A trend has been spotted once again starting on the West Coast and now covering much of the USA. Did you ever notice on many of the sitcoms that they seem to have a 1950's refrigerator in the kitchen or in the office? Well... take a look around. Some people are renovating their entire kitchen with actual working vintage appliances. I always liked the curved, chrome trimmed art -deco refrigerators from those days. I began to look for them, and discovered many of them sitting unused for decades in peoples's basements and garages. Many people were willing to let me take them for fifty bucks or even for free as long as I coud get them out. So I began to haul them home, and started investigating what needed to be done to get them into peak running shape again. It turns out that most of them ran fine without any work required! A few needed gaskets (generic material is still available ) and a few (particularly CROSLEY models) needed to be rewired due to dried-out insulation but they all ran great. Most of the time they just needed a good cleaning and in some cases a fresh coat of paint sprayed on. I even found a few really good ones out for the garbage! .... Nothing at all wrong with them other than finding screws to put the doors back on .

Some of you may think these vintage units will be energy hogs. But the models of the late 30's to late 50's were mostly not "frost free" or "self defrosting" and also remember that electricity was relatively expensive back then, so they DID try for efficiency in those days. The trick is that while the unit will draw a little more power when running and especially during start up for about 3 seconds, but it runs a lot less overall than newer units. Only in the mid 1960's when everyone wanted "frost free" units did energy consumption soar. The units made after 1960 or so are much more square shaped. The inefficiency continued until the late 1970's or early 1980's after the second oil and energy crisis. If the fridge was frost-free or frostless, it could easily use 60% to 70% more power in that era, often defrosting and recooling even if no one opened the doors much. Then, mandated by the federal government, the manufacturers began to make the units more efficient. After 2000 the units became really efficient, but the trade off is the new compressors are cheaply made, mostly overseas, they run hotter, have cheap start relays that malfunction and the compressors rarely last more than 10 years, regardless of what you spend on a new fridge... $400 or $3500. So keep in mind that you'll either be replacing a fridge every 10 years, or paying for a costly (average $750.00) compressor replacement. Which is why I like the old refrigerators and freezers so much... 6o years later they still keep on quietly running and there is no reason they can't make it to 100 years if you treat them well! Most of the older units do very well, as long as the doors close good and airtight and the insulation( usually fiberglass ) is dry. The unit should not run more than about 50-60 percent of the time at 70 degrees F ambient for older fridges. I have one that runs for 5 minutes, and then stays off for another 18 minutes and sold another one that ran for 7 minutes and stays off for almost half an hour, and that's with the fridge holding at about 34 degrees inside! I tested several older refrigerators and freezers with an ampmeter and found them using only 1.6 to about 3 amps! That means 180 to 360 watts at 120 volts. Figure that the average unit runs about 35% to 60% of the time and you can see the power usage is low. Many units from the late 60's to 1980's pull higher overall amperage, around 4 amps or even close to 5 amps. Note that you cannot rely on the metal tag or paper sticker, almost any fridge shows at least 5 amps and is quite meaningless. If the temperature is too cold even after adjusting the thermostat it may be broken, or if it is a single door fridge there should be a flap or baffle to control freezer airflow into the fridge portion to help regulate temperature.

Most of the essential parts to keep the oldies running can be cross referenced with modern suppliers. Click here to find replacement parts. When in doubt you can contact The Old Appliance Club (TOAC) in California which has a lot of experts in the field of restoration of various old appliances. The OEM's generally don't keep parts for appliances more than 15 years old but you never know unless you look. Be careful to match relays, capacitors and overloads closely to protect yourself and your appliance from damage, or fire. Replace bad wiring, power cords, plugs, etc and use thermostats that are in the same temperature range and amp capacity as the original. Do not add excessive refrigerant(Usually FREON 12) to the system. Too much will destroy the compressor. If you need to add refrigerant more than once, there is a leak that you should fix before adding it a second time.

Anyway, back to the fun part. Most of the units were so well built and a lot of attention was paid to details. Giant fancy handles, the name of the brand in huge letters and logos, swinging shelves, cool lines and very quiet operation are some of the virtues. These were built to be noticed, sort of like cars with huge tail fins and tons of chrome. Today's units seem to want to hide in the background and make themselves inconspicous. Even if you don't want a retro fridge or freezer in your kitchen, they look pretty cool in a garage or basement too, keeping those beers cold and a few ices in the freezer. They become a conversation piece and usually require no maintenance except a once a year or so defrosting. Every unit I have owned had the original compressor still in operation and I see no reason why they can't run indefinitely. If they lasted this long it's because they were very well manufactured and able to handle long term usage. The worst thing to do to a refrigerator or freezer is to scrape out ice for defrosting. You might puncture the evaporator, effectively making for an expensive repair and letting freon escape. Put something in the bottom to catch the water, and put an old towel under it to catch excess splashes and drips. Turn off the unit and aim a fan at the ice on a warm day. It will melt in less than half an hour. You can also carefully use a blow dryer but don't overheat anything and don't get the blow dryer wet! Wipe it down, plug it back in and your done. Try not to let any water go into the insulation if a lot of ice has built up! Cover up any area that water could leak into with some old towels and don't let it pool up on the floor inside the fridge.

Some really old units from before the mid to late 1930's used sulphur dioxide, ammonia, or methyl formate as a refrigerant. If this leaks, you will know as the smell will knock you out. On earlier units they may have used ammonia, which is also toxic if it leaks. Freon 12 has no smell at all and is nontoxic... except if it contacts a flame, then it can become toxic. Anyway you can smell a leak on the older units before it becomes a problem and on newer Freon 12 models it rarely is a problem unless you are welding (the gas settles near the floor!) If any unit has leaked a lot of refrigerant it is advisable to add a little oil (make sure you have the correct type!) if the unit is noiser than usual, but there is no easy way to measure the oil level in most systems.

Lastly, whenever moving any refrigerator or freezer, if you choose to lay it down for transport, or it falls over more than 30 degrees or so, make sure you wait at least 8 or 10 hours after standing it back up before plugging it in and turning it on again! You should look at the compressor to determine the best way to reduce the chance for oil to run out into the sealed tubing, and try to lay it down in a way you don't bend any of the tubing or break it! This will allow the oil to drain back into the compressor where it belongs. Failure to do so can lead to valve failure and/or other severe compressor failure requiring replacement with an inferior new unit.

I am looking for a few particular types of Refrigerators and Freezers in the Northeast US. Any upright General Freezer brand models or Natpac freezer models, any 36 inch wide upright freezer, and any bottom freezer or top freezer refrigerators that have at least 50% of the space as freezer or more. They are sometimes hard to find and brand names include Blue Ribbon, United, and others.

The Antique Refrigerator or Freezer is a historical treasure that must never be discarded!

photos of four old ones

photo of GE






Denis Byrne