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A typical refrigerator with its door open

A refrigerator (often called a "fridge" for short) is a cooling appliance comprising a thermally insulated compartment and a heat pump—chemical or mechanical means—to transfer heat from it to the external environment, cooling the contents to a temperature below ambient. Refrigerators are extensively used to store foods which spoil from bacterial growth if not refrigerated. A device described as a "refrigerator" maintains a temperature a few degrees above the freezing point of water; a similar device which maintains a temperature below the freezing point of water is called a "freezer." The refrigerator is a relatively modern invention among kitchen appliances. It replaced the icebox, which had been a common household appliance for almost a century and a half prior. For this reason, a refrigerator is sometimes referred to as an "icebox".


Freezer units are used in households and in industry and commerce. Most freezers operate around . Domestic freezers can be included as a separate compartment in a refrigerator, or can be a separate appliance. Domestic freezers are generally upright units resembling refrigerators, or chests resembling upright units laid on their backs. Many upright modern freezers come with an ice dispenser built into their door.

Commercial and domestic refrigerators

Commercial fridge and freezer units, which go by many other names, were in use for almost 40 years prior to the common home models. They used toxic gas systems, which occasionally leaked, making them unsafe for home use. Practical household refrigerators were introduced in 1915 and gained wider acceptance in the United States in the 1930s as prices fell and non-toxic, non-flammable synthetic refrigerants such as Freon or R-12 were introduced. It is notable that while 60% of households in the US owned a refrigerator by the 1930s, it was not until 40 years later, in the 1970s, that the refrigerator achieved a similar level of penetration in the United Kingdom.


Before the invention of the refrigerator, icehouses were used to provide cool storage for most of the year. Placed near freshwater lakes or packed with snow and ice during the winter, they were once very common. Natural means are still used to cool foods today. On mountainsides, runoff from melting snow is a convenient way to cool drinks, and during the winter one can keep milk fresh much longer just by keeping it outdoors.

In the 11th century, the Persian physicist and chemist Ibn Sina (Avicenna) invented the refrigerated coil, which condenses aromatic vapours. This was a breakthrough in distillation technology and he made use of it in his steam distillation process, which requires refrigerated tubing, to produce essential oils.

The first known artificial refrigeration was demonstrated by William Cullen at the University of Glasgowmarker in 1748. Between 1805, when Oliver Evans designed the first refrigeration machine that used vapor instead of liquid, and 1902 when Willis Haviland Carrier demonstrated the first air conditioner, scores of inventors contributed many small advances in cooling machinery. In 1850 or 1851, Dr. John Gorrie demonstrated an ice maker. In 1857, Australian James Harrison introduced vapor-compression refrigeration to the brewing and meat packing industries. Ferdinand Carré of France developed a somewhat more complex system in 1859. Unlike earlier compression-compression machines, which used air as a coolant, Carré's equipment contained rapidly expanding ammonia. The absorption refrigerator was invented by Baltzar von Platen and Carl Munters in 1922, while they were still students at the Royal Institute of Technologymarker in Stockholmmarker. It became a worldwide success and was commercialized by Electrolux. Other pioneers included Charles Tellier, David Boyle, and Raoul Pictet. Carl von Linde was the first to patent and make a practical and compact refrigerator.

At the start of the 20th century, about half of households in the United States relied on melting ice (in an icebox) to keep food cold, while the remaining half had no cooled storage at all, possibly excepting a "root cellar". The ice used for household storage was expensive because ice had to be cut from winter ponds (or mechanically produced), stored centrally until needed, and delivered regularly.

From shortly after 1900 refrigeration of transportation, generally for the long distance transport of food, was slowly introduced. The railways in the USA introduced the Refrigerator car on the long haul, over several days, of fruit and vegetables from California to the East. Special freight cars were built with big ice chambers underneath, which were filled with tons of ice at intervals at "icing stations" along the railroad. Internal ventilation fans driven from the wheels of the car directed cooled air up through ducting among the vehicle contents. Salt was added to the ice to make it melt faster, and thus absorb latent heat faster, increasing the cooling effect. Meanwhile refrigerated ships were constructed for long distance movements, such as meat and dairy products from New Zealand to Britain. These ships used the power from the main engine, and the refrigerant circulated was brine, a salt and water mixture with a low freezing point.

In a few exceptional cases, mechanical refrigeration systems had been adapted by the start of the 20th century for use in the homes of the very wealthy, and might be used for cooling both living and food storage areas. One early system was installed at the mansion of Walter Pierce, an oil company executive.

Marcel Audiffren of France championed the idea of a refrigerating machine for cooling and preserving foods at home. His U.S. patents, issued in 1895 and 1908, were purchased by the American Audiffren Refrigerating Machine Company. Machines based on Audiffren's sulfur dioxide process were manufactured by General Electric in Fort Wayne, Indianamarker and marketed by the Johns-Manville company. The first unit was sold in 1911. Audiffren machines were expensive, selling for about $1,000 (U.S.) — about twice as much as the cost of an automobile at that time.

General Electric sought to develop refrigerators of its own, and in 1915 the first Guardian unit was assembled in a backyard washhouse as a predecessor to the Frigidaire. In 1916 Kelvinator and Servel introduced two units among a field of competing models. This had increased to 200 by 1920. In 1918, Kelvinator had a model with automatic controls.

These home units usually required the installation of the mechanical parts, motor and compressor, in the basement or an adjacent room while the cold box was located in the kitchen. There was a 1922 model that consisted of a wooden cold box, water-cooled compressor, an ice cube tray and a 9 cubic feet compartment, and cost $714. (A 1922 Model-T Ford cost about $450.) In 1923 Frigidaire introduced the first self-contained unit. About this same time porcelain-covered metal cabinets began to appear. Ice cube trays were introduced more and more during the 1920s; up to this time freezing was not an auxiliary function of the modern refrigerator.

The first refrigerator to see widespread use was the General Electric "Monitor-Top" refrigerator introduced in 1927. The compressor assembly, which emitted a great deal of heat, was placed above the cabinet, and surrounded with a decorative ring. Over 1,000,000 units were produced. As the refrigerating medium, these refrigerators used either sulfur dioxide, which is corrosive to the eyes and may cause loss of vision, painful skin burns and lesions, or methyl formate, which is highly flammable, harmful to the eyes, and toxic if inhaled or ingested. Many of these units are still functional today. These cooling systems cannot legally be recharged with the hazardous original refrigerants if they leak or break down.

Older U.S. refrigerator model, with freezer compartment

The introduction of Freon expanded the refrigerator market during the 1930s. Separate freezers became common during the 1940s, the popular term at the time for the unit was a "deep freeze". But these devices or "appliances" did not go into mass production for use in the home until after World War 2. The 1950s and 60s saw technical advances like automatic defrosting and automatic ice making. More efficient refrigerators were developed in the 1970s and 80s, even though environmental issues led to the banning of very effective (Freon) refrigerants. Early refrigerator models (from 1916) had a cold compartment for ice cube trays. From the late 1920s fresh vegetables were successfully processed through freezing by the Postum Company (the forerunner of General Foods) which had acquired the technology when it bought the rights to Clarence Birdseye's successful fresh freezing methods.

The first successful application of frozen foods occurred when General Foods heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post (then wife of Joseph E. Davies, United States Ambassador to the Soviet Unionmarker) deployed commercial-grade freezers in Spaso House, the US Embassy in Moscowmarker, in advance of the Davies’ arrival. Post, fearful of the USSR's food processing safety standards, fully stocked the freezers with products from General Foods' Birdseye unit. The frozen food stores allowed the Davies to entertain lavishly and serve fresh frozen foods that would otherwise be out of season. Upon returning from Moscow, Post (who resumed her maiden name after divorcing Davies) directed General Foods to market frozen product to upscale restaurants.

Home freezers as separate compartments (larger than necessary just for ice cubes), or as separate units, were introduced in the United States in 1940. Frozen foods, previously a luxury item, began to be commonplace.

General technical explanation

A vapor compression cycle is used in most household refrigerators, refrigerator–freezers and freezers. In this cycle, a circulating refrigerant such as R134a enters a compressor as low-pressure vapor at or slightly above room temperature. The vapor is then compressed and exits the compressor as high-pressure superheated vapor. The superheated vapor travels under pressure through coils or tubes comprising "the condenser", which are passively cooled by exposure to air in the room. (In hot weather, the room or "ambient" air may itself have been cooled by an air conditioner. A cooler ambient temperature demands less work from the refrigerator.) The condenser cools the vapor, and it eventually liquefies. It is then still under pressure. By the time the refrigerant leaves the condenser it is only slightly above room temperature. This warm liquid refrigerant is forced by its pressure through a metering or throttling device, also known as an expansion valve (essentially a constriction) to an area of much lower pressure. The sudden decrease in pressure results in explosive-like flash evaporation of a portion (typically about half) of the liquid. The latent heat absorbed by this flash evaporation is drawn mostly from adjacent still-liquid refrigerant, a phenomenon known as "auto-refrigeration". The cold and partially vaporized refrigerant continues through coils or tubes of the evaporator unit. A fan blows air from the refrigerator or freezer compartment ("box air") across these coils or tubes and the refrigerant completely vaporizes, drawing further latent heat from the box air, and so keeps the box air cold. This cooled air is returned to the refrigerator or freezer compartment. The cool air in the refrigerator or freezer is still warmer than the refrigerant in the evaporator. Refrigerant leaves the evaporator, now fully vaporized and slightly heated, and returns to the compressor inlet to continue the cycle.

An absorption refrigerator works differently from a compressor refrigerator, using a source of heat, such as combustion of liquefied petroleum gas, solar thermal energy or an electric heating element. These heat sources are much quieter than the compressor motor in a typical refrigerator. A fan or pump might be the only mechanical moving parts; reliance on convection is considered impractical.

The Peltier effect uses electricity to pump heat directly; this type of refrigerator is sometimes used for camping, or where noise is not acceptable. They can be totally silent (if they don't include a fan for air circulation) but are less energy-efficient than other methods.

Other uses of an absorption refrigerator (or "chiller") include large systems used in office buildings or complexes such as hospitals and universities. These large systems are used to chill a brine solution that is circulated through the building.

Other alternatives to the vapor-compression cycle but not in current use include thermionic, vortex tube, air cycle, magnetic cooling, Stirling cycle, Malone refrigeration, acoustic cooling, pulse tube and water cycle systems.


The inside of a common U.S. home refrigerator

Newer refrigerators may include:

  • Automatic defrosting;
  • A power failure warning, alerting the user by flashing a temperature display. The maximum temperature reached during the power failure may be displayed, along with information on whether the frozen food has defrosted or may contain harmful bacteria;
  • Chilled water and ice available from an in-door station, so that the door need not be opened;
  • Cabinet rollers that allow the refrigerator to be easily rolled around for easier cleaning;
  • Adjustable shelves and trays which can be repositioned to suit the user;
  • A Status Indicator to notify the user when it is time to change the water filter;
  • An in-door ice caddy, which relocates the ice-maker storage to the freezer door and saves approximately 60 litres (about 2 cubic feet) of usable freezer space. It is also removable, and helps to prevent ice-maker clogging;
  • A cooling zone in the refrigerator door shelves. Air from the freezer section is diverted to the refrigerator door, to cool milk or juice stored in the door shelf.

Early freezer units accumulated ice crystals around the freezing units. This was a result of humidity introduced into the units when the doors to the freezer were opened. This frost buildup required periodic thawing ("defrosting") of the units to maintain their efficiency. Advances in automatic defrosting eliminating the thawing task were introduced in the 1950s, but are not universal, due to energy performance and cost. Also, early units featured freezer compartments located within the larger refrigerator, and accessed by opening the refrigerator door, and then the smaller internal freezer door; units featuring an entirely separate freezer compartment were introduced in the early 1960s, becoming the industry standard by the middle of that decade.

Later advances included automatic ice units and self compartmentalized freezing units.

An increasingly important environmental concern is the disposal of old refrigerators - initially because of the freon coolant damaging the ozone layer, but as the older generation of refrigerators disappears it is the destruction of CFC-bearing insulation which causes concern. Modern refrigerators usually use a refrigerant called HFC-134a (1,2,2,2-tetrafluoroethane), which does not deplete the ozone layer, instead of freon.

Disposal of discarded refrigerators is regulated, often mandating the removal of doors: children playing hide-and-seek have been asphyxiated while hiding inside discarded refrigerators, particularly older models with latching doors. More modern units use a magnetic door gasket which holds the door sealed but can be pushed open from the inside. This gasket was invented by Herman C. Ells Sr. But children can still come to harm if they hide in a discarded refrigerator.

Types of domestic refrigerators

Household refrigerator output in 2000
Domestic refrigerators and freezers for food storage are made in a range of sizes. Among the smallest is a 4 L Peltier fridge advertised as being able to hold 6 cans of beer. A large domestic fridge stands as tall as a person and may be about 1 m wide with a capacity of 600 L. Some models for small households fit under kitchen work surfaces, usually about 86 cm high. Fridges may be combined with freezers, either stacked with fridge or freezer above, below, or side by side. A fridge without a frozen food storage compartment may have a small section just to make ice cubes. Freezers may have drawers to store food in, or they may have no divisions (chest freezers).

Fridges and freezers may be free-standing, or built into a kitchen.

  • Compressor refrigerators are by far the most common type; they make a noticeable noise.

  • Absorption refrigerators or thermo-electric Peltier units are used where quiet running is required; Peltier coolers are used in the smallest refrigerators as they have no bulky mechanism.

  • Compressor and Peltier refrigerators are powered by electricity; absorption units can be designed to be powered by any heat source. A noticeable difference between the two types is the absence of refrigerant with the Peltier coolers (these use a different method of cooling). But Peltier coolers use more electricity because they are thermodynamically inefficient.
  • Oil, gas (natural gas or propane) and dual power gas/electricity units are also available (typically found in RV's).

  • Solar refrigerators and Thermal mass refrigerators are designed to reduce electrical consumption. Solar refrigerators have the added advantage that they do not use refrigerants that are harmful to the environment or flammable. Typical solar designs are absorption refrigerators that use ammonia as the working gas, and employ large mirrors to concentrate sufficient sunlight to reach the temperature required to free gaseous ammonia from the solvent. Most thermal mass refrigerators are designed to use electricity intermittently. As these units are heavily insulated, cooling load is limited primarily to heat introduced by new items to be refrigerated, and ambient air transfer when the unit is open. Very little power is therefore required if opened infrequently. Refrigeration units for commercial and industrial applications can be made in various size, shape or style to fit customer needs.

Energy efficiency

An auto-defrost unit uses a blower fan to keep moisture out of the unit. It also has a heating coil beneath the evaporator that periodically heats the freezer compartment and melts any ice buildup. Some units also have heaters in the side of the door to keep the unit from "weeping." Manual defrost units are available in used-appliance shops or by special order.

Refrigerators used to consume more energy than any other home appliance, but in the last twenty years great strides have been made to make refrigerators more energy efficient. In the early 1990s a competition was held among the major manufacturers to encourage energy efficiency. Current models that are Energy Star qualified use 50 percent less energy than models made before 1993. The most energy-efficient unit made in the US is designed to run on 120 or 110 volts, and consumes about half a kilowatt-hour per day. But even ordinary units are quite efficient; some smaller units use less than 0.5 kilowatt-hour per day.Larger units, especially those with large freezers and icemakers, may use as much as 4 kWh per day.

Among the different styles of refrigerators, top-freezer models are more efficient than bottom-freezer models of the same capacity, which are in turn more efficient than side-freezer models. Models with through-the-door ice units are less efficient than those without. Dr. Tom Chalko in Australia has developed an external thermostat to convert any chest freezer into a chest fridge using only about 0.1kWh per day—the amount of energy used by a 100 watt light bulb in one hour. A similar device is manufactured by Johnson Controls. Scientists at Oxford University have reconstructed a refrigerator invented in 1930 by Albert Einstein in their efforts to replace current technologies with energy efficient green technology. The Einstein refrigerator operates without electricity and uses no moving parts or greenhouse gases.

Impact on lifestyle

The refrigerator allows the modern family to keep food fresh for much longer than before. This, along with the modern supermarket, allows most families, without a sizeable garden in which to grow vegetables and raise animals, a vastly more varied diet and improved health resulting from improved nutrition. Dairy products, meats, fish, poultry and vegetables can be kept refrigerated in the same space within the kitchen (although raw meat should be kept separate from other foodstuffs for reasons of hygiene).

The refrigerator lets people eat more salads, fresh fruits and vegetables, without having to own a garden or an orchard. Exotic foodstuffs from far-off countries that have been imported by means of refrigeration can be enjoyed in the home because of domestic refrigeration.

Freezers allow households to buy food in bulk: it can be eaten at leisure, and bulk purchase saves money (see economies of scale). Ice cream, a popular commodity of the 20th century, could previously only be obtained by traveling long distances to where the product was made fresh, and had to be eaten on the spot. Now it is a common food item. Ice on demand not only adds to the enjoyment of cold drinks, but is useful for first-aid, and for cold packs that can be kept frozen for picnics or in case of emergency.

Temperature zones and ratings

Commercial for electric refrigerators in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1926

Some refrigerators are now divided into four zones to store different types of food:

  • (freezer)
  • (meats)
  • (refrigerator)
  • (vegetables)

The capacity of a refrigerator is measured in either litres or cubic feet (US). Typically the volume of a combined fridge-freezer is split to 100 litres (3.53 cubic feet) for the freezer and 140 litres (4.94 cubic feet) for the refrigerator, although these values are highly variable.

Temperature settings for refrigerator and freezer compartments are often given arbitrary numbers (for example, 1 through 9, warmest to coldest) by manufacturers, but generally is ideal for the refrigerator compartment and for the freezer. Some refrigerators require a certain external temperature ( ) to run properly. This can be an issue when placing a refrigerator in an unfinished area such as a garage.

European freezers, and refrigerators with a freezer compartment, have a four star rating system to grade freezers.

  • * : min temperature = {{convert|-6|°C|°F}}. Maximum storage time for frozen food is 1 week * ** : min temperature = {{convert|-12|°C|°F}}. Maximum storage time for frozen food is 1 month * *** : min temperature = {{convert|-18|°C|°F}}. Maximum storage time for frozen food is 3 months * *(***) : min temperature = . Maximum storage time for frozen food is up to 12 months

Although both the three and four star ratings specify the same minimum temperature of -18°C, only a four star freezer is intended to be used for freezing fresh food. Three (or fewer) stars are used for frozen food compartments which are only suitable for storing frozen food; introducing fresh food into such a compartment is likely to result in unacceptable temperature rises.

Non-food use

Refrigerators have many other uses. Examples include laboratories, for storing samples awaiting analysis, and morgues, for storing corpses.


Old refrigerators have been adapted to create low cost passive solar water heating systems.

See also

Notes and references

External links

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