Border Fort Manual: Refrigerator

I built the Border Fort shell in 2010. The E-Z Freeze brand refrigerator was purchased that same month, in July, when the only room in the house with anything other than a dirt floor was the back bedroom. To install the flooring, the fridge had to be hung from the rafters and lifted a few inches with the help of a come-along, then lowered ever so gently back down after the floor was finished. It’s a propane powered unit, the only kind to have off grid, and its 19.2 cubic feet of storage space have never failed us.

It does, however, require a minimal bit of maintenance…and it has a few personality quirks, too.

UGLY WOOD

One of those quirks is not the unit itself but the fact that it’s still standing on the wooden shipping framework from the factory. My wife never did like that much, so I promised to cover the raw wood with some decorative skirting or something. Never got around to it. But there are advantages to leaving it set up that way:

1. We got flooded a bit in 2013 after five inches of rain hit our place in a single three hour period. There’s a diversion ditch to prevent that now, but we discovered I’d built better than I knew; it was a simple matter to suck up the water with a shop vac and prevent mold (addressed in another post to be titled “Flooring”)–while the fridge perched safely on its wooden framework the whole time and never even got damp.

2. To me, it’s far easier to level the refrigerator by simply adding shims under various corners of the wood as needed…rather than working with those miserable turn-leg under-the-beast screws.

3. The striker system failed within a year. I came up with a surefire one-person way to relight the burner easily enough–far more easily than ever before, in truth–but having the fridge higher from the floor as it is now makes my redneck fix for lighting a much easier process.

Yes, that wood under there may be backwoods off grid ugly, but it’s also extremely functional.

GAS BUTTON STICK

Even when the fridge was brand new, using the striker system (which lasted about as long as a politician’s promise) to light the propane burner was a pain in the…fingers. You had to (a) turn on the gas, then (b) simultaneously push both the GAS and SPARK buttons…and wait for the propane to slowly fill the line (from the shutoff valve to the burner) before anything would catch fire. For years, it had to be done fairly frequently, too; we were operating on portable 100# propane tanks, one of which might keep the fridge going for 60 to 75 days at a time. Which meant the lengthy rubber hose running between the tank and the appliance also had to fill. Felt like forever sometimes.

Red GAS and SPARK buttons used for lighting the fridge when it was new (before the striker aka SPARK system failed). For lighting, the left side knob coldness setting is put at “2.”

Thankfully, I finally installed a more “standard” propane piping system for the homestead, including the fridge, in 2015, so now the only time the appliance needs to be shut off is for routine maintenance whenever it seems to need it. (There’s a factory manual that recommends a set maintenance schedule. My lazy self ignores that.) But without the factory striker working, it took two people to light the beast–one to push the front buttons while the other opened the firebox cover porthole in back and stuck a barbecue lighter in there until the burner caught fire. Since my wife was disabled and needed her sleep, and those portable tanks always seemed to run out when she was snoozing away, I needed to rig a one-man “lighter helper.”

Enter the gas button stick, cobbled together one night with scrap OSB strand board and 2″ x 4″ pieces plus a few nails.

The gas button stick.

“Button pusher” end of the gas button stick.

As crude as it looks, I love the gas button stick. It’s one of my best inventions. To use it (once the gas shutoff valve is turned on):

1. Grab the stick from where it hangs (when not in use) on a nail in the front porch, north side.

2. Slide the stick under the fridge, front to back atop the ugly wood so that the “pusher” board just about touches the GAS button.

Stick in position. Pulling on the other end magically pushes the GAS button!

3. With the gas turned on and the coldness setting at “2,” get yourself situated (kneel, squat, whatever) behind the fridge so you can function comfortably and open the firebox porthole.

The firebox, located low, behind the fridge. Porthole cover is at the right and slides up and out of the way for lighting-the-burner access.

4. Fire up a barbecue lighter with the flame-tip inside the porthole, pouring flame over the burner pilot orifice. Be as patient as needed; it sometimes takes a while for the propane line to fill–but definitely keep the barbecue lighter going so that as soon as fuel arrives, it will fire right up.

5. With your free (left) hand, pull the gas button stick (at the back of the fridge) to depress the GAS button in front of the fridge.

Pulling the gas button stick depresses the GAS button located in front of the unit.

This is a really comfortable, easy, safe way to light the burner; I like it a lot better than the original factory striker system.

6. Once the burner lights, pull the barbecue lighter out, push the gas button stick back forward a bit to let the GAS button pop back out in front, and set the coldness to wherever you want it (usually MAX for the first 24 hours after the burner has been off for a while).

MAINTENANCE

Just because I ignore the factory manual does not mean I ignore the refrigerator’s maintenance needs as they arise. Happily, propane refrigerators are durable buggers with very few things to check when the temperature in the food storage area starts to rise.

The number one thing to do is keep an eye on the in-fridge thermometer. If it gets really hot in the kitchen–the farther above 75 degrees Fahrenheit the worse for a propane refrigerator–the more the unit will have difficulty keeping up–but basically if the thermometer shows the temp is not getting down to 40 degrees, something needs maintaining.

The in-fridge thermometer, showing 38 degrees Fahrenheit–which is great. No maintenance needed yet.

Door Opening

The first thing to consider is how much the fridge door has been open. Off grid propane units are not like in-town appliances. That’s a tiny little one-inch burner back there; it can’t keep up with the user who stands staring with the door wide open, trying to decide what to do next. When a load of groceries from the store have just been added, it may take the E-Z Freeze overnight or even a full 24 hours to get everything cooled down to 40 degrees (or below). We learned pretty quickly to be quick about getting in and out.

Standing and staring with the door open is never a good idea with a propane refrigerator. I’m usually in and out within seconds.

Defrosting (Refrigerator)

This is not a frost free (self defrosting) refrigerator, so it does have to be defrosted periodically. The refrigerator has to be defrosted much more often than the freezer does; frost accumulates on the radiator fins until at some point (measured by the thermometer reading) there is no avoiding the task. In the cooler season, you may get away with defrosting once every few months. In the midst of summer heat and humidity, it’s more likely going to be more like 45 day intervals. But I make it easy on myself–don’t turn the burner off, just all the way down to Minimum, put the most perishable stuff in coolers with a bit of ice, clear out the top shelf to make it easier to access the frosty fins, and let it warm up for a few hours…slipping “loose” frost “cakes” out from between the fins onto a plate (and then to the sink) as they warm up enough to do so.

The radiator fins with a bit of frost buildup, always building from right to left.

As the fins warm up, they drip into a catch tray (in the fridge under the fins) that dumps the excess water through a plastic tube which exits in the back and dumps into a plastic catch box. I don’t like that box because it’s a little awkward to remove and dump when it’s full, especially when more water is coming down through the tube at the time. So, another redneck fix: The tube currently empties into an old plastic candy jar which is held in place by a partially used gallon can of paint. There are two jars, so one can be dumped while the other is catching water.

Defrosting (Freezer) The freezer can go a long time between defrosting sessions and does not have to be done when the refrigerator compartment is done. It’s also a simple box, no fins, so it’s a matter of piling all the frozen goods into coolers, setting the coldness knob to Minimum, and waiting until the frost buildup thaws enough to be easily removable.

The freezer compartment can go a long time between defrosting sessions.

Obviously, whether it’s the fridge or the freezer being defrosted, it’s a good idea to stay out of the other compartment for the duration. Also, there’s a four-battery compartment in back that powers the in-fridge light. It pays to pull a battery out while defrosting the fridge. I’ve forgotten a couple of times, and the several hours of continual light usage was enough to seriously drain the batteries.

The batteries powering the in-fridge light. They’re in back, but there’s no compartment cover, so they’re easy to spot.

Back-of-refrigerator Maintenance

Once in a while, defrosting won’t make the refrigerator thermometer happy and nobody is leaving the door open. Then it’s time to pull back-of-fridge maintenance. This comes in two parts.

Part 1: Brushing the obvious dust from compressor, piping, and radiator fins. If there’s a dust buildup, it’s obvious. I use a soft paint brush, anything from 1″ to 4″ in width, to dust all that gray metal. If that doesn’t solve the problem, then it’s time for Part 2.

Top of flue (exhaust) pipe.

Part 2: Cleaning the burner assembly and flue pipe. This intimidated me at first, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. First, you need to turn the gas off and let things cool a bit. Then there are two screws to remove which allow the burner assembly cover (that boxy metal piece with the lighter access porthole cover) to be removed. At that point, a small compressor is needed–nothing fancy; I use a cheap little item from Home Depot, though the pistol grip air nozzle is a higher end part. And…blow the dickens out of everything. Blower, thermocouple if there’s a buildup, and up the vertical blue pipe where all the exhaust gases go. It doesn’t hurt to “blow both ways” on that flue pipe: Bottom to top, but also top to bottom a time or two.

Applying these few bits of maintenance has always been enough to revitalize the refrigerator/freezer so it “cooled like new.”

SAFETY

Fresh Air

With the refrigerator constantly venting small amounts of exhaust fumes into the kitchen air, it’s essential to “keep a window cracked open.” It doesn’t require a lot, but it does require some fresh air access. There’s a window situated a mere four feet from the flue–in the kitchen’s north wall, above the stove–so that’s the one we usually keep open an inch or so. If the weather is mild, it can certainly be opened more than that, of course. And if there’s a sudden, crispy north wind, well then, that window can be closed for a while and another one opened.

Propane Shutoff Valves

There are two shutoff valves for this unit, one small one built into the fridge itself (lower left rear if you’re facing the back of the appliance) and one big bright yellow one where the flex line joins the hard (galvanized steel) line. The little in-unit valve is better for maintenance shutdowns because it doesn’t “vacate” as much line that later has to refill with gas in order to light back up. The bigger brighter main line valve is quicker and easier in an emergency–which is not likely, as the gas line is one thing I installed strictly according to code, but still, it’s nice to know it’s there.

The little in-unit gas shutoff valve.

The big bright yellow shutoff valve. Head toward the back of the fridge and you can’t miss it.

DENT

The freezer door has a dent near the left lower corner (outside metal sheathing only). It came to us that way, shipped from a dealer in Las Vegas at a time when there were no E-Z Freeze dealers I felt comfortable with in Arizona. Presumably, the carrier dinged it during shipment. I chose not to worry about it because (a) we needed a refrigerator very badly at the time, (b) it had taken me dozens of hours of Internet study to pick this one out, and (c) the hassle of going through the complaint-and-replacement process didn’t seem worth it since the damage was cosmetic only and we had bigger things to concern us at the time.

The damaged-during-shipping dent in the freezer door. We decided to live with it.