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A side-by-side refrigerator-freezer that was in a garage during the recent cold spell in Texas acted odd, the freezer became warm and everything melted. The refrigerator side did not show any problems. The freezer seems to be functioning now as a cup of water in it did freeze. The refrigerator is about 20 years old and had a thermostat replaced.

Is this a common event?

Is it related to subfreezing (about 20 degrees for extended periods) temperature where refrigerator was located?

What are there practical ways of preventing it?

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The key is that this is not "freezer" but "side-by-side refrigerator-freezer". In theory, at least, a simple freezer left in below freezing conditions will just freeze. Actually, not quite that simple, because a residential freezer ideal temperature is 0 degrees F, not 20 degrees, but if it simply quit working, 20 degrees would keep things safe enough, generally speaking, for a few days.

However, a refrigerator-freezer is a complex device. It typically does not have "a refrigerator temperature" and "a freezer temperature" with mechanisms to keep each compartment at the right temperature (e.g., 38 F refrigerator, 0 F freezer). Instead, it relies on:

  • Outside temperature in a very moderate range - typically 50 F (too cold and the refrigerator won't need much cooling...which leads to the freezer getting too warm because nothing is cooling) to 85 F (too hot and the appliance simply can't cool fast enough).
  • Both refrigerator and freezer needing cooling at the same time. So if the refrigerator gets warm, the compressor starts running to cool the refrigerator, and the freezer gets cooled down at the same time, and vice versa.

plus, modern refrigerators/freezers are designed to use very little energy. Part of that is handled by insulation - gain less heat and you have to run the compressor less. Part is by minimizing the equipment - if the compressor (and fans and so forth) is smaller/uses less energy when running then the total energy used will be lower.

The end result is that an unconditioned space is bad for a typical "inside" refrigerator/freezer, with bad results to be expected if there are extended times below the nominal refrigerator temperature (the system just doesn't handle it well) or very hot (just can't keep up - and unlike air conditioning where the people can manage and at least appreciate that 80 F inside is a lot better than 100 F outside, a refrigerator that ends up at 50 F will result in spoiled food without you even realizing it!).

The only practical way around the problem is to keep all ordinary refrigerators/freezers in conditioned space. Even in an extended power outage, that is still likely to be better than unconditioned space, at least for the first day or two. (Well, actually in a summer power outage inside is better, in a winter power outage, outside would be better - but that is only the combination of cold + power out. If you have hot + power out or power on (hot or cold) then inside is better.)

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    Brilliant answer! – Harper - Reinstate Monica Feb 21 at 21:04
  • My impression was that the freezer was much warmer than the garage! As if somehow it was heating itself up. However, I am not sure because I did not measure any temperatures. But I ended up thinking if I had simply left the stuff in garage it would have been better off than putting it in the freezer. Better bet was to put them in the refrigerator. – Maesumi Feb 21 at 21:16
  • Hard to say exactly what happened. But the compressor and other stuff is simply not designed to work under those conditions. Think about it like a heat pump - it can heat or cool the same building depending on outside conditions and system configuration. – manassehkatz-Moving 2 Codidact Feb 21 at 21:19

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