Living Without Refrigeration: Annoyance or Disaster?

A packed refrigerator
We spent a surprise week without refrigeration. While it was annoying, it wasn't terrible.

Our refrigerator died on a Friday, but we didn’t notice until Saturday. By the time the repair man came, ordered the part, and returned, we were without refrigeration more than a week. It was an inconvenience and a hint at what it would be like during a long-term survival crisis in which we had no refrigeration, but it wasn’t a disaster.

Now, in this case, “without refrigeration” didn’t mean “without freezer.” We have an upright freezer in our basement, and I moved everything from the freezer side of the refrigerator into the basement freezer. We also tossed several items from the refrigerator into the freezer for safe keeping. That saved us from losing much food.

I ran out and got 10 pound bags of ice and set up our two coolers as ice chests. Things like mayonnaise, salad dressing, cheese, sandwich meat, and mysterious bottles of sauces my wife uses when she cooks went in there. I set aside the other for eggs, dairy, vegetables and everything else. By the end of the week, we had eaten enough that we were down to one ice chest.

Ice works, but it’s not great. You have to set the chests somewhere they can drain or everything ends up floating. We don’t have an expensive cooler, so we ended up buying ice about every 36 hours.

A Practice Run

In the past, when the power has gone out for more than eight out 12 hours, we crank up the generator and run an extension cord to the fridge and freezer. That wasn’t possible this time, so it was a real test of living without refrigeration. Here’s what we learned:

If you have no refrigeration, you can’t have leftovers in the summer. You need to either eat all of the meal or learn to prepare less. I guess you could feed extra leftovers to the dog or chickens. The latter will eat almost anything we do. We made a conscious effort to eat all our leftovers and to then cook food that we could consume in one sitting.

For at least five months of the year, we could use coolers on the deck for refrigeration. Our stream generates lots of icicles when it is below freezing, so we could break off ice and use it to keep the coolers cool when it is above 40 degrees. This would allow us to preserve that last bottle of mayonnaise as well as any mid-winter leftovers. Likewise, If we butchered meat, we could hang it outdoors for a while

We also didn’t go shopping. You don’t want to have done $200 worth of grocery shopping and come home to find you have no way to keep fresh food fresh.

The one thing I missed most was the ice maker. This was a hot week and I like having ice in my water.

No Refrigeration, no Big Deal

When you get right down to it, during a post-SHTF scenario, we would not have much that needs full-time refrigeration. Here’s why:

First, we don’t have a source of dairy products, so there would be no milk, cream, sour cream cheese, ice cream and other dairy to go bad.

Second, while we have lots of spices, we have not made a conscious effort to store lots of extra “refrigerate after opening” sauces. We would use up the mayonnaise, salad dressings, barbecue sauce and other such items in the first winter and then do without. I’ve been tempted to buy a box of mayonnaise in single-serving pouches like they give you at the deli. That idea is worth further consideration.

Third, we would have to can more items, especially berries, apples and any other fruits we harvest, some of which are now frozen. Vegetables would also have to be canned or dehydrated. When we made soup, stew, or a large batch of chili, we would have to eat it or pressure can the leftovers unless it is cold outdoors.

Fourth, we can keep things cool in either the creek water or using water from our faucet, which stays cool now that we buried our waterlines. This would not be as good as refrigeration, but it would keep things 20 or 30 degrees cooler than the ambient air in July or August.

Freezer Issues

We would miss the freezer more because it is a great way to preserve food for the long term. Sixty percent of what is in our freezer is meat. We also use it for convenience items, such as those frozen berries and vegetables mentioned above, plus bagels, biscuits, and other baked goods. My wife, who came from a big family, often cooks in large batches, so we freeze the leftovers and warm them up weeks later.

Extra freezer space is also useful if you catch a big sale on something or if you bring home any game. I’ve seen people on YouTube run a freezer chest off of two solar panels, and that may be an undertaking worth considering.

If I had to pick one during a lengthy survival scenario, I’d go with the freezer. I’m not saying refrigeration isn’t useful, but in the long run, the freezer is more valuable.

Optimal Temperatures

Our first clue that the refrigerator was having problems is that the ice cream we served was not as hard as it should be. In hindsight, our ice maker was not making as much ice, another symptom of a dying refrigerator.

This episode also brought us greater awareness as to what are optimal temperature temperatures for our refrigerator and freezer. Set your freezer to 0°F, while the optimal temperature inside your fridge is 37°F. Of course, temperatures will vary slightly with use, so between 35°F and 39°F is a good range to aim for. Temperatures above 40°F can lead to food poisoning and spoilage.

Our freezer in the basement has a red temperature gauge on it, so if it drifts up from zero, we will notice. I think we’ll be getting a thermometer for our refrigerator.