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Why does my frost free refrigerator not work in the garage in winter?
9 December 2006


Q. We bought a new frost free refrigerator/freezer unit with the objective of installing it in our garage to provide spare capacity during holidays and other times when needed. The garage is attached to the house but is unheated. Actually, we recently moved here and had the misfortune of having the moving company drop our old Sears freezer on the concrete driveway - ruining it - during delivery. With the pittance received from the mover's insurance, we opted to get a refrigerator/freezer instead of a freezer-only unit as a replacement.

The new unit was delivered and installed just before last Christmas. It would not cool or regulate the temperature in the refrigerator section. Sears picked it back up saying the unit and any others they sell is not designed to operate in an unheated ga rage. The technician said something to the effect that unless the freezer is running, the refrigerator section won't work. So, there is nothing that could be done about it. How come? We have close friends with a combination refrigerator/freezer as well a s a freezer-only unit in their attached, unheated garage and are not experiencing this problem with either. What gives?

A. The short answer to the question is that the thermostat in a frost-free refrigerator is reading the 38º to 40ºF temperatures in the fresh food section. That means when the ambient temperature in the garage drops to below 40ºF and thereby cools the ref rigerator to that temperature, the thermostat no longer calls for cooling and any food stored in the freezer at 0º to 5º F begins to thaw.

Worse yet, when the temperature in the unheated room drops below about 55ºF, there's not enough compressor run time to keep the freezer cold enough.

You’ll want to keep this in mind if you’re using a frost-free refrigerator as a backup in an unheated garage or porch. You’ll be able to store fresh food and beverages in the refrigerator section if you need the ‘overflow’ room, but I recommend you empt y the freezer section of perishables in the fall to prevent frozen food loss.

Also a "frost free" freezer actually warms up every now and again (90 minutes to 2 hour intervals) to melt accumulating frost and if the thing isn’t cooling then the defrost heater is thawing the food as well as the long slow thaw at 40º. That feature is on a timer not a thermostat.

They do in fact make refrigerators designed for garage or unconditioned room use. Your friends may have one. Sears sells one called Freezerator-- a 21 cubic foot model that sells for about a eleven hundred dollars and Chillerator, another brand, sells a smaller one for about $900. so I would have to disagree with that person who told you you couldn’t get there from here.

I have to mention that it amuses me to see the old refrigerator go out to the garage or down in the basement after a kitchen remodel complete with new appliances. If you think buying stuff on sale and keeping it in the second refrigerator is anything li ke economical, you’ve got another thing coming. A refrigerator is second only to the water heater (not counting heating and cooling) in electricity usage at your house and the older they are the more they require.

The life cycle cost of operating a refrigerator assuming a 12 year lifespan can exceed $5,000. And we know they can last a lot longer. Put it out in the garage and it’s going to work harder in summer when it’s hot and as it ages door gaskets go bad, lea k air and it just gets worse. I know they make sense for some but look closely at your needs to see if the cost is really worth the perceived convenience.

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