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In the winter the indoor temperatures in our cabin often reach as low as 10° F (-12° C). We had an old refrigerator that worked just fine in these circumstances, but when we purchased a new refrigerator it failed even after multiple repairs. Upon reading the manual I discovered that it is only designed for operation in temperatures above 55° F (13° C).

Now we need to find a working refrigerator before winter. Preferably we would like one that maintains the correct temperature in the presence of extreme cold. Barring that, we would take something that just doesn't break when it gets too cold.

RepairClinic, among others, seems to indicate that refrigerators just won't work at this temperature because of premature compressor failure:

...if you live in a region in which the temperatures drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius), this is not a good idea. Such temperatures could cause the oil in the compressor to thicken, leading to premature compressor failure or other issues. Also, refrigerator/freezer units often won’t keep food frozen when the temperature of the garage drops below 35 degrees Fahrenheit

Anecdotal experience seems to contradict this, saying that it will work in the winter:

Unless you live someplace REALLY cold (and by REALLY cold, I mean close to the arctic circle cold, not "it sometimes snows here in february" cold), a fridge in an unheated garage is fine. Really. Me and everyone I know has a fridge in our garages, and nobody I know has every had a problem with things freezing.

The refrigerator before our most recently broken one worked just fine for several years, so that one is a point in favor of "they will just work." Meaning, the fridge didn't completely fail - even if it didn't maintain the right temperatures during the winter.

I have only been able to find one refrigerator that advertises the ability to work in cold temperatures: The Gladiator. My only concern is it appears 3 inches too tall for our cabin.

It seems that as long as the refrigerator won't fail, this device can solve the problem of the freezer not working in the 32-50° F range. But how can I make sure the refrigerator doesn't fail?

Has anybody else had to deal with this problem?

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    I'm curious about the use-case here. Are you not in the cabin during the winter but have food that needs refrigeration at that time? Note that a fridge can't warm anything, so if it's below freezing, the food is likely frozen as well. – DA01 Oct 30 '14 at 5:19
  • @DA01 Really it comes down to this: I need a fridge that won't literally break in sub-freezing temperatures. Keeping food from freezing would just be icing on the cake. – Cory Klein Oct 30 '14 at 14:58
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    I'm still a little unclear on why you'd have a fridge running in the first place in the winter in an unheated cabin. As it wouldn't needto run in sub-freezing temps (it'd be cold enough inside the fridge that it shouldn't kick on), you should be OK. I imagine it's the border-line temps that would actually be more of an issue. Can you unplug it for the season? – DA01 Oct 30 '14 at 15:04
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    I'm wondering if you could have a thermostat controlled outlet. So when it's 40 degrees or below, it cuts power to the fridge so it's not running. Granted, that means you'd need a separate fridge and freezer as they'd be set to separate temps. – DA01 Oct 30 '14 at 17:46
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    Is it possible that the old fridge was an absorption refrigerator, not a vapor compression refrigerator? – Tester101 Oct 30 '14 at 22:36
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Another option is an inline thermostat that will literally cut off all power to the frig once the temp drops below a certain point. That will prevent it from running when the temp is so low it could damage the frig. Something like this:

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Wiring diagram:

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It's good for 10 amps which should be plenty for a frig. $18 on Amazon

http://www.amazon.com/AGPtek-All-purpose-Temperature-Controller-STC-1000/dp/B00862G3TQ

That won't prevent everything from freezing if the cabin is 10, but will save the frig. This also has the advantage that when the temp goes back up, the frig resumes normal operation. Said another way, this is like unplugging the frig, but plugging it back in so the meat won't spoil when the temp gets too high.

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You may be able to use a propane or natural gas powered fridge. They have no moving parts that would break; in the extreme cold, I'd imagine that only the pilot light would be on.

I've stayed in a cabin that had one of these that was regularly exposed to -25 F, and it lasted for 40+ years.

http://home.howstuffworks.com/refrigerator5.htm

  • Great idea! I hadn't considered this one. – Cory Klein Nov 4 '14 at 16:18
  • There are also absorption refrigerators that work with gas and electricity. If you buy one of them you won't have to switch gas bottle every few weeks. It will use more energy than a compressor refrigerator, but it has no compressor that could break. – Josef Jun 11 at 12:52
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I don't see how a fridge could keep food above 32º in sub-freezing temperatures unless it was specifically designed for that and has a heater. I assume that's how "The Gladiator" works? Frankly I don't believe that forum where someone claims stuff won't freeze. Maybe if it just dips below freezing for a few hours overnight, but long term there's just no way.

It looks like "The Gladiator" has detachable casters, maybe you can remove them to get back a few extra inches of height?

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    Really, I would be fine with a fridge that doesn't keep food above 32º but where merely the compressor doesn't fail. But I can't find any reliable way to determine whether a specific refrigerator's compressor will fail at sub-freezing temperatures or not. As for the casters, I noticed that as well, but the sizing diagram appears to show that the listed height already does not include the casters. :( – Cory Klein Oct 30 '14 at 14:57

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