When it comes to modern advancements in technology, most of us can agree that we’re pretty grateful to the inventor of the refrigerator.
Without our trusty household fridge, we wouldn’t be able to store meat, dairy, and eggs safely without spoiling, enjoy fresh fruit and vegetables, or treat ourselves to cold, refreshing beverages like soda, beer, and wine.
Where did the fridge get its humble beginnings though?
The very first mention of using ice to keep food cool dates back thousands of years to 500 BC, although it didn’t look much like the modern fridges of today.
Ice houses from this era might have used a similar method of keeping food fresh with cold temperatures, but it took a lot more space and energy to do the job.
Although the history of the fridge isn’t one we think about often though, it’s an interesting tale nonetheless.
We’re going to look back at the very first fridges and what they’ve evolved to today as well as explore the many types of refrigerators, how they’re powered, and what purpose they serve in the world.
The next time you look at your kitchen refrigerator, you’ll do so with a newfound respect for this humble appliance.
There’s a lot more to fridges than you probably realize, and we’re going to learn it all from the very beginning right through to what the future holds for the household fridge.
The History of Refrigerators
The evolution of the fridge can be traced back to the first instance of using ice to keep food cold and fresh, around 500 BC.
This is the first of many significant events that led to the household refrigerator being born and the following changes that were made to bring us the standard fridge that we know and love today.
- 500 BC: In primitive times, an ice house was used to store ice that had been cut from lakes and rivers. This ice would be stored throughout the year and used to keep food fresh. Some cultures filled large pits with snow for the same effect, and ancient Egyptians put jars of food out overnight to cool naturally with the outside climate.
- 1740: During this decade, artificial refrigeration was born, and this principle is still used in modern fridges today. A Scottish scientist came up with the idea of heating liquid to turn it into gas to get a cooling effect, although never got to put his theory into practice.
- 1802: An American businessman invented the icebox so that he could carry dairy products long distances without spoiling. This invention was called the “refrigeratory” which he then went on to change slightly to “refrigerator” which he patented in 1803.
- 1834: An American inventor created a working vapor-compression refrigeration system in a closed-loop cycle. The prototype was successful but didn’t catch on commercially.
- 1840s: Wooden boxes lined with zinc or tin were used by households for keeping their food fresh, thanks to large blocks of ice inside them. As natural ice production caused health issues due to sewage dumping, people turned to man-made ice for their refrigeration needs.
- 1876: A German engineer discovered how to liquefy gas which leads to a discovery of a compressed-ammonia refrigerator. This discovery led to refrigeration being used instead of ice, but still mainly in commercial settings only.
- 1913: The Domelre (Domestic Electric Refrigerator) was invented, the first electric refrigerator for household use, and although it wasn’t successful it did give birth to the ice cube tray.
- 1918: Other companies like Kelvinator Company and Frigidaire Company began mass-producing their own refrigerators with slight advancements in each model.
- 1920s and 1930s: Fridges dropped in price which made them more available for the average household. They moved away from fatal gasses being used to power them and onto safer methods, like Freon.
- 1945: Mass production of refrigerators began and most American households now own one.
- 1970s: Freon is discovered to be a threat to the ozone layer and the design of fridges changed. Advancements continue to be made until today that makes refrigerators more eco friendly and energy-efficient.
The Many Types of Refrigerator Systems
At their most basic level, all refrigerators work the same by transferring heat around and moving it to cool certain areas down.
The reversal of heat flow is powered by many different types of systems, so here are some of the more common technologies at work in your average household refrigerator.
The most common system used for refrigeration is compression, and it’s also applied to air conditioning.
The heat is transferred by mechanically compressing the refrigerant so it turns into a cold liquid, and then expanding it into a hot gas. Just with the application of pressure, it can vary its temperature dramatically which makes them ideal for fridges.
The absorption method also uses a compression and expansion approach, but instead of using mechanical compression to move the refrigerant around, it does this with the process of absorption and heat.
This technology is commonly used in smaller fridges like camping coolers.
They rely on a thermocouple and electric current to operate, and a layer of insulation that separates them. One side is the cool side, and it sits at below room temperature and pulls the heat from the air.
Peltier effect refrigerators
These fridges rely on the Peltier effect to pump heat directly with the help of electricity, and this method is commonly used with camping fridges and other small appliances where minimal noise is required.
They’re not as energy-efficient so they shouldn’t be used for long term applications.
Although not commonly used, a magnetic refrigerator operates using the magnetocaloric effect.
This allows for the temperature to change due to exposure to a magnetic field that’s also changing, and is more widely used in freezers that need to reach extremely low temperatures.
These fridges are becoming more popular as they allow for the energy supply to adapt to how they’re used throughout the day, just like an inverter air conditioner.
The compressor of the fridge is the inverter and it can operate at more than just one speed, making it energy efficient and able to change depending on how it’s being used.
Different Types of Fridges
When you’re shopping for a brand new fridge, you might care less about their operating system and more about their functionality, so learning about the different types is going to matter most.
As one of the biggest investments you’ll make for the house, it’s good to know what each of these styles offers, so check out the most common types of fridges and what they have to offer.
Side by Side Fridge
A side by side fridge features a vertical freezer and refrigerator placed next to each other with their respective doors, and they come in a slim design that fits more types of homes.
They’re one of the most cost-efficient fridge styles out there, but unfortunately, also one of the most energy-consuming.
The vertical fridge and freezer sit next to each at the same height, with the freezer usually being slightly shorter than the fridge in its width.
A French door fridge is considered one of the more premium versions of this appliance and gives a modern and chic look to the home, with a hefty price tag to match.
The fridge is opened by two swinging doors that can be operated just one at a time to save the cool air escaping.
They usually feature a drawer-style freezer underneath that’s larger than most, and the capacity of the fridge section is wide and with ample space.
A counter depth fridge is a low profile design that’s intended to suit homes that want everything lined up neatly.
Compared to a standard fridge that pokes out from the counter, these are up to 30 inches deep which means they blend into the countertop seamlessly.
They’re usually wider to make up for this space that’s been lost and are ideal for homes that have less room to work with.
The top freezer fridge design is just as the name sounds, with the freezer located on top of the fridge, usually accessible by a separate door, and it’s by far the most common setup for household refrigerators.
The top freezer has the advantage of being a narrow design which means it takes up less floor space without sacrificing any storage inside the appliance itself.
Some top freezer models even have the freezer on the bottom, with no notable difference in functionality.
A mini fridge or bar fridge is one that measures less than 4.5 cubic feet in size.
These are commonly found in college dorm rooms or entertaining areas of the house because they’re better equipped at storing snacks and beverages, and they’re reasonably priced for such a handy appliance.
A mini fridge usually consists of both a fridge and freezer section inside, and their temperature control can sometimes be hard to get right for each of these compartments.
For homes that have a separate freezer and fridge set up, you might only require a standalone fridge which can end up costing a lot less to invest in.
A freestanding fridge can be as large or small as you want it but they’re usually ideal for households that require a lot of storage space as you don’t have to share anything with the freezer.
The first smart fridge was unveiled in 2000 by electronics giant LG, and it had a whopping price tag of $20,000.
Thankfully, smart fridges now cost a lot less and are capable of a lot more, including compiling grocery lists, letting you look inside the fridge when you’re not home, displaying recipes, making phone calls, and acting as a household organizer where each family member gets a personal profile.
Fridges for Different Uses
Fridges aren’t just found in the home, with this amazing cool-keeping technology being used for just about every industry and interest you can think of.
These are some of the other uses for refrigerators that you might not have considered, so you can see what they’re truly capable of.
A domestic refrigerator is another term for the household fridge and they’re by far the most common way we use them.
A domestic refrigerator encompasses any fridge up to around 34 cubic feet, which can fit around 34 bags of groceries inside.
They also include smaller models like mini and bar fridges, and portable types used for camping and outdoors.
A medical refrigerator is one used for storing important medical equipment that needs to be kept in specific conditions.
They vary in size and features, but with the main benefit of keeping temperatures, light, sound, and vibrations as stable as possible so they can protect the contents inside.
Common medical items kept in these fridges include vaccinations, medicine, and pharmaceutical ingredients.
A beauty fridge is used commercially to store cosmetic products, but recent variations have seen them made for home use as well.
As most cosmetics required specific temperatures to keep them fresh or more effective in reducing inflammation, having them refrigerated makes sense.
Items like perfume, face masks, creams, and serums can all be kept in a beauty fridge, and they’re usually less than a quarter of a cubic foot.
A commercial refrigerator is one step above a domestic model in size and efficiency.
They can be used to display food at restaurants and stores, keep items cold like in a vending machine, and store large quantities of ingredients used for cooking by restaurants and cafes.
They might have glass doors that make it easier to view the items inside without losing cold air or to allow customers to peruse before deciding on a purchase.
An industrial refrigerator is even larger still than a commercial one and they require a licensed operating engineer to have one on-site.
Their applications include large food packing plants like meat or dairy, breweries, creameries, oil refineries, rubber plants, chemical plants, and even for the use of cryogenics.
The Energy Efficiency of Fridges
The fridge is one of the hardest working appliances in the home and it’s always on and ready to deliver you fresh, cold food whenever you need it.
Because of their constant power needs, they can be one of the biggest consumers of household energy, but the new and improved manufacturers of fridges appear to be making this one of their main concerns.
It’s estimated that around 190 million fridges and refrigerator-freezers are currently operated in the US, with up to 68 million of those being more than 10 years old.
While it’s great to see that these older models are still operating, they’re also guilty of cost over $5 billion every year because of their excess energy use.
In many cases, it’s better to upgrade to a new fridge because of the savings you’ll make on your energy bills, but only if you buy Energy Star certified.
According to the Energy Star rating service, if every household in the United States made the switch to an Energy Star certified refrigerator, the entire country could save up to $700 million and 9 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions each year.
This in itself equals to 870,000 cars emissions, and that’s simply by choosing a fridge that’s better for the environment.
How to Choose an Energy Efficient Fridge
When you’re buying a new fridge, make a point of choosing one that’s energy efficient.
This will not only save you money in utility bills in the long run but it’ll mean you’re doing your part for the environment in reducing greenhouse emissions. Here are some ways to shop for energy efficient appliances:
- Icemaker optional: Although they might seem convenient, having a fridge with an icemaker and water dispenser usually means it chews through more power. Even though you’re opening the freezer door less, having an ice maker increases the energy use by up to 20 percent, as well as adding dollars to the price tag.
- Choose the right size: Think of how many family members you have and how much food you regularly store, and choose a fridge that will be just right. Leaving the fridge too empty or too full will use more power, so opt for a more energy efficient size of between 16 to 20 cubic feet.
- Leave room for airflow: Look at the space in your kitchen where the new fridge will go and do some measurements that will allow for airflow. A fridge should have at minimum one inch of space around all sides for ventilation and anything less will cause it to heat up and use more energy.
- Read the labels: An Energy Star certified refrigerator is easy to spot thanks to its label, so opt for these where possible and do some comparisons on numbers. They might be a little more expensive but sometimes qualify for rebates, and exceed other appliances in terms of energy efficiency.
- Energy saver switch: Some modern fridges come with an energy saver switch that lets you turn off and on the heating cools. This prevents condensation and prevents the anti-sweat heaters from activating which results in up to 10 percent savings in energy.
How to Dispose of Your Fridge Correctly
Although fridges are known to be some of the longest-lasting appliances around, they still outlive their functionality eventually.
Most of us know of a family refrigerator that’s been passed down through generations that finally gives up or maybe even a newer model that didn’t live up to the longevity of its predecessors, so what do you do when it’s finally time to throw one away?
Can You Recycle a Fridge?
Both refrigerators and freezers are made with various compounds like oils and refrigerants that make them dangerous to dispose of yourself.
Legally in the US, you’re required to dispose of a fridge the correct way due to just how harmful they can be. These harmful elements need to be removed and recovered with care by professionals, so you can’t simply throw it out yourself.
According to the Energy Star program and the Environmental Protection Agency, a 10-year-old fridge will contain over 120 pounds of recyclable steel.
There are other metals and parts that can also be recycled, and even the foam insulation used inside the doors of your fridge can be recycled and reused elsewhere.
How to Recycle Your Fridge
If you want to dispose of your fridge the right way, there are four options recommended by the EPA for how you can recycle it.
Consider these when your household refrigerator finally gives up after years of faithful service:
- Scrap Metal Recycling
Scrap metal recyclers are very interested in old fridges due to how much of the material they contain. Contact your local scrap metal center to find out what they’ll do with your old fridge and see if they’re interested in taking it from you.
- Trade-In Recycling
If you plan on buying a new fridge that has an Energy Star rating, you can speak to the retailer about their involvement with an EPA program that picks up and recycles your old fridge for you, known as the Responsible Appliance Disposal (RAD) Program.
When you purchase a new one, they will organize to have the old fridge collected and recycled using best practices from several selected RAD partners in your area, and others offer a cash rebate for doing so.
- Municipal Pick Up
The local waste management division near you will have a procedure in place for refrigerator recycling pickups for when they can’t be personally delivered. Contact them to organize someone to collect the fridge and recycle it for you.
- Local Electric Utility Programs
Your local electric utility or state energy office will have a recycling program that helps to dispose of fridges and freezers correctly. You may be eligible for a credit on your utility bill or even a cash rebate, depending on current promotions.
Fridges of the Future
The fridges of today have evolved pretty far from the earliest inclinations of iceboxes and ice houses.
With an idea of how far they’ve come, we can get some indication of where they’re headed, so what can we expect from the fridges of the future?
The smart fridge will likely become more commonplace as consumer prices start to fall and the capabilities get even greater.
Those looking to the future predict fridges that will be able to measure and weigh ingredients and even get more involved in cooking meals for itself, but we are still some time away from these types of technologies.
For now, modern smart fridges are capable of more than ever. They can take photos of items inside the fridge, create shopping lists, act as an organizer for the entire family, and become smart home hubs that allow you to control all aspects of the house including lighting and security.
Although these technological advancements would be handy, one of the most important advancements will be around making fridges more energy efficient.
According to the Department of Energy, the average fridge uses around 13 percent of the home’s electricity, so if this can continue to decrease without losing any convenience, then it’ll be a welcome development.
Features of Fridges: Which is Best for You?
With all of your knowledge about fridges, you probably feel equipped to go shopping for a brand new one.
A fridge is a personal item though, and a serious investment, so you need to choose one that’s going to suit the members and habits of your household to be there for the long haul.
Before you start shopping for a new fridge, consider what features matter most to you. Here are some things to weigh up before investing in a refrigerator for the home and how to know which is the right way to go.
Consider how many cubic feet of space you require to store the food for your household. Look at the dimensions of the fridge and make sure that it’s going to fit with the space you have set aside for it in the kitchen.
Think about what fridge configuration suits your home best.
Do you want French doors for more space, or would you rather stack the fridge and freezer on top of each other to save room and add convenience?
Fridges come with a variety of compartment configurations depending on the type of food storage you need.
Some have wider shelves that you can adjust the height of and others cater for more condiments in the door, so it depends completely on what your family likes to eat.
You can choose a fridge full of digital features like a smart style or one with none at all.
Popular digital features include display screens, cameras, sensors, and internet connectivity.
Finding an energy-efficient fridge is easy to do thanks to certifications and labels that are required for newer products.
If you’re unsure, compare the numbers of kilowatts per hour to get a good idea of how much energy they use.
The Most Important Appliance a Home Has
There’s no doubt that the refrigerator is the hardest working home appliance and the one that we rely on the most.
Even when they’re not being opened and closed all through the night as we peruse their shelves, they’re still working at keeping our food cool and safe to eat the following day.
If you’ve never given much thought to what your fridge does, you might have a newfound appreciation for them after seeing how far they’ve evolved from their humble beginnings.
The smart fridges of today give some indication to where these appliances are headed in the future, but what is certain is that the average household will always rely on their trusty refrigerator.
Given that most fridges will last for over 10 years if taken care of properly, and some well beyond the 30-year mark, they’re not an investment you want to take lightly.
With a good understanding of the functions and features of fridges today, you’ll be in the best position to choose one that can serve your household perfectly.
There’s a lot to learn about fridges and the more you know, the better you’ll be able to use yours at home.
We’ve answered some commonly asked questions that people have about fridges to educate you on their functions and show you why they’re one of the hardest working appliances we own.
What is the Life Expectancy of a Fridge?
All fridges are manufactured differently so their life expectancy will differ as well. In general, the average life expectancy for a household fridge is between 14 to 17 years, provided it’s regularly cleaned and maintained.
Smaller fridges usually run a few years shorter than this, and budget-friendly models made with cheaper parts won’t last as long either.
What is the Correct Temperature for a Fridge?
According to the US Food and Drug Administration, a refrigerator should always be below 40 degrees Fahrenheit to store food safely, with experts recommending between 35 to 37 degrees as ideal.
The household freezer should be even less and kept at below 0 degrees for correct storage.
How long Will Food Last in a Refrigerator That’s Turned Off?
If your power goes out or your fridge is accidentally disconnected from electricity, the food will stay cold safely for around four hours provided the door has remained shut.
If the freezer is full of food and loses power with the door closed, this will keep a lot longer, usually up to 48 hours.