Does a Fridge Have an ‘Off’ Switch?

Suzie Webb nee Eiloart was raised green. She is an environmentalist and Quaker. For fun she loves playing inside and outside with her daughter, husband, friends and family. She enjoys dancing the Five Rhythms and is glad to be living in Cambridge. For money she teaches primary children and writes.


In most people’s minds they don’t. Fridge’s are seen as an essential part of the home, and 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. 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 combatting the myth that we need a fridge.

We discovered the joys of fridge-free living when we moved into a narrowboat about 10 years ago and realised that if we were going to use solar and wind for electricity (not the noisy engine or gas) then we could not afford the luxury of a fridge. When we later moved back into bricks and mortar, we felt a societal expectation to get one now that we had mains electricity. Eventually, we were given an old one as a gift, but even now we rarely turn it on.

So how do we keep our food fresh? Products like cheese, ham and salami last for a good few days in a coolish place. On the boat, we learned the hard way to use clean utensils in products such as jam, mayonnaise, pickles, and margarine to keep them from growing mould. Things like pesto, marmalade, ketchup and jam that instruct you to keep refrigerated will keep for months if they are not contaminated by other foodstuffs. We enjoy explaining to visitors when they sit down to eat and asking them to only use a jammy knife in the jam, not to put any crumbs in the margarine, etc. At mealtimes we put out lots of extra knives and spoons if it is a meal with bread and spreads. This would be good practice for anyone who is thinking they might want to turn their fridge off, even just when going away for a while. We tend to buy uncooked meat as we need it and cook it within a day. We eat leftovers within 2 days or compost them. I became intolerant of cow’s milk shortly before giving up the fridge, which is fortunate because it’s one of the few products that does go off quickly. Instead we drink rice or hemp milk, which keep well outside a fridge in all but the very hottest few days of the year.

Fridge 01

Lots of spare knives and spoons to prevent cross contamination between jars.

Our unplugged electric fridge is still useful: it fills the fridge space in the kitchen, and it makes a good cupboard, work surface and a fridge 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.

One of the uses of our switched off fridge

One of the uses of our switched off fridge

After about 5 years of being fridge-free, I read a Patrick Whitefield an article in Permaculture Magazine 65 on how to build a pot-in-pot fridge. They are sometimes called a zeer (from Arabic) or an evaporation refrigerator. I was immediately taken by the idea, having delighted in drinking chilled water from botijo in hot Southern Spain.

Botijo - an unglazed earthenware water bottles that cool by evaporation

Botijo – an unglazed earthenware water bottles that cool by evaporation

Pot-in-pot fridges can be useful. They are best kept in an area with a ventilated space because that helps the water evaporate off the surface quicker, which draws heat from the inside.
Materials Required:
Two unglazed teracotta pots with a difference in diameter of about 8cm;
(The smaller pot can be glazed on the inside to keep food drier);
A bag of sand;
Funnel or plastic bag with a corner cut off;
Plant pot saucer or plate bigger than the larger pot;
Plan pot saucer or plate that fits inside the smaller pot;
A lid such as a plate, wet towel, piece of polystyrene, plant pot holder or in our case an upturned woven basket.

Two possible upturned saucers to go inside the fridge. The brown plastic one has a lip that will collect anything that leak and a smoother surface. However, the white ceramic one benefits from being shallower so giving more space.

Two possible upturned saucers to go inside the fridge. The brown plastic one has a lip that will collect anything that leak and a smoother surface. However, the white ceramic one benefits from being shallower so giving more space.

How to build it:
Place the pots in a well-ventilated area where they will remain (the finished product will be heavy);
Fill the larger pot with sand so that the tops of the two pots are at the same level;
Place the smaller pot centrally inside and pour sand in the gap using a funnel or plastic bag with a hole in it;
Place smaller upturned saucer in the base;
Put your lid on;
Fill the large plant pot saucer with water;
Wait for it to cool and arrange your food inside.

The original zeer pots have a cloth lid like this so that water evaporates from the top too. The drawback is it has to be full or the cloth will collapse inside and the cloth needs regular wetting.

The original zeer pots have a cloth lid like this so that water evaporates from the top too. The drawback is it has to be full or the cloth will collapse inside and the cloth needs regular wetting.

We like this lid because it has handles and objects can rest on it temporarily.

We like this lid because it has handles and objects can rest on it temporarily.

To make ours, I diverted play sand that my mum bought for our daughter’s play pit to this better cause. At present, our lid is an upturned flat basket which means it also serves as a table or stool. To maintain our pot-in-pot fridge, we pour a jug full of water in the water tray every week in summer, probably monthly in winter. Occasionally I clean it with water and baking powder or tea tree oil. Moss grows around the base on the outside, but I’ve decided the creation of this habitat is another one of its benefits. Do not expect it to keep food anywhere near as cool as a fridge in the British climate. However, it will give you one place where you can keep an eye on what needs eating.

Inside our evaporation fridge.

Inside our evaporation fridge.

Before we built it, we stored food in a cool place in the boat then in an unheated room in our house. I do not need a fridge at all, but the pot-in-pot fridge gives us a dedicated place where chilled food lives, whereas before it occasionally got lost in our unheated room. Having built the terracotta fridge helps concentrate the mind on what we have around.

A simpler evaporation fridge that kept butter fresh through the hottest week of the year.

A simpler evaporation fridge that kept butter fresh through the hottest week of the year.

Other cooling options that may apply to your locality are: using flowing water, digging pits, leaving things outside in a secure box through winter, or building an ice house. I would encourage you to start using clean utensils in products and experiment with turning off your fridge. If, for now, you are not going to explore your fridge’s off switch then here are some top tips:

• Make it easy for your refrigerator to stay cool by putting it in a cool place, and letting hot food cool down to room temperature before you put it in;
• Clean your coils, clear clutter off the top, and defrost on a regular basis to improve efficiency;
• Keep your fridge and freezer doors closed. Each minute a fridge door is open it can take three energy-hungry minutes for it to cool down again;
• Pack the freezer. It takes less energy for a full freezer to stay cool than it does an empty one. Use plastic bottles filled with water or newspaper if you don’t have enough food to fill it;
• If your appliances are getting old but still work well, try a Savaplug (www.savawatt.com). This gadget reduces the flow of electricity to your fridge to match the actual amount it needs, making it more efficient.

One Response to “Does a Fridge Have an ‘Off’ Switch?”

  1. always interesting…thank you

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