19 August 2012

Project: Fridge/Freezer Upgrade

Have you ever had an issue with your freezer/fridge at home? Probably not. They just work and once every generation you replace them - maybe earlier if you're remodelling the kitchen every 20 years or so. Not on boats: Talk to cruisers in a hot climate and they all had or have fridge problems. This units are air, keel and water cooled with several other options just promising to keep your beer cold without emptying  the batteries. Of course, since it's made for boats, this small units cost a little fortune: for the same price of a marine unit you would easily get one of this closet sized fridges with built in TV, ice and water dispenser and five years warranty. They may even include a free refill contract from your local brewery good for one year for that price!

But back to the boat, even though we have a great keel cooled unit we faced some challenges: Our unit was working, but from time to time it was just not starting anymore - usually right after we'd stocked the freezer up. Since we just had one compressor cooling the fridge AND freezer that meant perishing food and worse, warm beer!

old compressor

I then learned the thermostat was broken. So I replaced it, twice in the meantime. The problem was persistent. The local "expert" said I have just to top up the compressor with r134a coolant or whatever is appropriate today. Done, paid, not working.

He then changed the electric controller. Same result...
So, obviously I needed a new compressor - damn, 900 bucks... just to keep that damn beer cold? Since the guy promised to weld the right connection early the next morning I disconnected the old compressor and went off to buy that new unit. Not happy at all. 

I was later chatting, or better whining  in a cruiser's forum about my bad fridge day when another guy in the US said he didn't believe the compressor was dead - I should try something else. So, by then it was midnight, I re-installed the old unit, got poor Rahel out of bed as you need four hands for this task. Together we worked through some kind of elaborate test procedure to find the failure. What should I say, the "defective" compressor was running again another 30 minutes later. Gosh, a half drunk and his sleepy wife can proof that the damn compressor is not defect when two paid experts are not able to do so in two hours???? It's unbelievable, in particular since I had now a new 900 USD compressor for nothing... I was really ready to kill!

Of course, we just proved that the compressor was not defective, but the problem was persistent. We vacuumed the whole unit and refilled it to be sure there was no water or dirt trapped in the system. And after dozens of emails with a very helpful team at Frigoboat US (the producer), we have been able to keep the system now running for two weeks. And you know what - a new compressor would not have solved the issue...

vaccuming the unit

Of course the whole thing just started: Since it's hard to return everything to a store over here (you may have to pay up to 20% "fine") I decided instead to use the new compressor, meaning splitting the freezer and fridge to have two independent units in place. Great plan, instead of fixing something I had now a whole new project on my list!
new compressor before mounting

I exchanged the compressor (that's for free) to a smaller unit, bought a new evaporator and then installed the whole unit into the fridge. The new evaporator has a ventilator system so it cools down the fridge real fast, and new for us, even in the corners. Before my single compressor was running almost 24/7 full throttle and even the freezer was ice cold, the fridge was not always perfectly chilly. The project was pretty straight forward (I love when it sounds so easy): I mounted the new compressor in the locker, of course that needed some new electric wiring. Then I had to fit the new evaporator into the fridge and connect the copper lines with the compressor through a very small hole in the back of the deep fridge. Which involved a lot of swearing, believe me! The only thing I needed to do now was to divide the fridge from the freezer with some wood, epoxy and new seals - peanuts, right?

old and new compressor mounted

And since it was so much fun, I decided to add two more reliable electronic thermostats. They will show the inside temperature of each box and have an alarm in case the temp is rising above normal. Quick job: You just need to make a new teak housing for the thermostats, cut some holes in the fiberglass and crawl through the boat to connect 25 meters (!!) of wiring.

in the box on the right: two thermostats

Not sure if I like the outcome. I planned to hire a guy to get finally rid of the problems we had from time to time, with minimal costs and efforts of course. Based on this guy's wrong advice (and he is doing that for a living!!) it turned out complete different. Yes, I may have got a more reliable system but rather unplanned and out of our budget. And I really hate to become an expert in everything on this damn boat just because it looks as all the paid advice you get is actually worthless. Yes, I like the new digital thermostat and the two independent units. Should that compressor stall the next time I will not just know how to fix it, I will still have cold beer while working on it. There is nothing worse than boat fixing with warm beer - except of course with no beer at all...


  1. It is amazing what you two have learned to fix and improve all on your own. Great job!

  2. Look at the bright side: first beer is cold now AND you are saving the money for a Yoga class (that would be how many beers), staying limber is not an issue, I can tell. Somebody has to check on your healthy life style, correct!