When I bought Britannia, it had an old front opening refrigerator which didn’t cool very well, along with a built-in ice box, which only kept 20 Lbs of ice for a day before it melted.
The first thing I did was remove the old refrigerator and slide a nice new stainless steel Indel unit in the same place, but this didn’t hold frozen food, so I began to consider if I might be able to convert the ice box into a proper freezer. The box was completely encapsulated in the side of the galley, with one side against the hull.
It was 29” inches deep and extremely difficult to reach the bottom through the small 12” inch square lid, but there was a shelf half way up where food could be placed and ice packed underneath.
I had absolutely no experience of installing freezers, and I wasn’t even sure if it was possible. So I posted a question on the Cruisers Forum and received over 130 messages which varied from, “Impossible—buy a self contained fridge/freezer box,” to, “It depends on the thickness of the insulation.” The thread was viewed by more than 6500 members worldwide, so there is evidently great interest in what I was considering doing.
From these replies, and talking to people, it became apparent that insulation is the single most important portion of any boat freezer. I was advised that no less than four inches and preferably six inches of insulation thickness would be necessary to insulate the compartment for a freezer. One reason why insulation is so important on a sailboat is because you want the equipment running as little as possible, to reduce battery drain. When the freezer is ‘off’ the inside of the box slowly starts to de-thaw, so the thicker the insulation the slower the de-thawing process. The compressor also works less with adequate insulation.
The inside of my ice box has a fibreglass inner shell 13” inches wide at the top and only 10” inches at the bottom. I therefore could not consider adding insulation to the inside of the box because it would reduce storage space. Nor could I do anything about the side of the box which was bonded to the hull, but I could get to the other three sides.
I first tried to discover what type of insulation was encasing the existing shell, and what condition it was in after 37 years. I removed the Corrian work top I had previously fitted on the galley, then drilled a few 1/2” inch exploratory holes in the sides and top, which seemed to turn out only dry foam. I also tried to cut into the top of the box, in the hope of being able to better examine the insulation, and replace it if necessary.
This was one time when I wished Down Easter’s are not built like Sherman Tanks, because after hacking through two 1/4” inch thicknesses of fiberglass, and two 3/4” inch thicknesses of marine ply, I still could not lift a section of the top. The only other thing I could do was take measurements on the three sides of the box which I could reach, and assume the insulation foam inside was still good. These measurements indicated about 2” inches of insulation on two sides and 1” inch only on the other. This was not enough to maintain a proper ice box, never mind a freezer.
I bought a refrigerator thermometer from Lowes and hung it inside the box. Then started a series of tests to see how long and what temperature a 16Lb bag of ice would keep the temperature at the lowest.
The first test was with a single 16Lb bag of ice in the upper section of the box, above the shelf. This eventually reduced the temperature to 42 degrees Fahrenheit, but only for about 24 hours, before the ice began to melt and the temperature rose. I could also feel the outside of the box was colder than surrounding panels, which meant there was “leakage” through the insulation to the outside.
On the second test I filled the space below the shelf with solid block ice, which I had frozen in our home freezer. This time a 16Lbs bag of ice lasted 42 hours before it began to melt. Strangely, the block ice still remained three quarters solid, which I think was because the cold from the bag of ice sank and kept the blocks frozen.
These tests over a number of days, were quite consistent, because we have two very efficient air conditioners which can keep the saloon at a regular 75 degree F. If the saloon ambient temperature had varied from day to day, the test results would have also varied considerably.
It was obvious even to my inexperienced eye, insulation was needed, so after again consulting with the Cruising Forum pundits I decided to buy a 4 foot x 8 foot sheet of 2” inches thick high density foam called “Parma R,” for $27.50, from our local Lowe’s store. This foam has a tin foil backing on one side. I made accurate cardboard templates of the three sides and cut the foam carefully with a sharp bread knife. I made two pieces for each side panel, so my insulation thickness would be an extra four inches on three sides.
I glued the foam panels to the outside of the box using Liquid Nails, Panel and Foam adhesive, tin foil side outwards. This glue does not melt the foam like other types. I allowed the first layer to dry for a day, before sticking the second layer on top. I then filled in all the joints and areas where I could not get any foam, using Aerosol foam insulation, again from Lowe’s.
When all the new insulation was glued in place it was time for a third test using another 16Lb bag of ice and solid block ice below the shelf. This time the temperature inside the box sank to 39 degrees F, but stayed there two extra days. Better still, I could not feel any cold on the outside of the new insulation.
I felt some satisfaction in achieving this small advance, because I had evidently improved the insulation significantly for only a small cash outlay. So even if we decided to keep it only as an ice box it would be more efficient. I asked myself why the builders didn’t do this when the boat was built.
The temperature graph shows the differences between the three tests, But I remained mystified why, after all the new insulation was fitted, the temperature did not drop much below 40F. I was told that even in a well insulated box the holding plate temperature must be about 10 degrees lower than the temperature required in the freezer. Therefore, in order to maintain freezing inside the box, the plates needed to go down to minus 22 degrees F. Assuming the temperature of the bag of ice was at freezing, 32 degrees F, I was actually doing quite well to read 39 degrees F, on my test.
I now had to decide whether to bite the bullet and buy a freezer unit. These are not cheap, starting around $1900 to upwards of $4,000, for different specifications.
Refrigerators and freezers all work on the same principal, and with an abundance of detailed explanations on the web there is no need to repeat that much technical detail here. Simply put: a compressor pumps freon gas through plates mounted inside the freezer box. The freon absorbs heat and causes the inside of the box to get cold. There are basically two types of freezer plates: evaporator plates and holding plates. Evaporator plates are like those in a household fridge/freezer—thin corrugated wrap round plates usually in the top of the fridge. These freeze quickly, but because they are so thin they also de-freeze quickly, so the compressor needs to be running almost continuously to keep them frozen. Holding plates are much thicker, up to 3” inches if there is space inside the cabinet. Holding plates take longer to freeze, but they stay frozen longer, so once they are frozen it takes less power to keep them there. For any boat, particularly a sailboat, holding plates are the best solution for a freezer.
BUYING THE EQUIPMENT
I sent a drawing to four suppliers of marine refrigeration equipment, asking for recommendations, specifications and prices. One didn’t reply at all, another was so difficult to drag a price out of I gave up. Finally I choose Sea Frost in Barrington New Hampshire, who were the most helpful. (www.seafrost.com) They could supply all the equipment, along with custom sized holding plates. The owner, Cleave Horton, is extremely knowledgeable and recommended two holding plates, one each side inside the box, connected together to the compressor. These would be 15” inches square x 1” inch thick and would just fit through the 12” inch square lid of the box. I would therefore loose 2” inches in the upper box width. I asked Cleave if it wouldn’t be better and cheaper to have one 2” inch thick holding plate? His reply was, “Think of it as standing in front of a fire in your house. Only your back gets warm, but if you were between two fires you would toast evenly.” I thought this was a good analogy, and I’m sure it is the sort of thing an inexperienced buyer likes to hear.
Another important item to consider in any fridge/freezer system is the compressor and associated equipment. There are electric compressors, of which by far the most popular make is Danforth. Then there are engine driven compressors, which are more powerful and don’t deplete batteries. There are also air cooled compressors and water cooled compressors. Difficult choices indeed for an apprentice.
As usual on boats, there are pros and cons for each type. My boat has a very large battery bank of over 1300 amp hours, and numerous ways to keep them charged. I have a wind generator, solar panels, a 6.5kw generator with both a 12 volt alternator and 120 volt outputs, which also powers the 40 amp battery charger. This is not counting the main engine alternator. I therefore decided to buy a 12 volt air cooled system.
The compressor, along with it’s condenser, (the radiator part which dissipates the hot air), and the control electronics are particularly well made on the Sea Frost units. All the items are enclosed in a strong metal box, which keeps dust and dirt out and allows for other things to be stored in the same locker, without resting on the equipment. All the other manufacturers I looked at had open equipment. The control unit can be mounted anywhere and is connected to the holding plates with pipes, pre-loaded with liquid freon and employing self sealing couplings. My pipes were made exactly the right length to my drawing and fitted a holding plate on each side of the box.
Sea Frost’s instruction manual is meticulous, which was very helpful to a novice. They even include photographs of how to bolt the pipes together using two wrenches so as not to over tighten the connectors.
I had ordered the latest Danforth BD80XP compressor, which they say uses less power, along with a fully programmable remote electronic thermostat. Sea Frost built and shipped my order in one week. The cost was $2312.00
Before installing the holding plates I decided to repair a few chips in the fiberglass and paint the box with two-pot epoxy paint. This made the inside look new.
I found the installation to be quite straightforward. I screwed the plates to both sides of the box, using the special fasteners supplied, which hold them clear of the wall of the box about 1/4” inch, to permit all round circulation. Then I drilled a 1” inch hole through the side of the box and passed the pipes and thermostat wires though. The trickiest pipes actually connect the holding plates together inside the box. I followed the detailed pipe connecting instructions and managed it with no loss of freon. The other end of the pipes connect to the compressor unit.
I mounted the compressor cabinet under a saloon seat next to the freezer. A small fan circulates air through the condenser radiator inside the cabinet and blows it into a cupboard under the sinks, which had a louvered door. I therefore had a good circulation of ambient air through the unit.
I then wired the electronics into my 12 volt circuit board, with a 30 amp breaker marked “freezer.”
Finally, on further advice from my trusty Cruising Forum friends, I lined the inside of the box with 1/4” inch thick bubble wrap with foil on both sides. This is used to line freezers and ice boxes in RV’s and easily removable for cleaning. I also fitted a ball valve on the water drain pipe in the bottom of the box to prevent even the slightest amount of “cold” escaping down the pipe.
Amazingly, when the moment of reckoning arrived, everything started to hum, with no leaks and amazingly quiet. The holding plates immediately started to get cold to the touch, and after about two hours we found ourselves with a superb little freezer, which stays at 26 degrees F, all the time.
It is certainly one of my better modifications to our good old boat.