How To Choose The Best Off Grid Freezer
Last year we decided to add a freezer on our homestead. Up until then, we had been doing fine with just a fridge, but there are some things that are just better when frozen, and it was a convenience thing for us. Also, having a freezer enables us to stock up on certain items when they are on sale, thus saving us money in the long run.
And anytime you buy a new appliance, it's an excellent opportunity to become more efficient--whether you are currently off the grid or not. It will save you money now (on your power bill) and will save you a LOT of money when you do go off the grid in the future.
Be aware that many freezers can add a lot of extra power usage and run up the cost of your off-grid power system. But if you are careful, shop wisely, and use a little strategy, you can end up with an excellent freezer that is super efficient.
Here's how I chose mine. Don't feel like you need to choose the same one (models are constantly changing), but I think the process and info I used will help you in making an informed decision.
I must preface this by saying that I do not consider freezing to be a reliable method of long-term food storage unless you live in the arctic circle.
It's not that freezing doesn't work--it works very well. The problem is that for most (if not all) of the year, you are depending upon an appliance to keep your food frozen; and if that appliance ever stops working for any reason, your food will go bad within hours or days (depending on the outside temperature at the time). And while this could happen from a power outage if you are on the grid, it could just as easily occur to an off-gridder when the appliance simply breaks. If you doubt the likelihood of this happening, go online and read the reviews of several freezers--almost without exception, you'll read about someone who's freezer broke and all their food spoiled.
If you are on the ball and happen to catch it right when it happens, you could go into "emergency mode" and could can or use some other food preservation method before the food goes bad, but if you are depending upon that freezer for a substantial portion of your food preservation needs, you are risking a lot.
So our personal theory is that we'll treat the freezer as a convenience but not depend on it for any substantial portion of our food preservation needs.
With that out of the way, let's talk freezers…
Chest or Upright?
First of all, we decided on a chest freezer. If you are looking for a stand-alone freezer as we were (as opposed to a combination fridge-freezer), I highly recommend going with a chest freezer. They can be very inexpensive and are usually going to be more energy efficient.
Next, since we had no intentions of using a freezer for any substantial portion of our food storage needs, we decided that even a very small unit would suit our needs well. When looking at the energy ratings, we discovered that a larger unit uses more power than a similar smaller unit (all other things being equal). We decided to focus our search on units that are 5 cubic feet or smaller, but you could easily go with a larger unit if needed--it is just likely to use more power.
AC or DC?
Next, we had to decide whether we wanted a conventional AC chest freezer or a high-efficiency DC model that could run directly off of our battery bank. My preference would have been to go with a super efficient DC model (I probably would have chosen one from Sun Danzer), but even for the tiniest 1.8 cu ft unit, it would have cost almost $600. For a 5.8 cu ft model, you'd be looking at closet to $1,000. So we decided to go with a much less expensive conventional AC chest freezer even though it will use more power. I typically recommend becoming as efficient as possible, so why would I do this?
Here's the rationale…I direct the bulk of my attention to the impact on my power system during winter months. During the summer, we have an abundance of long sunshiny days, so I really am not concerned about how much power it uses then, but during the winter, our solar resources are very limited and we have to be more careful with our power usage. This impacts our freezer because it will be located in our garage which stays very cold all winter long. This means that it will be running very little during the time of year that we must be careful. So I'm not willing to spend 5 times the money for a super efficient model when neither one will be running very much during our critical winter season. If we were going to be keeping the freezer inside where it would be exposed to warm temperatures all winter, that would be a different story and I would have looked at a DC model more seriously.
Brand & Model Specifics
NOTE: Appliance models are constantly changing, so this section is more to show the method I used for choosing a freezer than it is for recommending a specific model. Chances are that by the time you read this, that specific model might not be available anymore, but the method for choosing it will still work. So the info in this section is what I used to choose my freezer one year ago.
Finally, we came to the most difficult part of our search--choosing the brand and model. In doing this, we have to rely on the energy guide specifics provided on the little yellow tag on the appliance. The only useful figure it gives is the estimated annual power usage. Divide this by 365 (days in a year) to get a daily power usage. Bear in mind that these numbers are done under laboratory conditions and don't always mimic real-life conditions but it is the best we can do unless you have the ability to put a meter on the freezer ahead of time.
A quick look at the EnergyStar website told me that that one of the most efficient chest freezers in our desired size was made by Igloo (this was a year ago--things have changed since then). I looked up the Igloo FRF452 and it was amazingly affordable and amazingly efficient--approaching the efficiency of a comparable DC freezer at 20% of the cost! The annual energy usage is estimated at 172 kWh per year which works out to roughly 470 watt hours per day and the cost is less than $200. So that would be a no-brainer, right?
However, a quick look at the Igloo manual revealed that it must be operated at room temperatures of 50°F or higher (this is referring to the temperature of the room where the freezer is located, not the inside freezer temperature). That was going to mess up our plans of running the freezer in our garage. I wanted to take advantage of the energy savings that cold temperatures can bring. Also, our home is small and bursting at the seams, so putting in another bulky appliance just was not a good option for us. So what to do?
I kept digging until I found some chest freezers that are capable of running in cold temperatures.
First, I found that most (if not all) Amana chest freezers are able to safely operate down to 32°F, and they have a 5.3 cu ft model that is rated at 215 kWh per year (590 watt hours per day) and costs around $200. But I kept looking.
Then I came upon the GE FCM5SHWW which is 5 cu ft and is rated at 218 kWh per year (597 watt hours per day). The manual for this model states that it can operate in temperatures down to 0°F. Since our shop seldom if ever gets down to 0°F, I figured that would be the way to go. But the only way I could find to purchase this model was to pay $50 to have it shipped.
Then I found the Kenmore 12502 which is 5.1 cu ft and is rated at 220 kWh per year (around 600 watt hours per day). The cost is around $200. This model (and perhaps all Kenmore chest freezers?) is equipped to work in all temperatures. Obviously, if the surrounding temperature is close to or below the temperature that your freezer's thermostat is set at, the freezer isn't going to run at all.
I decided to go with the Kenmore for three reasons. One, I'm making a calculated guess that the energy savings I experience from having the freezer outside in the garage during winter months will more than offset the greater energy efficiency of the Igloo operating at indoor room temperatures. Second, many Sears stores stock or can receive this unit for you with no shipping cost. And third, I like the fact that Kenmore says this freezer can handle operating in even the coldest temperatures rather than being concerned whenever my garage temperatures approach 0° or 32°.
As mentioned earlier, if we were going to be using this freezer inside during the winter months, I would have likely gone with the Igloo model due to it's amazing energy efficiency and economical cost. If I needed a larger model, the stakes are higher (more power usage) and there may not be the Igloo options, so then I would start leaning toward the DC models. Also, if my budget allowed and I wanted to invest in a quality appliance that will last for many years of good service, then I might also lean toward one of the quality DC models (Sun Danzer or Sun Frost).
I suggest that for most folks, a conventional chest freezer is the best balance of cost and efficiency (as opposed to an expensive DC model or an upright freezer). Don't focus on the specific models I mentioned as manufacturers are constantly changing their models, but use the same method for finding the best model for you.
After having used our freezer for a year, my only regret is that we didn't get one that is a little larger and that we didn't get it sooner! It has placed very little additional burden on our power system, and it's SO nice to have the convenience of a freezer. And in the winter months (when solar power is at a premium in our area), the freezer uses very little power.
So all in all, we are very happy with our purchase!