of limiting what I buy and strategically planning groceries in order to use up whatever perishables I bought before they went bad, then failing at it and watching stuff go bad. Which, of all of my pet peeves, food waste might be the biggest. I just vaguely thought I’d do some research about fridges and what I learned was that small compressor fridges use an incredibly minimal amount of energy, so minimal, in fact, that one could run them entirely off of their solar setup, even a solar setup that was not that big.
[Just a quick note you guys, I’m trying Amazon affiliate links. Nothing in this post is sponsored in any way, I researched and bought this fridge myself, but if you were interested in fridges or if you bought anything on Amazon after clicking through the links in the next 24 hours, I would get a small commission and would love your help to support this blog]
I found a study in England, I think, where a company who makes a compressor fridge put it into a rental campervan then ran it continually for two months, all day every day, that only had one 55 watt panel and one 35amp hour battery, and even with cloudy days mixed in, the fridge never exceeded the capacity of that rather small solar setup. I watched video reviews where other van lifers of just enthusiastic folks ran the same fridge that I bought, the Alpicool 15 liter, off their Goal Zero setups or plugged them into those things that measure draw, then they tested the temps inside. And I found that there is a category of these compressor fridges that are reasonably priced! And a category of them (looking at you Dometic) that is so expensive I would never consider putting it in a van because then you would be failing at saving money by not paying rent. I was definitely on a mission to find the cheapest compressor fridge with tons of great reviews.
Does anyone else remember in Free Solo when Alex Honnold is fridge shopping and Sanni’s looking at all these big, fancy fridges, and he finds the cheapest, smallest one, the little white one, and he says something like, “This is so adequate!” Like, that’s what I was looking for. Not the fanciest, I definitely would be okay with giving up some features, just wanted a compressor fridge, so it would have a low draw, that had a lot of great reviews so I would know it generally did the job of refrigeration.
Day one, I picked up the fridge from my personal mailbox in Montrose, unboxed it and plugged it in in the Walmart parking lot, set it to 40, and went in to buy frozen and refrigerated things (with glee, you guys). I came out like a half hour later and it was already at 40, despite that it was probably 96 degrees outside. And I’ve been living in the lap of luxury ever since. Drinking cold brew and almond milk, eating bagged salad, making smoothies with frozen blueberries.
I also want to point out that for someone who thought she was being so above simple luxuries, I bought a lot of luxury items then had to find out they went bad the hard way. All the many times I had to test almond milk in the mornings, by smell and intrepid taste testing, should have been good enough reasons to buy a fucking fridge. Now I definitely feel like, I don’t know why I took so long.
There’s already a ton of information on compressor fridges in general, and the specific one that I bought, the Alpicool, on what their draw is on different setups and with different settings so I’m not going to dive into that. I can tell you that day one with the fridge, I was parked in the shade, it was almost 100 degrees, and I was running my laptop and the fridge off of the inverter at the same time and it wasn’t even noticeable until about two hours later, when I could start to see the battery fullness decreasing on the solar controller, which isn’t super surprising because my laptop by itself has a noticeable draw. I also had the fridge set on like 34 which is pretty cold (BUT was the tradeoff of higher draw worth it to get a can of Coke that was slightly slushy? I think it was)
I know that theoretically, I could program the fridge to adjust its energy draw on whatever battery it’s pulling off of, but I haven’t tried to do that, I’ve only been manually adjusting the temperature which is super easy. The digital screen gives a readout for the current temperature, which tends to vary from whatever temp I set it to about 1-3 degrees in either direction. I thought it was unclear in the listing and reviews what kind of plug it came with, turns out it came with a cigarette lighter plug and a regular outlet plug, both of which are super long. I can put the fridge in the back under my bed if I wanted to and it would reach the cigarette lighter up front.
So how do I feel about this newfound luxury? Have I made peace with the part of myself that delights in frugality and non-wastefulness? Well, I love it so much. I see it as a lifestyle gamechanger, that hasn’t compromised my values to that big of an extent. I got it on an Amazon Warehouse deal, and I had an Amazon gift card from Bing rewards, so I feel good about the expenditure. Plus, if you factor in the $$ value of food that was wasted and the fountain Cokes I buy at gas stations to feed my habit, the price of less than $200 I think will ultimately pay for itself. So far it lives up to its reviews, that it only sips energy and runs silently.