Dreaming Big in Japan

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Hidenka Reizouko

非電化 冷蔵庫

What do those six kanji above and the six materials below have in common?

Driftwood, insulation and recycled water bottles
These are the fixings for a non-electric refrigerator!

Picture it. The year was 2007 and I was minding my own business in the public library in Mizusawa City. After exhausting all my options at finding any English language materials in a Japanese library that did not include a 1978 World Atlas, a Beta tape copy of the Karate Kid or a 1981 Passenger Car and Light Duty Truck Service Manual Supplement (GM-Canada), I was delighted to stumble upon the periodicals, amongst which there were many, vaguely, English-titled selections...

Something generically camping-related caught my eye, and I took the current copy and all those tucked away behind it to a nice little table for further perusing. Beyond the magazine's Roman alphabet title there was little of interest or anything intelligible to my non-kanji comprehending brain. The pictures were nice, though! And that is what brought me to flip through a stack of magazines in a matter of mere minutes, only to pause for the flashy color spreads. Some dutch oven advocate here, some car campers there, but in the midst of so much mediocrity something did catch my eye: a man pulling a seemingly cold, deliciously perspiring bottle of beer out of a shiny box on a hot sunny day. There was no ice, there was no cord. From the complex drawings annotated in an even more complex language, I deduced that the sun somehow cooled that delicious bottle of beer. 

While that assumption proved false upon having my trusty translator (Michie!) exercise her kanji-skills, it was revealed that the box was in fact a non-electric refrigerator. The key points turned out to be insulation, thermal mass and radiative cooling.

So, four years ago, we photocopied that article and filed it away for future reference. Behold the future: when we first arrived in Japan earlier this year we tooled around Tokyo for a couple days, and the first thing we did after that was to head directly to see the man that had invented the non-electric fridge. The guy turned out to be a bonafide inventor, with all kinds of non-electric gadgets and gizmos all over his studio. The showcase version of the fridge (seen in the link above) was made from customized stainless steel parts and cost thousands of dollars to build. Thankfully, this guy was as practical as he was creative and he put together several more cost effective models that he said he had built from off-the-shelf materials from the local hardware store, and all that for under 10,000 yen or about a hundred dollars, give or take. 

We studied the fridges intently and snapped as many pictures as possible while there. Little did we know that within three weeks time the whole country would be thrust into a situation where "non-electric" wouldn't just be some tinkerer's dream, but a viable way to comfortably survive.

With all of this in mind, one of the first scraps I snatched up when we landed on Ajishima was that long-narrow, yellowish panel in the picture above. It is actually a thick slab of closed cell foam insulation framed in wood on four sides with a sheet of plywood over one of its faces. The other items include a couple styrofoam box tops, an old fashioned wooden rice bin, a bag of 2-liter water bottles from our first couple weeks on the island with no running water and a few bits of wood.

One afternoon, Michie and I cobbled this little version together. All we needed extra were a few nails and screws, plus four hinges and a piece of screen from the 100 yen shop. This is how we did it:

First we cleaned up the box

Then pounded on some risers

Flipped it upright

And sided it with the foam panel

The panel was as wide as the box was tall, and nearly the same length as its girth

Next came the frame for the bottom lid

Which we fitted with a screen to keep the bugs out

We added 100 yen hinges and...presto change-o!

Next came the top lid that happened to be exactly as wide as the bottom lid

Michie even tried her hand at sawing. She actually did most of the work!

Japanese saws are awesomely double-sided and make a fantastic 'whraowhraowhraon' sound

The top lid was connected to the bottom lid

Next came 25 2-liter bottles of thermal mass (i.e. water)

Which we dropped in...
...in no particular order

Then we insulated the top lid

There you have it...

...a non-electric refrigerator

That about wraps up the project, except for a driftwood wood handle for the top lid, which we found on the beach during a romantic stroll a few days later, and perhaps some kind of non-toxic paint job.
It sits right outside our kitchen door under an opaque awning.

The idea behind this contraption is that at night you open the top lid and let the heat radiate out into space which in effect cools the contents and, most importantly, the water. You close the top lid in the morning and the insulation combined with the relative thermal stability of 50 liters of water keeps everything cool.

We monitored the temperature difference on the hottest days of about 31 degrees Celsius and the internal temp came in between 25-26 all day long. Maybe we could wrap the whole thing in foil or mylar to reflect more of the day's heat as well.

The contents can only ever get as cold as it is at night and they may even freeze in the winter. We will have to wait and see.

Aside from the fact that nearly every disparate scrap we salvaged and repurposed matched the exact dimensions of the other components, we had consumed exactly 25 2-liter bottles of water, no more, no less, before the water lines were restored. Those 25 bottles, no more, no less, fit into the box without any gaps

Since we have chosen not to buy a regular fridge, at least we have a place to keep our produce cool, and it will work whether or not we have electricity flowing to our house. Plus, one more great advantage of this fridge is that we have an additional 50 liters of emergency water on hand now as well. If only it were 50 liters of beer...

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