Choosing the Right Off-Grid Refrigerator for You
Picking out a refrigerator can be easily overlooked as one of the smaller choices you'll make for your off-grid project. But in reality, choosing the right appliance can have a big effect on your overall power consumption and peace of mind while living off-grid.
As Canada's #1 Off-Grid Living Solutions Provider, we've been supplying all kinds of off-grid appliances to folks all over the country for over 10 years. In this article, we'll be sharing our knowledge we've acquired over the years with an in-depth comparison on the different brand names and types of fridges/freezers so you can make an informed choice before investing in a key component of your off-grid lifestyle.
The biggest part of choosing your off-grid refrigerator, is deciding between solar and propane as your power source. The obvious difference between the two is that one needs a solar system to operate, the other requires a gas connection.
But let's break down the pros and cons...
Propane Fridges: Pros and Cons
PROs - Propane Fridges
Propane is efficient and cost-effective.
Propane fridges use an average of 5.7 litres of propane per week, totaling around 300 litres for year-round off-grid living. At the current average LPG cost of $1.26 per litre in Canada, running a propane fridge would cost ~$378 annually. But when comparing the cost of propane to the upfront cost of a whole solar system, it's clear that propane is your most cost-effective choice in the short-term, or for those who may only spend time at their off-grid property for part of the year.
Propane refrigerators require no electricity to operate.
If you're building somewhere that doesn't get a lot of sun and your options for alternative energy are limited, using a propane fridge is an excellent solution. You're getting much, much better efficiency using a propane refrigerator than using a generator to run an AC 120v refrigerator.
CONs - Propane Fridges
Propane refrigerators can require a bit of maintenance.
Occasionally, a thermocouple or a thermostat needs to be replaced but thankfully, manufacturers make it quite simple to do this yourself, even if you have no technical skills.
Cost of the Propane vs. Solar fridges.
Propane refrigerators tend to be pricier than their solar counterparts, owing to their technology and the limited market. To illustrate, a ten cubic ft propane refrigerator can cost ~$2700, whereas a ten cubic ft solar refrigerator could cost around $1900 (CAD). The complexity of a propane fridge's cooling coils, which rely on ammonia, sodium chromate, and water, also contributes to this price disparity. Manufacturing these intricate components is more challenging than producing the simpler condenser/compressor, liquid refrigerant, and refrigerant lines of a conventional fridge.
Safety Concerns with Propane Refrigerators
Propane refrigerators require proper ventilation to operate efficiently and safely. Propane is combustible in air, so in the event of a leak, you'll have a fire hazard on your hands. Not only that, if your burner isn't getting enough air, the improper combustion could lead to carbon monoxide poisoning which causes gradual fatigue and drowsiness, eventually leaving one unable to respond effectively and potentially leading to asphyxiation. Now, with that said, gas appliances have been used for decades and can be operated with proper safety measures, such as ventilation and carbon monoxide safety shutoff sensors.
Installing propane fridges can be a hassle.
Installing a propane fridge should only be done by a licensed gas technician. Also, they're a bit more meddlesome to install than solar fridges because you need ventilation. This limits your options for where you can place your refrigerator, as the vents must terminate directly from the back of the appliance out through an exterior wall.
Propane refrigerators do not operate well in freezing temperatures.
The ventilation can quickly become a problem in below freezing temperatures. Cold air comes into the ventilation and can create ice build up. If you're planning on using your appliance somewhere temperatures regularly drop below -15 °C, we would not recommend using a propane refrigerator.
Click here to see our selection of propane refrigerators available to be shipped anywhere in Canada.
Solar Fridges: Pros and Cons
PROs- Solar Fridges
Solar Fridges use 12v/24v DC power
Solar panels produce DC power, which is very different than the AC power you'd find in a traditional household wall outlet. In North America, most wall outlets are 120v, and almost always AC power. To convert AC to DC current, an inverter is required.
Solar Fridges are cheaper than propane fridges
As previously mentioned, propane fridges typically cost more than solar fridges as the components required to create the proper temperature differential are more expensive to manufacture than the compressor/condensers of an electric fridge.
Solar Fridges are DIY friendly
You can install a solar fridge yourself quite easily. It's as simple as connecting your fridge to a 12v or 24v battery.
CONs - Solar Fridges
You'll need a solar system (or some form of producing 12v/24v DC power)
Let's just face it, solar systems aren't cheap. But, if you're just looking for a system to run your fridge and some 12v LEDs for lighting, it can be a worthy investment that can pay itself off, vs. propane fridges that incur the cost of propane each year.
For example, an Ecoflow Delta Pro includes all the components of a solar power system in one portable machine. It can hold up to 3600Wh of energy, which is plenty for a solar refrigerator. All Ecoflow units includes smart battery monitoring and settings that can be controlled remote via the Ecoflow app. That system is available for only ~ $4,499.00 and it's not even a budget option by any means.
You could build a DIY solar system for well under $4,500 and all you'd need is a panel, charge controller, 12v battery, and any necessary wires/fuses.
Will a propane fridge last longer than a solar fridge?
Propane fridges and solar fridges can have comparable lifespans, as it largely depends on the specific model, brand and how well it is maintained. However, propane fridges typically have fewer moving parts and do not use a compressor, which can reduce wear and tear and potentially increase their lifespan. But solar fridges also have fewer components compared to traditional refrigerators, which may contribute to their longevity. Ultimately, the lifespan of either type of fridge will depend on various factors, such as usage, maintenance, and environmental conditions.
Brand Names in Off-Grid Refrigeration
Sunstar is known for their ultra-efficient solar fridges and freezers and high-quality American manufacturing. While they don't boast as many style options as Unique, they use higher quality components, 4" thick polyurethane insulation, and exclusive Keota DC compressors designed specifically for off-grid refrigeration. Having an extremely efficient fridge like the Sunstar leaves more energy to use for other things. For example, In a 70°F room, the Sunstar 16 cu ft refrigerator uses as little as 415Wh in a 24 hour window.
A lesser known fact about Sunstar is that they were originally made to replace icehouses for Amish farming families, as Sunstar is owned and operated by an Amish family. Contrary to popular belief, the Amish do make exceptions to the no-electricity rule. The electricity often has to be self-sustainable (ex. solar) and only can be used for specific purposes, such as, business, trade or, in this case, refrigeration. The Cabin Depot has a close working relationship with Sunstar and we were lucky enough to visit their factory in Indiana to obtain footage for the commercial (above).
Unique is a Canadian owned and operated company that makes off-grid refrigerators that are propane and solar operated. They're known for their flashy colours and retro designs.
Unique is also non-exclusive to off-grid when it comes to their product line. They also make AC 120v refrigerators for on-grid use. We find that Unique refrigerators are great quality and perform with good efficiency. We've had many customers that have used Unique refrigerators for years and swear by the company.
Disclaimer: The Cabin Depot Ltd. is a retail business exclusively and accepts no liability for DIY installations or equipment selection. It is the customer’s responsibility to read all product manuals and installation instructions carefully, ensure all local & national building codes are met, and contact a qualified installer or tradesperson as required.