One day in early July, after we’d finished some back-breaking projects that we hadn’t been anticipating, and as we prepared to get back to sea, Sima noticed that the refrigerator wasn’t very cold. In fact, it was at about room temperature.
We’d been low on refrigerant before, and it was simply a matter of attaching the necessary gauges and a refill can to bring things back to normal. This time, however, we found that system was drawing a vacuum. Our manual says that when we see this, we’re to “call the manufacturer.” Uh oh.
So we did some more reading and investigating over the next two days, and figured out that we must have a leak somewhere. But we didn’t know where, nor whether it could be fixed.
On day three, we had a vendor come by and re-pressurize the system, and the leak made its presence known with a large hissing sound. It was in the line connecting the condenser to the evaporator. The vendor told us we couldn’t repair the line or the evaporator to which it was connected, and offered to custom build a new holding plate for us for about 650 Euros. It took us another day or so to figure out that this solution wouldn’t work.
The next day, we met some folks at the dock swore that it was easy to repair a leak in a refrigerant line, with the right welding tools and careful work. Although this was counter to all that we’d read, they provided the name of a vendor, and so we arranged for him to come by.
He came by the next day. He conceded that he wouldn’t be using welding tools, but rather epoxy glue. Even if I wanted to pay someone else to do an epoxy job, epoxy has no chance whatsoever of sealing a high-pressure aluminum refrigerant line.
Another couple of days had passed, and we had now come to the grim conclusion that we’d have to replace the entire refrigeration system. We also came to realize that if we would be permanently installing new components, we’d also need to address some long-standing problems with the physical structure of the refrigeration box itself.
We have no “before” picture of the inside of the fridge, but trust us — it was a mess. It had always been much too big, and we had cut down on some of the space by cutting up Styrofoam boxes (that we’d picked up at a fish market in Sri Lanka) and using them to raise the floor and decrease the width. The unit had originally been designed as a literal ice box, which meant that it had an extra, foot-deep space at the bottom, covered by a wooden grate, into which one was supposed to stock ice. When it was changed into a real refrigerator, however, that dead space at the bottom, covered by a teak grate, did nothing but increase size without offering any storage space.
It was colossally difficult to pull the heat from such a huge space, and our refrigeration system has long been a huge draw on the batteries. You might be able to imagine all the jig-saw-shaped pieces of Styrofoam that had to be propped into just the right places to make this work. All the Styrofoam looked ugly, was impossible to clean, and didn’t really do the trick making a smaller box, because it wasn’t sealed and the cold air could flow through the various cracks in our packing job.
(To add insult to injury, the Styrofoam floor had hidden the fact that an inch of water had collected along the real floor. The evaporator line sat in this water. Electrolysis set in, and a the leak had developed there.)
Another problem was that the two top-loading doors did not fit properly, and there was a gap between them through which the cold air escaped.
We put our thinking caps on. The first job was to find the fridge we needed, no easy task in Turkey. Turkish chandlers are terrible for this sort of thing. No one carries stock, and we learned it would take upwards of five weeks to get the parts shipped in. And we knew from past experience with Turkish customs that when the parts finally do arrive, you get held up again until you pay a hefty customs fee.
We didn’t have the time or patience for that. Eventually, we found a vendor in Greece, “Alex Marine,” with a system that would work. George, our contact there, said he could have them waiting for us in Rhodes in just two days. As Rhodes was a short sail away, this was a good result.
We made plans to check out of the country and head to Rhodes!
As if a vendor would actually do what he promised! After paying for two-day delivery, we received our refrigerator TWO WEEKS later.
We went to work on the reconstruction of the box while we waited, and installed the fridge when it finally came.
Here’s what we did:
The start. The white snakey looking thing rising up above the locker in the background is the offending line in which the leak developed.
Here is the fridge interior with a piece of the old Styrofoam still floating about. Envision a brick wall made with this stuff, although the pieces were in general larger, and you have a sense of the disorderly nature of our previous setup. The teak grating sat upon the lip that runs along the wall to the left and right, and the small black dot in the floor is a drain, useful for when this was an actual ice box. I'm going to fill the space up to the lip with layers of extruded Polystyrene cut to fit the space, covered with a new stainless steel floor. Note the metal bracket and spring support at the top left, used to prop the door to open. In addition to being yet another source through which cold air would escape, it is a terrible practice to prop the fridge doors open for any length of time. These will be removed.
The old compressor/condenser just after being pulled out of the locker to the lower left. The copper snake is the continuation of the refrigerant line. Although the compressor still worked, it had to be replaced because it had been filled with R12 refrigerant, which has been banned in most countries. We could find R12 in Turkey, but we are replacing the evaporator, and most of them come pre-charged with the newer refrigerants (R134A, for example). You can't mix the different types of lubricating oils found in the old and new refrigerants. Also, with the hole in the refrigerant line, there was a good chance that moisture had made its way into the compressor, which would freeze and plug the evaporator.
Cutting the Polystyrene. The boat got messy, and would only get worse, as the Polystyrene cutting would be followed by work with gooey epoxy, glass mat, epoxy filler, spray foam, epoxy paint, and 5200. Boy, this project was a handful.
After the Polystyrene was packed in, there was still a small, uneven gap between the top layer and the ledge where the new stainless steel floor would sit. I used spray foam as needed to fill the remaining, uneven gap, sanding down these uneven globs to a flat surface. Can you tell that spray foam is messy to work with in open spaces?
A local metal worker fabricates the new stainless steel floor, putting the finishing touches on a new drain. But we later re-read Don Casey's book chapter on the subject, and he convinced us that drains are a bad idea as they pull cold from the fridge. It would be sealed over.
"Ha ha ha, Dad's still working on the fridge! Ha ha ha, ho ho hodie harr giggle. Snort!"
The new Isotherm refrigeration unit finally arrived! The evaporator came as big flat panel, and needed to be bent into a rectangular shape to fit the freezer space. This was made all the more challenging by the fact that the evaporator had certain "no bend" zones and because the corners would be rounded rather than square, so that one needed to calculate where the bend would start and finish along the panel. It took a long time to figure out if and how the panel could be made to fit. But we figured it out. Here, I'm putting in the first bend.
The stainless steel floor in place. The edges were first filled with epoxy filler, and then sealed with 5200. Getting this completed felt like a major milestone. Note, at the top left, that the brackets and door braces have been removed. And the drain that we had thought to include has been filled with 5200 (the white dot in the middle of the floor).
The parts to the new wall. To provide strength, the extruded foam has been covered with a priming layer of epoxy resin, then glass mat, and then four more layers of epoxy. The glass mat can be seen protruding, fuzzy-like, from the edges of the blocks. The long skinny piece on the right will be a new bar that rests between the two doors, allowing them to seal more tightly. And the piece on which it rests will be the wall that separates the freezer from the fridge.
The new walls have been sanded smooth and put in place. A hole was left in the top so that the empty space behind the wall could be filled with spray foam insulation, the first layer of which is protruding from the bottom. The dividing wall is also in place, separating the freezer, to the left, from the fridge, at right.
The empty space behind the wall has now been filled with insulating foam, and the hole atop the wall sealed. The wall's yellowish tint comes from the epoxy filler, which has been used to smooth the joined edges and also the uneven surface created by glass mat. This will now be sanded smooth.
The finished bottom and new wall. A coat of white epoxy paint has been applied to the new wall. The noodly looking things on the far wall consist of foam that has oozed out of some no-longer-used screw holes. They'll be shaved smooth and then sealed with epoxy.
Here, MarineTex has been used to cover the drain. This would later be sanded smooth.
Isotherm only supplied four plastic spacers, used to keep the evaporator away from the wall, and the evaporator plate had pre-drilled holes in only two places -- at the ends -- where the spacers could be attached. We'd bent the evaporator into a square, and so four spacers weren't enough. So I made my own spacers from some elecrical conduit plugs, and used 5200 to stick them to the walls. I also made some small plastic wedges (cut from a neoprene washer) to keep the evaporator from resting on the floor, and they can be seen in the corners.
The separating wall in place, with holes now cut in the middle, sealed with epoxy and epoxy paint. This will be a "spillover" fridge. That is to say, all the cooling takes place in the freezer section, and cold then "spills over" through the holes cut in the divider. The holes can be opened and closed with plugs to get an appropriate balance. The covered plug for the drain can be seen as a gray circle at the bottom of this picture, and it has cleaned up nicely. (We would eventually install a small fan in one of the holes, controlled by yet another thermostat, to create better air flow in the fridge and decrease frosting in the freezer.)
The separating wall is here topped with the new divider, which will nestle up between the two otherwise poorly designed top-opening doors. There was a big gap in the protective insulation between the two doors, which this divider will fill.
With the construction of the box now mostly completed, I could now turn to the installation of the compressor. Here, electrical and refrigerant lines are led through a galley storage locker.
Isotherm supplied a mounting bracket for the condenser that had a side wall. If mounting on the floor, the side wall served no purpose other than to diminish air flow. Here I take a Dremel Tool to it, cutting away the unneeded side.
Preparing the installation of the new Isotherm compressor.
Wiring and refrigerant line exit the fridge through a new hole drilled for that purpose.
Re-wiring the exhaust fan, left, and thermostat, right. The thermostat turns the fan on when the compressor compartment grows too hot, and the fan draws air into an adjoining compartment.
Final wiring and plumbing of the compressor. The bus bar at the top was added to deal with the proliferation of junctions.
The holes through which the wiring and refrigerant lines ran in the fridge were sealed with insulating foam.
Applying new gasket. See the gap between in the doors above that I am talking about? They will now close around the divider. How could the person who did the original design not have addressed that?
The old teak grating was in pretty sorry looking condition. It could be put to good use, however, at the bottom of the freezer.
The re-sized grate inserted in the freezer, after cutting, cleaning, sanding, and oiling.
The old baskets were too big for the newly sized fridge, and so I needed to cut them down and then sand them smooth.
The baskets cleaned up and inserted in the fridge.
Done!! Hallelujah!! Frozen things!!
Refrigerated things! Including a bottle of cold bubbly to celebrate the fact that we have the ability to make cold bubbly!
Ahh -- a sweating glass of ice cold tea!