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A refrigerator (often called a "fridge" for short) is a cooling appliance comprising a thermally insulated compartment and a mechanism 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 deteriorate at ambient temperatures; spoilage from bacterial growth and other processes is much slower at low temperatures. 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 amongst kitchen appliances. It replaced the common icebox which had been placed outside for almost a century and a half prior, and is sometimes still called by the original name "icebox".

Freezers keep their contents, usually foods, frozen. They are used both in households and for commercial use. Most freezers operate at around -18 °C (0 °F). Domestic freezers can be included as a compartment in a refrigerator, sharing the same mechanism or with a separate mechanism, or can be standalone units. Domestic freezers are generally upright units, resembling refrigerators, or chests, resembling upright units laid on their backs. Many modern freezers come with an icemaker.

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 ammonia gas systems, making them unsafe for home use. Practical household refrigerators were introduced in the 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.[1]


History of the refrigerator

See also: Timeline of low-temperature technology

Before the invention of the refrigerator, icehouses were used to provide cool storage for most of the year. These structures were mainly built and used in ancient Persia (Iran). Placed near freshwater lakes or packed with snow and ice during the winter, they were once very common. Using the environment to cool foodstuffs is still common today. On mountainsides run off from melting snow higher up is a convenient way to cool drinks, and during the winter months simply placing one's milk outside one's window is sufficient to greatly extend its useful life.

The first known artificial refrigeration was demonstrated by William Cullen at the University of Glasgow in 1748, and relied on the vapor-compression refrigeration process explained by Michael Faraday. 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. The absorption refrigerator was invented by Baltzar von Platen and Carl Munters in 1922, while they were still students at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. It became a worldwide success and was commercialized by Electrolux. Other pioneers included Charles Tellier, David Boyle, and Raoul Pictet.   At the start of the 20th Century, about half of households in the United States relied on melting ice (and an icebox) to keep food cold, while the remaining half had no cooled storage at all. 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.

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.[1]

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, Indiana and marketed by the Johns-Manville company. The first unit was sold in 1911. Audiffren machines were expensive, selling for about $1,000 — about twice as much as an automobile cost at the time.

General Electric sought to develop refrigerators of its own, and in 1915 the first Guardian unit was assembled in a back yard wash house as a predecessor to the Frigidaire. In 1916 Kelvinator and Servel came out with two units among a field of competing models. This number 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 foot compartment for $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 a 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 substantial amount of heat, was placed above the cabinet, and surrounded with a decorative ring. Over 1,000,000 units were produced. These refrigerators used either sulfur dioxide or methyl formate as a refrigerant. Many units are still functional today.   The introduction of freon expanded the refrigerator market during the 1930s, and freezer units became a little more common and requested during the 1940s. Home units did not go into mass production until after WWII. The 1950s and 60s saw technical advances like automatic defrosting and automatic ice making. Developments of the 1970s and 80s brought about more efficient refrigerators, and environmental issues banned the use of CFC (freon) refrigerants used in sealed systems.

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. Current models that are Energy Star qualified use 50 percent less energy than models made before 1993. [2]

Early refrigerator models (1916 and on) featured a cold compartment for ice cube trays. Successful processing of fresh vegetables through freezing began in the late 1920s 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 example of the benefits of frozen foods occurred when General Foods heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post (then wife of Joseph E. Davies, United States Ambassador to the Soviet Union ) deployed commercial grade freezers to Spasso House (US Embassy) in Moscow in advance of the Davies’ arrival. Post, fearful of the food processing safety observed in the USSR, then fully stocked the freezers with product processed from General Foods Birdseye unit. The frozen food stores allowed the Davies’ to lavishly entertain 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.

Introduction of home freezer units occurred in the United States in 1940, and frozen foods began to make the transition from luxury to necessity.

How a refrigerator works

Main article: refrigeration

Refrigerators work by the use of heat pumps operating in a refrigeration cycle. An industrial refrigerator is simply a refrigerator used in an industrial setting, usually in a restaurant or supermarket. They may consist of either a cooling compartment only (a larger refrigerator) or a freezing compartment only (a freezer) or contain both. The industry has nicknames for these units as well sometimes referring to them as a “cold box” or a “walk-in.” The dual compartment was introduced commercially by General Electric in 1939.

The vapor compression cycle is used in most household refrigerators. In this cycle, a circulating refrigerant such as freon enters the compressor as a vapor at its boiling point. The vapor is compressed and exits the compressor as a superheated vapor. The superheated vapor travels through part of the condenser which removes the superheat by cooling the vapor. The vapor travels through the remainder of the condenser and is condensed into a liquid at its boiling point. The saturated liquid refrigerant passes through the expansion valve where its pressure abruptly decreases. The decrease in pressure results in the flash evaporation and auto-refrigeration of a portion of the liquid (typically, less than half of the liquid flashes). The cold and partially vaporized refrigerant travels through the coil or tubes in the evaporator. There a fan circulates room air across the coil or tubes, and the refrigerant is totally vaporized, extracting heat from the air which is then returned to the food compartment. The refrigerant vapor returns to the compressor inlet to complete the thermodynamic cycle.

An absorption refrigerator works differently from a compressor refrigerator, using a source of heat, and typically runs more quietly.

The Peltier effect uses electricity directly to pump heat; refrigerators using this effect are sometimes used for camping, or where noise is not acceptable. They are totally silent, but less energy-efficient than other methods.

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.[3]

Types of domestic refrigerators

  Domestic refrigerators and freezers for food storage are made in a range of sizes. Amongst 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 true freezer may have a small compartment to make ice. 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 or 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 invariably powered by electricity; absorption units can in principle be designed to be powered by any heat source. Gas-only and dual power gas/electricity units are available.

Refrigeration units for commercial and for non-food use are made in a huge range of sizes and styles.

The impact of the refrigerator on the home

The invention of the refrigerator has allowed the modern family to purchase, store, freeze, prepare and preserve food products in a fresh state for much longer periods of time than was previously possible. For the majority of families without a sizeable garden in which to grow vegetables and raise livestock, the advent of the refrigerator along with the modern supermarket led to a vastly more varied diet and improved health resulting from improved nutrition. Dairy products, meats, fish, poultry and vegetables can all 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 allows families to consume more salads, fresh fruits and vegetables during meals 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 the availability of domestic refrigeration.

The luxury of freezing allows households to purchase more foods in bulk that can be eaten at leisure while the bulk purchase provides cost savings (see economies of scale). Ice cream, a popular commodity of the 20th century, was previously only available by traveling long distances to where the product was made fresh and had to be eaten on the spot. Now it is a practically ubiquitous food item. Ice on-demand not only adds to the enjoyment of cold drinks, but is useful in first-aid applications, not to mention cold packs that can be kept frozen for picnics or in case of emergency.



Newer refrigerators may include:

  • Automatic defrosting: In any refrigerator, over time, water vapor in the air condenses onto the cooling coils as frost, eventually building up into a thick layer of ice. This ice acts as an insulator, reducing cooling efficiency. In the past, the ice was removed by periodically emptying the refrigerator and turning it off to let the ice melt, perhaps aided by hot water applied by the user (a process known as defrosting). In a refrigerator equipped for frost-free operation, however, a heater and a thermostat are fitted around the cooling coils. The cooling is periodically switched off (with the period varying between every 6 to 24 hours depending on the model) and the heater is turned on until the temperature around the coils slightly exceeds the freezing point of water, after which normal cooling resumes. This melts any frost which has collected around the coils. Melt water drops into a small gulley, through a small pipe which drains into a tray on the top of the compressor from which it is then evaporated into the surrounding air by residual heat generated by the operation of the compressor.[4]
  • 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 the door need not be opened;
  • Cabinet rollers that allow the refigerator to be easily rolled around for easier cleaning;
  • Adjustable shelves and trays that can be moved around 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 better cool milk or juice stored in the door shelf;
  • Extras unrelated to refrigeration, such as a television set, radio, or DVD player built into a door.

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 build up of frost required periodic thawing of the units to maintain their efficiency. Advances in frost-free refrigeration eliminating the thawing task were introduced in the 1950s. 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 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) instead of freon, which has no ozone layer depleting properties.

Disposal of discarded refrigerators is regulated, often mandating the removal of doors: children playing hide-and-seek have been asphyxiated while hiding inside a discarded refrigerator. This was particularly true for the older models that had latching doors. More modern units use a magnetic door gasket to hold the door sealed but can actually be pushed open from the inside. However, children can be unwittingly harmed by hiding inside any discarded refrigerator.[5]

Temperature zones and ratings

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

  • -18 °C (0 °F) (freezer)
  • 0 °C (32 °F) (meats)
  • 5 °C (40 °F) (refrigerator)
  • 10 °C (50 °F) (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 2 to 8 °C (36 to 46 °F) is ideal for the refrigerator compartment and -18 °C (0 °F) for the freezer. Some refrigerators require a certain external temperature (60 °F) 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.

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

Although both the three and four star ratings specify the same maximum 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.


    Theater commercial, electric refrigerator, 1926

    Largely graphic commercial for electric refrigerators in general and a refrigerator show, presumably in Pittsburgh, in particular. (7.61 MB, ogg/Theora format).

  • Problems seeing the videos? See media help.

See also

  • Pot-in-pot refrigerator
  • Refrigerator car
  • Refrigerator truck
  • Reefer (ship)
  • Reefer (container)


  1. ^ Pauken, Mike, P.E. (1999). Sleeping Soundly on Summer Nights (pdf). series on HVAC&R arts and sciences. ASHRAE. Retrieved on 2006-08-26.
  2. ^ "Refrigerators & Freezers", Energy Star. 
  3. ^
  4. ^ Siemens Domestic Appliances FAQ Refrigeration (2006). Retrieved on 2007-01-26.
  5. ^ Adams, Cecil (2005). Is it impossible to open a refrigerator door from the inside?. Retrieved on 2006-08-31.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Refrigerator". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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