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.

9 thoughts on “Border Fort Manual: Refrigerator

  1. As Rodney Dangerfield and others might say: “What a cool topic”! LOL
    Brought me back to the old days of home appliance repairs and work-arounds. And of keeping the shipping base on new appliances so as to deal with possible and inevitable flooding… 😉
    My godfather, a farmer, was great at fixing all sorts of off grid equipment, and he really loved getting new gizmos from me when I visited in the summers. 🙂
    As for the gas striker system issues, I have a similar complaint with my gas water heater and the boiler systems, but luckily we have friends that know how to repair those burner units “within code”. :-)… My fixes are often quick and dirty and you just don’t do that when dealing with explosive gases! LOL
    Take care, dear friend… Manny

  2. This makes me very happy not to live off grid. I would hate to have to deal with things like this. I do not like to deal with gas at all. I used to hate it when my mom’s gas stove needed to be relit. I singed my eyebrows once when I had to light a pilot light on the oven. Back when you had to use wooden kitchen matches to light the things, a breeze blew it out at the critical time and by the time I got another one lit, too much gas build up. I turned it off and waved the gas away, but not enough. Just a small flash, but enough when you are on your knees crouched with your face too darned close for my comfort.

  3. Becky: I understand quite well about your aversion to dealing with gas–because Pam doesn’t do well with it, either. In fact, she’s best off avoiding fire related activities altogether if they involve anything more than using a barbecue striker to light up trash in the burn barrel. I can remember (with crystal clarity) several incidents, one of them as recent as a year or two ago. She decided to use gasoline from a gas can to “encourage” the fire to start, but a spark was waiting in there somewhere, flashed the can, and she had a half full five gallon flame thrower blazing away in her hands. I would say her dementia was involved, but she’s ALWAYS been “fire-unsafe.” Believe it or not, she managed to quench the fire before the can exploded and I only figured it out when I saw the soot stain on the can and asked her about it.

    Even wood fires…she was staying part time with a friend of ours in Montana when I was long haul trucking in early 2002, the friend hadn’t split logs down to the right size, she chunked one into the fireplace and a burning log bounced back out at her–which she caught and stuffed back in there to keep his mobile home from burning to the ground, but she acquired a nearly bone deep burn, inside left wrist. Which amazingly healed with no scarring at all.

    One time in South Dakota (1997), another burn barrel incident, she was using a little portable butane torch I had (NOT for that purpose!) and caught that PLUS the grass near the burn barrel on fire. Could have torched the whole valley, but again, she managed to contain the fire.

    The only one I physically witnessed was in our off grid cabin in Montana, year 2000. We had a four burner stovetop, propane, that she was having trouble lighting one evening. I was right there, but winding down, lying on the “table bunk bed” I’d rigged, just a couple feet to the left of the stovetop. Didn’t notice how it was going. Propane is a heavy gas, sinks not rises in air, and there was a fair pool of the stuff when it finally caught with a -WHOOM-M!- explosion that scared her so badly she didn’t stop backpedaling until her back hit the front (and only) door at warp speed.

    On the other hand, I’m quite comfortable–and VERY careful–working with gas. There is no question whatsoever that the underground gas line installation I did to upgrade the place in 2015 is SAFER than a majority of those professionally done in any major city.

    ——————————–

    Manny: Ah, another Rodney fan, have we here? NOTE TO ALL OUR READERS: I’ve begun this Border Fort Manual because I may want to sell the place someday and the new owner will be able to use the Border Fort Manual Index as a reference manual. This is an awesome property, top to bottom and inside out, but knowing where everything is, how it works–warts and all–and why it was set up that way in the first place….like the Master Card ad says, “PRICELESS.”

    And if nothing else, people will have their minds boggled. What seller of real estate ever provides an OPERATING MANUAL for the complete home? Especially for an off grid place built by the owner?

    Fortunately, so far anyway, the OTHER striker systems here continue to work as advertised. (Knock on wood.) Those include the wall heater, kitchen range, and yes, the hot water heater.

    As for those “quick and dirty fixes,” yeah, I’m with you on those (as evidenced by this post). Thankfully, I’m also adaptable enough to bear down and “learn to do it according to code” whenever it’s clear that is the preferable (i.e. safer and/or more convenient/functional) alternative. I’m not in your godfather’s class for fixing everything but tend to figure out a solution to the challenge sooner or later. Better if I don’t rush it, though; “pondering” for a while really helps.

  4. Very informative, Ghost. I haven’t been reading here much, but when I do it’s like I’m sitting there in the desert on a sunny afternoon watching the insects crawl and buzz. Of course, right now I’m missing the waning sun right here, but I still have a couple things to do before I head out to shovel snow off of sundry roofs.

  5. Thanks, Leonid. You’re not the only one in “cooler” country. Both my wife (at her daughter’s in Utah) and my sister (in Montana) tell me they’ve been seeing subzero temps along with the snow….

    Not that the insects are doing much crawling and buzzing right now, but spring is a comin’…and in the meantime, we’ve got resident cottontail rabbits, canyon towhees, curved bill thrashers, masked sparrows, coyotes and such to take up the slack.

  6. Subzero here at nights lately, but I don’t mind. Though it does take a fair bit of cordwood to keep the inefficient fireplace laboring.

    Fire is nothing to play with, not that that fact ever quenched my pyro-fascination, so to speak. I had a one-gallon plastic gas can flare up on me as a kid, but I threw it and it went out on its own. More recently our next-door neighbor had a burn barrel incident that could have ended.. expensively. He was borrowing our barrel, and had left debris to burn unchaperoned without covering the top. Midsummer, a breeze and a spark were all it took to ignite the dry grass. Between about six adults, using shovels, feet and a hose from the well pump, we contained the flames before they escaped to the adjacent farm (probably growing some grain or other at the time).

    p.s. I really like the reference manual idea. If I ever start my own homestead, that’s something I will think about.

  7. Leonid, thanks for the endorsement of the reference manual idea. It counts for something.

    Our burn barrel situation here is crisp and clear, thankfully. Specifically:

    1. Thirty foot radius of absolutely bare dirt all around the burn barrel itself.

    2. Periods when the air is still. (We don’t burn when it’s windy.)

    3. High humidity and rain during the summer monsoon months, which really helps.

    4. Redundant “safety tops” for the barrel. There are times I will burn with the top open, but not unattended and never during the dry season. The “main burning top” is a simple square of aluminum grille work (designed for holding stucco); the aluminum burns away over time and has to be replaced every year or so, but the relatively small diamond shaped openings are pretty fair spark arrestors. Then, if needed ( to shut things down severely because the wind just came up or it’s still burning and I’m going to leave it unattended) there’s the “smoke topper,” an original steel barrel lid with a bunch of 1/4″ holes drilled through it. The smoke topper REALLY shuts things down, allowing the contents to smoke and smolder slowly but not to burn with open flame. I’ve felt safer with this one than any other to date.

  8. I agree with Becky. I wouldn’t want to deal with this type of fridge either. I guess I’ve gotten used to modern conveniences. I’ll take my electric fridge/freezer with automatic icemaker any day. No defrosting necessary and no fire to mess with.

  9. Of course, Sha; that’s the way almost all of the on grid citizens of the various developed nations think these days. Of course, our fridge IS a “modern convenience” by my standards; it certainly functions to keep food chilled and/or frozen just like yours does. In other words, not like the old ice box days when many men made money by sawing ice into chunks when the lakes froze over, and certainly not like the days of no refrigeration whatsoever. I’ve lived with no refrigeration before (more than once) and freely admit the advantages of technology in that area. And yes, automatic defrosting is nice…though after living with no fridge at all, a wee bit of labor every few months to defrost doesn’t bother me all that much, believe me!

    You’ll never get me to look kindly upon any ice maker, though. I’ve seen too many problems with those, due mostly to either improper hookup to the water source or an impure water source.

    Overall, yes, living off grid is a bit more work than living on gird, no matter how you cut it. But that’s a good thing, too. Keeps the mobs away so those of us who value elbow room beyond all else can still find acreage upon which to homestead. My IDEAL home, at least as nearly as I’ve been able to think it through, would be (a) on grid but set up so that if {or when} the power grid went down hard, (b) the home would be already set up to go “independent” with very little fuss. In other words, a place built with dual energy supplies, BOTH “all electric” and “heavily propane,” with a solar setup and gasoline (or diesel) powered generators ready to take over at a moment’s notice. I do NOT like wondering every time there’s a power outage if this is the time it’ll be long term or even permanent. Ever since I’ve been old enough to study on it, I’ve seen (and still see) modern conveniences as temporary. Especially computerized goodies, which are most of them these days, and getting more so. Production of basic electrical power is relatively simple and the systems can be quite robust and durable, but beyond that…call me a cynic, I guess. 😀

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.