Off Grid Refrigeration

Update January 2019… We lugged the refrigerator to the local repairman who confirmed it is leaking refrigerant. He traced it to the refrigerator compartment that is inaccessible. It can’t be fixed and we were told to take our extremely expensive 1 year old C4P refrigerator to the dump. Inexcusable that there is an obvious defect and the engineering is such that the area cannot be accessed for repairs. It’s a total loss for us and a bad lesson in supporting an off grid product manufacturer. If the roles were reversed it would be unconscionable for me not to do right by the customer. I speak only of our personal experience.

Update October 2018… We recently noticed our one year old C4P refrigerator will not shut off and the refrigerator is not keeping our food cold unless we run the unit most of the day and night. The unit is out of warranty by roughly 12 days but I would argue, it has been gradually failing for awhile and we just noticed it. I was not allowed to talk with C4P repair techs or engineers but the local repair shop feels it is leaking refrigerant or the compressor is going. I won’t get into the hassles I’ve had with the company but suffice it to say, we will have nothing to do with C4P products ever again. C4P did not support us or the dealer.

This is a topic that is a key component to being self-reliant. How to keep food cold so it doesn’t spoil. A typical homeowner simply runs to an appliance store, selects a shiny new refrigerator from the vast display of models, arranges for delivery and when delivered, plugs in the new gadget and their food storage problems are solved. Little thought goes into the energy efficiency of the unit or whether it’s appropriate for an off-grid home. Let me tell you what choices we’ve made through the years to solve the off grid refrigeration problem.

Volt Ray 11.1 CF Refrigerator

Volt Ray 11.1 CF Refrigerator

Blocks of Ice in an Ice Shed

Over the course of the last 38 years off grid, I’ve tried many things to keep food cold. Would you believe I started out in Northern Maine by building an ice shed and making and storing ice in sawdust like the old timers used to do before the advent of refrigerators? Unfortunately I wasn’t very good at making and keeping blocks of ice.

Modified Refrigerator

Then I got the bright idea of installing an old refrigerator in the kitchen, cutting a hole in the top to run a 4 inch vent pipe out the roof and likewise, a hole in the bottom of the fridge that went through the floor to the crawlspace. The theory was that because Maine has a cool climate, I could take advantage of that fact. In the winter, cold air dropped down through the tube in the roof, through the refrigerator and out the bottom into the crawl space. It circulated well enough that I could keep food cold. Of course summer was a problem.

Modified Unpowered Frig in Maine

Modified Unpowered Frig in Maine

Another option would have been storing food in a spring house if I’d had a handy spring close by. I didn’t so I was never able to give the spring house a try. But we did have a root cellar of sorts and we used it to full advantage. In spring, once all the remaining root crops were removed for use, we used the 3 foot deep hole as a makeshift frig. Located in the barn, the hole was shaded and remained cooler than if it were outside, providing us with a cool space until the end of May/ beginning of June when the cellar hole became too warm to store perishables safely.

Propane Refrigerators

So eventually along came a small refrigerator/freezer that ran off of propane. Hardly the answer for a self-reliant homestead but it worked well and solved the problem of food storage during the summer months. Even after we installed the propane appliance we continued to use the natural cold our climate afforded us for food storage during the winter months. One of the biggest problems with it was the dinky freezer compartment that could only hold one box of my ice cream at a time. I’d down a half gallon at a sitting and then I had no box of ice cream as a back up. That was rough! The refrigerator compartment was tiny as well and it’s a good thing Johanna was a master of the food canner.

Under Counter Small Propane Frig in Maine

Under Counter Small Propane Frig in Maine

When we made the big move to the Canadian wilderness, gas refrigeration was not an option we would consider. There was no way we were going to be flying cylinders of propane in and out of the bush. I had no interest in lugging 100 pound cylinders off the plane, up to the house and then returning them for refills. Plus we didn’t want to be dependent on the gas company for our refrigeration.

12/24 VDC Refrigerators

Back then, there was a company called Sunfrost that made a great, energy efficient refrigerator/freezer. Very expensive, but it worked well. We purchased the RF-12 which was a mid-sized appliance perfect for our needs.

Sunfrost Refrigerator

Sunfrost Refrigerator

Other than one latch and one thermostat replacement, it ran flawlessly for 17 years. But when we sold the Saskatchewan homestead, the Sunfrost had to stay and the search was on for a suitable replacement.

I need to be up front with you. I searched the internet and studied the choices for energy efficient refrigeration. Unfortunately there are few refrigerators that will run direct off a battery. There are many small recreational type refrigerator/freezers but they are typically too small for a home. When I found a company that had a product I felt comfortable with, I approached the sales rep and offered to bring it to the attention of the off grid community if they would consider giving me a small discount on our purchase price in exchange for an honest assessment of their product. So what follows is my experience and thoughts on this product.

The manufacturing company is C4P. The distributor I dealt with is Scott at Northern Fridge ( ) C4P Inc., has been around for 9 years in the North American markets but has extensive manufacturing experience over the past 25 years.

I honestly had never heard of C4P before and although it is a Canadian company, its products were targeted more for the European market. Now they are addressing the North American market too.

Volt Ray Off Grid Refrigerators/Freezers

When I talked to Scott at Northern Fridge I asked a lot of questions and then spent hours researching the company and specifications. Scott was responsive to every question and concern I raised and I couldn’t have dealt with a more competent man. He assured me the company made a great product and stood behind it. I compared it to another company touting off grid products. Ultimately, we selected and purchased C4P’s 11.1 cf Volt Ray refrigerator/ freezer.

After we set up the tent in early summer, ( ) we unpacked our new refrigerator with great anticipation. This is a 24 VDC model which matches our battery bank voltage. However, it will work equally well on 12 VDC. I made the connections, flipped the circuit breaker and… nothing. Huh? Where’s the purring of the compressor? This was surely a disappointment.

I contacted both Scott and C4P to report I had a dead unit. At this point, it was an interesting quandary. I’m thinking how could the company send me a dead unit while the company is thinking how could I immediately kill their fully tested refrigerator. The company helped me determine that a faulty control module was the problem and they sent a new module out.

In the interim, I dug out the chest freezer we hauled with us from Saskatchewan and we made ice by freezing gallon milk jugs filled with water which we used in our ice chest. By swapping the partially thawed jugs with completely frozen ones daily we were able to use our ice chest as a temporary refrigerator. Not ideal since this was a hot period in the summer but this procedure got us through.

Once the module arrived, I replaced it which was easily done, and the frig started right up. We were so happy until about a month later, Johanna asked me if I had heard the refrigerator running recently. My heart sank as I determined the unit wasn’t running.

Lots of terminals are located on the back of the control module and there is a terminal for troubleshooting. I was able to utilize my fluke digital multimeter set on “diode” function to determine the fault. The number of beeps the meter makes gave me the error code and from that, I determined that I had a dead compressor.

The company asked me to package up the unit and another refrigerator was shipped out to me. Arrangements were made to ship the old unit back and we had a new refrigerator arrive in a timely manner.

I was apprehensive as I wired the new unit into our electrical system. And even more nervous when I flicked the circuit breaker on. And do you know what happened? I flicked the breaker and the sweet humming sound of the compressor kicked on. The unit has run absolutely flawless for us! I was not willing to do any review on this product until it ran for at least 4 months problem free. And it has!

So here’s what we think happened. Every unit is tested before it is shipped. In fact, the company was willing to send me a video of them testing our new unit before it was shipped to me. Although I declined and took them at their word, I appreciated that they would go to that trouble and it shows commitment to selling a reliable appliance. Kudos to C4P on that.

When I inquired about quality control, this is what the company told me.There is an extensive QC testing phase before it gets boxed and shipped from the factory. After they’re shipped out, they’re tested again in our local warehouses when they arrive. Every unit is verified and signed off to be in working order and that the temperature is dropping at the proper rates. Before we ship out, we often do a final check on the unit to make sure that everything is prime and proper when our customer gets our appliances.”

I have no doubt our first unit was fully tested. Some shippers are a bit brutal on handling packages they have been assigned to deliver. I never told you about the fiasco I had with our battery delivery this past spring. Thousands and thousands of dollars worth of batteries were on one pallet shipped from British Columbia to Nova Scotia. And the forklift operator for the trucking company dumped the load en-route. Fortunately they were insured and another batch was sent out. But the point is shipping can take a toll on a product and we think our first refrigerator bore the brunt of some rough handling. That’s why the module was dead on arrival.

As far as the compressor, it is my understanding C4P is the manufacturer of all their compressors. Compressors are pretty tough and I have not been able to get a failure analysis report from the company other than the compressor died. That’s kind of obvious. What died on it? I have no idea but my hunch is there was a rare defect in that particular compressor.

Here’s the nitty gritty on this refrigerator/freezer. The company does an excellent job of packaging. I don’t see how they can improve on that. I believe my first experience with the refrigerator that didn’t work was a real fluke. There’s no way they would ship a defective unit to me knowing I was going to post my opinion on their product. It must have taken a beating on the way here.

These refrigerators are tall and narrow and take a little getting used to. It’s been made for the European market that likes these dimensions. (tall/narrow) Our preference would be a unit that is shorter, wider and a little deeper since that is what we are accustomed to. The refrigerator is at the top and the freezer is below. Johanna likes this arrangement as she is in and out of the frig more often than the freezer. The unit looks well made and has glass shelves in the frig compartment, something Johanna likes for ease of cleaning. Food safety is paramount so anything that makes the refrigerator easy to clean is a plus. The shelves on the door are very nice too. Wide enough to hold multiple 2 liter soda jugs plus lots of other stuff.

Volt Ray Interior

Volt Ray Interior

There are 3 clear heavy plastic organizing trays in the freezer. We opted to take the top 2 out (but left in the shelves the drawers sit on) because it allows us to put more food in for freezing. Johanna always has some bread or leftovers that need freezing and space is at a premium.

The company has 3 refrigerator/freezer models currently and they are also working on a 16 cf unit. If the 16 cf model was available when we made our purchase, that probably would have been the unit we would have chosen since it would be wider and perhaps deeper and closer to what we’ve used in the past. That range of sizes should cover the needs of any off grid home. Likewise, they have 3 chest freezer sizes. Once we make the move into the house, we likely will buy one of their chest freezers.

I’m very impressed with the energy efficiency of the unit. I have no capability to actually measure watts consumed over a period of time or determine duty cycle. It wouldn’t be a fair test anyway since the ambient temperature of our tent is all over the map. But I can tell you there is a thermostat inside the refrigerator that goes from 0 to 7. At roughly a setting of 2 on our model, ice cream is hard. Keeping ice cream frozen is a tough one so I use that to easily judge how well any freezer is doing. At the time of this writing, I have 2, count em, 2 boxes of ice cream on hand.

With the inverter off and the refrigerator the only load, this 11.1 CF fridge drew 3.8 amps as measured by my system shunt and metering system. Battery voltage was 25.1 VDC. That’s less than 100 watts while the refrigerator runs. That’s actually a little better than the published specs on C4P’s website. Of course, how many minutes does it run per hour to determine the duty cycle is part of the overall equation and I can’t fairly quantify that for you. I don’t have the equipment or a controlled environment. But I can tell you the unit kicks on, runs for a few minutes and then it’s off again for awhile.

Energy Efficiency is a Must

You may wonder why we didn’t just run to the store and select a shiny model from the local appliance showroom. Energy efficiency is the answer. There are very few truly energy efficient models to choose from. The insulation is relatively poor when compared to one of these Volt Ray refrigerators or the old Sunfrost. Just like a house, frig insulation really matters. Not only that, but the overwhelming majority of refrigerators run on 120VAC which is slightly less efficient than running on straight DC battery voltage. The clincher is the thermostat. Unless it is a mechanical thermostat, meaning it requires no electricity to monitor temperature and it acts simply as a mechanical switch to turn on and off the compressor, the modern electronic thermostats will take a little power 24/7 which ultimately increases the energy consumption.

So here’s the bottom line. There are few good choices for energy efficient off grid refrigerators. C4P is dedicated to meeting the needs of us off gridders. I am convinced our first unit was mishandled somewhere in transit before arriving to us. The replacement is working very well and I couldn’t be happier with the performance thus far. The warranty is 1 year for upright refrigerator models and 18 months for chest freezers and both Scott the dealer and C4P honored the warranty with no problems.

If you are in the United States, you can do an internet search for Voltray Solar Refrigerators to find a dealer near you or Scott at Northern Fridge services both Canada and the United States.

I know I was frustrated in my search for an appliance suited for our off grid home but I found a company building a range of products specifically for this market. I wish the company all the success in the world and I hope our experience helps in your decision when it comes time to buy your refrigerator or freezer. Feel free to drop me a note at any time to inquire on how our unit is doing. I’ll be happy to update you.

Until next time, keep the dream alive! We wish you a great day!

Ron and Johanna

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10 Responses to Off Grid Refrigeration

  1. Philippe says:

    Hi Ron & Johanna
    Thank You for once again writing a very informative article.
    So interesting to follow your progress and to open my eyes to a alternative and achievable lifestyle.
    Hope all is well with the two of you and greatly look forward to more of your postings.

    • Ron & Johanna Melchiore says:

      You are more than welcome Phillipe. I’m sorry for the delay in response. For some reason, your comment went to the spam folder. We are very glad you are finding our information of value. All the best! Ron

  2. drmargy says:

    Reading this was timely. We are having gasket seal problems with our Unique propane fridge and after only 7 years they no longer stock the appropriate gaskets for the freezer. After paying thousands of dollars on a unit you hope for better service than that. Still trying to do a work around other than the duct tape we are using to make the seal tight. Makes it difficult to get in and out of the freezer, especially during the summer when ice is appreciated in drinks. – Margy

    • Ron & Johanna Melchiore says:

      I have explored Unique’s website over the years although we never had an interest in propane refrigeration. That’s pathetic that they don’t have a simple gasket for a relatively new refrigerator. That tells me a lot about the company. What other parts are not inventoried for your device if you should need help? Off Grid refrigeration is a major problem. The freezers we bought years ago are no longer imported and Sunfrost is no longer in business. I am hoping C4P is the long term solution to this problem. I guess we will find out as the years roll by. I have no idea what your gasket looks like but I would be tempted to by a gasket from any company that looks close and glue it on. I would make it one continuous run as opposed to trying to cut 4 corners that might leak. Maybe try: or Good luck! Ron

  3. Heather says:

    Greetings Ron and Johanna,

    I bought and read your book last summer and really enjoyed it. Many books I buy and never read. 🙂 I then found your blog and pop in for an update here and there. Great info. It was exciting to read that you moved to a new locale. We live in PEI, having moved a few years ago from the bald prairie of Alberta. I know the kind of winters you had in Sask. 🙂 It must have been hard to move from the lake but the beauty of the east coast is pretty spectacular too. We really love it here but are still trying to figure out the gardening. (We can’t get raspberries to grow at all – perhaps the soil is too acidic. However, we really now enjoy growing blueberries, so it’s a pretty good trade and strawberries also grow wild.) I had never seen slugs or really many mosquitos in AB, and definitely no black flies, so that part is an adjustment.

    I just wanted to comment on your fridge issue. It’s really disappointing to have a company not step up to the plate and replace it for you. I will never understand how daft these companies are when a simple gesture to make things right with the customer is not done, and by not doing so, results in very bad press for them. Had they replaced your fridge, regardless of the warranty, it would have been a very cheap and positive marketing move for them, yet the opposite will happen since your readers won’t be considering them for a purchase. Words travel quickly, especially on the internet.

    So, I wanted to ask you if you ever considered making a chest freezer into a fridge. Apparently, there is a gadget you can buy at Backwoods Solar, called an external thermostat, which does this. You can even use an old freezer. I understand they make a super efficient fridge in terms of kWh used. I think some fellow in Australia came up with the idea.

    Another idea would be to use the shell of a non-working fridge, like you did in Maine, with some vents to the outside that you could regulate in cold weather to keep things cold. In the summer, you would close those vents and use frozen jugs of water placed in the freezer compartment of the fridge, (which is not working or even plugged in). I’m thinking the cold air would drop down to cool the fridge items. You could also put ice in other areas of the fridge. Of course, you would need a freezer to freeze the ice but maybe these are easier to find and run on solar. Just a thought.

    Best to you both.


    • Ron & Johanna Melchiore says:

      Hello Heather,

      So good to hear from you. You made our day with your comments! You may have noticed we haven’t been terribly active on our blog. We were recently contracted to write a new book on homesteading and how we do things. So we’ve been busy pecking the keyboard morning, noon and night for this book. We are trying to make it comprehensive on many facets of homesteading.

      It was indeed hard to make the move from the lake but we have a beautiful place here too and are adjusting. I’m surprised to hear your trouble with raspberries. They are prolific around here growing wild. Blueberries are wild around here too. This is the first we’ve had to deal with slugs as well but black flies have been companions for 39 years and they can be brutal. I get my revenge by sitting out in a cloud of them fully covered with my head net on and sucking them up with a vacuum. If I can eliminate thousands in a hurry, I figure it might help further in the season from breeding again since we always get bit multiple times no matter how hard we try to prevent it.

      You hit the nail on the head with the refrigerator issue. It’s a terrible business decision and no matter how hard I’ve tried to explain it to them, they don’t want to hear it. And I’m 100% certain this slow leak was happening within warranty. It just took some time before it leaked enough to fail. I plan to do another off grid refrigerator post when I have time. There’s no need to consider one of these DC refrigerators any longer. The price of solar panels has come down so much that it makes better sense to buy an energy star rated refrigerator or freezer. We bought a wonderful GE refrigerator and chest freezer which is working terrific and was much cheaper than the C4P or other off grid refrigerators on the market. And we have no trouble powering them all on our system.

      We have not considered making a chest freezer into a refrigerator. Johanna doesn’t like them. We actually bought a chest refrigerator/freezer for our SK wilderness home. Brand new, commercial product. After we flew it in and ran it, it wasn’t working properly. The freezer and refrigerator sections weren’t getting down to the proper temperature. This company at least acknowledged they had an engineering problem and took it back and that’s when we went with a Sunfrost vertical frig/freezer. We understand the concept that when the unit is opened, cold air stays put but in reality, one is constantly digging through the refrigerator for items and it can’t be organized properly and the volume fully utilized like a chest freezer so it doesn’t work too well in reality. At least for us. Plus it takes more space in a kitchen. The concept may work just fine for you though.

      That might be the only viable use for our dead, well insulated freezer. As a set up I used in Maine. I’ve never heard of anybody else setting up a refrigerator as I did in Maine and I still see no reason why it won’t work as you suggest. Especially if it is super insulated like they are these days. Then it should work even better. It will take a number of frozen milk jugs which will need to be cycled every day or two but seems like it should work. But ideally, if you can swing for an extra couple of solar panels, you can justify an energy star frig which is ideal.

      And finally, thank you so much for the book support. I truly appreciate that you enjoyed it. I treasure every Amazon rating so if you would consider giving a quick rating, I’d be very grateful. Take good care Heather! Ron

      • Heather says:

        Hello Ron and Johanna,

        Thanks so much for your wonderful reply. I thought you might have already considered all of those fridge options – you certainly have everything figured out. Glad to hear the regular fridge is working with the solar. I do find these types of “inventions/projects”, like your Maine fridge, very interesting, though we aren’t off-grid ourselves here in PEI. I also saw your video of the flapping tent. Wow, we get winds like that too and they always unnerve me. Next time I’ll think of your video for comfort. 🙂

        As for the raspberries, they do grow apparently well here but I suspect that there is an issue with a blight or disease as every new, healthy-looking plant dries up and withers at the end of the season, only a few making it to bear fruit and only a few berries at that. This was an existing patch we were trying to revitalize. We also planted about 30 new ones, bringing them in from T&T and others (love Lindenberg too), but they have not grown at all and look pathetic. In AB (on an acreage we had), we had planted several 50′ rows and they flourished both in the country and city, with so many berries we could not keep up and the soil was alkaline there. We need to do some fixing of our soil as well but compost is slow going without any critters. I like Johanna’s idea of using the forest duff.

        Good idea about the black fly vacuuming. I’ll have to try that. 😉 Hope all goes well with the NS build. We loved NS when we went to check it out – very much like Northern Ontario where my husband is from. We are renovating our small cottage here where we live (handy hubby is a carpenter) and just love it in PEI. The folks around here are the best. Winter is cozy and there is nothing like a good wood fire which we really missed from our last place in Calgary. Making up for lost time now and it’s so nice to be back in the country, without all the city noise.

        I’m so excited to hear about your upcoming book. Great news! I’ve left a review on Amazon – thanks for that reminder as I completely forgot to do that. Best wishes to you both.


        • Ron & Johanna Melchiore says:

          Hi Heather,

          Glad to hear you are back living in a more favorable location. Those raspberries are a puzzler but it jogged my memory that there were a few years we had some funky stuff with ours out in the bush. I can’t remember what our diagnosis was but it sounds similar to yours. Our plants started out well but the leaves turned yellow and some of the plants keeled over and died. But I seem to recall it was generally one type of plant. A quick search and I’m thinking you might have a blight of some kind. Is it possible to move the plot to another location?

          Pull all the old plants and burn them. Or at least anything that looks bleak. Maybe check to see what varieties are blight resistant. And Johanna uses sulfur and or copper on fungal problems. There’s always something to deal with. 🙂 We use Lindberg and T&T as well.

          Thank you so much for the review Heather. That was very nice of you! I had been stuck at 8 on the Canadian site for what seems like eternity. Enjoy the rest of the night and best of luck on the raspberries this year. I have to tell you one last thing. We had beautiful, vigorous blackberries and raspberries. Brand new, thriving. Started the year as little sticks and by late summer, 3 feet tall. By early fall, mashed sticks again. Talk about frustrating. Porcupines decimated them. We had a chicken wire fence up and they smashed it down. Electric fencing coming this year. We want to light them up so to speak. Grrr Always something. All the best, Ron

          • Heather says:

            Thanks for the raspberry info. You could be right. I’ll get rid of those old ones. The new patch is farther away, just in case, so hopefully it won’t transfer to them, though they aren’t doing much. We did have a very dry summer last year. I won’t give up hope just yet.

            Very disappointing about the porcupines eating your raspberries and blackberries, the little bums. We don’t have them on the island. I thought they would, but glad to not have to worry about pulling any from my dog’s muzzle. I remember that disappointment feeling in Calgary, just when my flower boxes and such were reaching their peak, we’d have a hail storm and all would be wiped out. Or, when we thought that was it for the frost and one surprised us and wiped out all the seedlings we had started under lights in the winter. But, I can’t wait to do it all again. Each year I think I figure out a few more of the gardening mysteries.

            Take good care,

          • Ron & Johanna Melchiore says:

            Yeah Heather, no fun pulling quills out of the dogs beak. And we know the feeling of waking up to frost and having damage. Even worse is having tender plants in with hoop houses arranged and see the hoops houses bent from a late spring snow. But the show must go on. 🙂

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