The Propane Refrigerator vs. Solar Fridges

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When choosing an off grid refrigerator, there are many things to consider. The biggest decision being; should your power source be propane or solar?

To ultimately decide on either propane or solar, you may want to answer these questions first:

  • Which is less problematic?
  • How long do they last?
  • Which is most efficient?
  • And which is most cost effective overall?

With these questions in the forefront of our minds, we aim to answer them in this article. There is a lot to unpack, so let’s get started.

So if you happen to live off-grid year round or even if you are only off-grid occasionally throughout the year with perhaps a summer cabin, fishing or hunting camp. You definitely need a refrigerator for your cold food storage. Hauling ice is a hassle, not to mention it is expensive! But what direction do you go? Should you buy a propane refrigerator or a solar one? This is a common question folks have. Our team has spent many years selling both types of refrigerators, and we’ve collected data from both sides of the isle.  Our opinion is this: the propane refrigerator is much more straightforward to use, and it is easy to maintain. Additional benefits of propane refrigeration are that it is much more durable, as well as overall a propane unit is more efficient, and cost effective than solar. Hopefully, this article will prove itself useful to you as you ponder which direction to go.

Simplicity

Propane refrigerators are simple.  They are decidedly straightforward in their operation.  A gas fridge has a cooling unit operated by a pilot light.  In simple terms, this cooling unit and flame make up the whole system! The cooling unit continues to cycle the cooling vapors using the pilot light.  There are very few components to ever malfunction. Plus, propane units do not require sunlight! Generally, the service on a propane refrigerator involves cleaning the burner box…which is easy!  The setup is simple too; just attach your gas line onto the 3/8” male flare screw fitting on the back of the fridge, light the pilot light and you’re good to go!

In contrast, solar refrigerators use a compressor system made up of many different components and electrical pieces.  Solar refrigerators require compressors, refrigerant solution, solar panels, batteries, controllers and other electrical wires and components to make the refrigerator run properly–not to mention the requirement for sunlight…and lots of it!  The point here is that within an electrical refrigerator (which is essentially what a solar refrigerator is) there are many parts and pieces that could wear out, go bad or malfunction leaving your refrigerator totally useless…plus, you can’t control the sun and with solar you need a steady supply of sunshine!

Longevity

Next, propane fridges just last longer than solar fridges. Today’s EZ Freeze propane refrigerator is lasting upwards of 20 to 30 years.  Occasionally, a thermocouple or a thermostat needs to be replaced but even if you have no technical skills, you will be able to change them out yourself! Plus, EZ Freeze fridges come with a maintenance video as well. Generally, all you need is a wrench or a screwdriver to change out these parts. This proves especially useful when living off-grid, where tools and maintenance services are scarce. Plus, the parts are very easy to get your hands on because they are made in the USA.

Solar refrigerators last as long as the “normal” electric refrigerator you may have in your “on-grid” home.  Some can last more than 10 years, BUT when they do stop working or malfunction, getting them fixed is very involved. You may not find the parts you need and it may require taking the fridge to a service repair establishment.  The last thing you want to do while living off the grid is to spend your time and energy fixing and troubleshooting appliances. Your valuable time will be better spent tending to the other chores and necessities that come with living off-grid.

Efficiency

Efficiency is also a consideration when deciding between propane and solar.  Solar systems are expensive. The panels alone cost $10,000 to $20,000 and up from there. This doesn’t even include the battery!  Batteries can cost $5,000 to $7,000. Also, it is recommended that you have a backup generator (thousands of dollars) for those gloomy months when the sun is not shining in order to charge your batteries.  Let’s remember, the generator requires fuel and adds additional variables that can malfunction or fail.

Cost-effectiveness

So let’s break this down a bit:

Let’s say a solar system with panels, batteries and a backup generator costs a very conservative $20,000. Your fridge works off of this solar system at no monthly cost.

An all off-grid home, run with propane, has a propane refrigerator, propane stove and gas lights. The fridge, on average, will consume 1.5 gallons of propane a week.  That’s roughly 80 gallons of propane a year to run the fridge. Propane at an average of $2.00 a gallon will cost you $160 a year. Powering your lights and oven via propane will cost a little bit more.  If we tripled this cost to include propane lights and an oven/range, costs would be roughly $480 a year. That means it would take 42 years to make up for the cost of a $20,000 solar system. This does NOT factor in the fuel for the generator, or new batteries every 5 years, nor the maintenance expenses for the solar system.  As you can see the cost difference is too significant to argue when contemplating the two types of off-grid energy.

The Propane / Solar Synergy

Let’s not throw solar out the window all together.   Solar power as a whole, is a wonderful option and provides you with power needed to run other useful devices (i.e. lights, computer, cell phone).  If you do install a solar system, we want to help your solar system run as efficiently and for as long as possible. How do we do this? By removing those appliances that put heavy strain on your solar batteries. This simply allows for your other important items in your home, like the television, dishwasher and music player, to continue to work.  So, the best way to help your solar system run more efficiently is to remove heavy power consuming appliances from the solar grid entirely. Using a propane refrigerator and a propane stove will aid in this effort tremendously.

Choose a long established company

Now that we have determined how easy set up and maintenance of a propane fridge is, along with identifying the considerable low cost of running it, and additionally its longevity and power saving ability; let’s discuss another trend we have noticed: solar refrigerator companies seem to come and go.  The life span of these companies seem to be short. Which can certainly make finding parts and service locations very difficult. Please don’t misunderstand, this is not the case with all solar refrigerator manufacturers – even some propane refrigerator companies have left the market. However, as a whole, the propane refrigerator manufacturers stand the test of time.  

In the early to mid-1900’s Servel was the biggest propane refrigerator manufacturer.  Their units can still be found working in homes all over the world today! Since propane refrigerators were first on the market in the 1930’s, the science of the absorption cooling unit has proven its reliability through the test of time.  Whether you use natural gas or propane – the necessary combustion for the cooling unit has proven to work seamlessly over the years in creating the energy needed to heat the cooling unit solution. Our new units such as the EZ-Freeze propane refrigerator not only use the same technology and have the same longevity, but run on half of the propane of those refrigerators of old.  EZ-Freeze refrigerators only burn, on average, 1.5 gallons a week, per year.

EZ Freeze fridges are extensively tested in hot rooms, under extreme heat and humidity, which the solar refrigerators would not be able to keep up with.  The EZ Freeze brand propane fridges are safe, durable, and can be transported laying down; on their left side! You can’t do that with your solar fridge, as that is too dangerous!

Warranty

We also take pride in our 7 year warranty on the cooling unit, which is unheard of in the industry and this duration of warranty remains unmatched.  Not only is the warranty far superior to other propane manufacturers but EZ Freeze ranks #1 for any refrigerator, including solar.

Final Words

In conclusion, a well-made propane refrigerator from EZ Freeze will not only last you upwards of 20 to 30 years but it will save you time, money and is virtually hassle free. Our experience in the off-grid industry has taught us that solar power is useful and can provide power where there are no other options but when considering your two major appliances: the refrigerator and the stove, propane generated power is hands down the wiser investment.

 

Gas Freezers vs Solar Freezers

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There are two types of freezers used in off-grid living.

The two types of freezers used are gas powered or DC powered. Both are produced with a high insulation value to create the best efficiency. The major considerations between a Propane Gas Freezer and a DC Electric Freezer are initial cost and availability of the power source. The power source being DC, propane gas, or natural gas.

If solar energy, wind energy, or hydro energy is available or a possibly at your location, then the DC electric freezer initial cost will be low and this will be the best choice. If none of these DC energy sources are available and purchasing the equipment to capture the DC Electricity is necessary, then the initial cost of the DC unit can easily double. The freezer must have power available at all times to keep the food storage at good freezing temperatures. This usually means that these freezers will require a battery bank for power storage during night in the case of solar powered, or when the wind is not blowing in the case of wind generated power. In some cases of hydro power, batteries may not be needed. Solar power is not free. Solar power requires batteries and batteries do wear out and must be replaced. This must be considered when doing cost analysis.

This is where the possibility of a gas freezer may be best. Gas Freezers can operate from stored LPG (Propane) gas or piped in Natural Gas. In some cases, a natural gas well is available on the property site and a natural gas freezer would be ideal. An un-metered well means free power to the natural gas freezer. Propane gas is supplied either by truck to a permanent tank on the property or smaller portable tanks that can be transported and filled at a filling site. Permanent tanks are available in a variety of sizes ranging from 100 gallons to over 1000 gallons. The freezer can operate from any size tank. The question is, for how long. It is typical for a propane freezer to use approximately 2 to 3 gallons of LPG per 7 days.

What are some of the other differences? Performance, portability, and availability.

Performance between a DC powered or compressor driven unit versus a Gas Freezer or absorption system unit are only different in what is called “recovery times”. This is the time it takes for the temperatures to come down or recover to the thermostat set temperature. Both types will get as cold as one another, but the compressor driven unit has the advantage in recovery speed. It is estimated to be four times faster than that of an absorption freezer.

If you open the door or lid of either freezer to retrieve some food goods then the recovery times will only be minutes for either unit. In this case the differences between the two types is of not much concern. When putting non frozen goods into the freezer, this is when the difference of recovery speed shows up. The greatest difference of recovery speed shows when the units are started up from an ambient air temperature state. A typical chill down time for a DC Solar Freezer will be approximately 2 hours whereas the propane gas freezer may take up to 8 hours.

Both units can be portable. The Propane Gas Freezer is very portable due to the nature of the propane being in tanks. The DC freezer is also portable if the unit is operated by a portable power source such as batteries of a vehicle or a small solar system. The weight of the unit is another consideration. Gas freezers are heavier by at least 80 lbs. due to the absorption system weight.

Currently there is a very limited number of manufactures for both types. The DC Solar Freezers are available from a handful of manufacturers and only in chest style. The gas absorption freezers are only available from one manufacturer and only in upright configuration.

This brings up the last comparison. Chest style versus upright style. There are two arguments. You can decide which makes more sense. Chest style units do not allow as much cold air to escape since the lid is opening at the top and cold air falls. Upright freezers are usually open for less time since the goods are staring you in the face and are more accessible than the buried goods in the chest style. Furthermore, if the freezer is full of food then there is less air to fall out when the door is opened.