Step 6: Is there a future for the California Cooler?

Picture of Is there a future for the California Cooler?

Update October 2014

We have had the CA cooler for several years now. We still keep the same types of items in it - butter, tomatoes, eggs, some oils, peanut butter. Overall, I would say that it's not worth it for someone remodeling their old house to spend a lot of money resurrecting their CA Cooler, nor to add them to new houses. I think the main lesson we have learned is we can get by with a smaller refrigerator, and I suspect that most households could do the same. That would be a great energy saver, but the trend for a long time has been for households to buy ever larger fridges.


A couple of mornings ago as I road my bike to work, I decide to see if I could spot any California Cooler vents on houses. Not surprisingly, I found a bunch. They are very common in the flats of Berkeley, not just on single family houses, but on old apartment buildings. It seems like the majority of them are for floor-to-ceiling pantries. Yesterday, I surprised myself even more by counting that more than half the houses on my block have them, as well as one apartment building (I will definitely be asking my neighbors if I can take a peak inside their kitchens to see what has become of their California Coolers!).

I can imagine that people in the 1930s were excited to get their new-fangled refrigerators and that continuing to use the primitive California Cooler would have seemed ridiculous. But we live in a different era now, one in which using renewable energy is preferable. The cool air that we have along the California coast comes to us free of charge via winds and currents of the Pacific Ocean.

I have a fantasy that others will resurrect their California Coolers as we have done. But, from a green perspective, does it really make sense to do this? I think that our method of storing some foods in the California Cooler, and others in the refrigerator will definitely use less energy that we did before. According to a Federal Trade Commission Document our old refrigerator used 464 kilowatt hours and our new one 309 kWh per year, for an annual savings of 155 kWh. That's about enough energy to run our entire household for 17 days. Not bad for a cabinet with two vents in it!

But, when I think about how much it cost to make the cooler, it's actually kind of embarrassing. I think it cost at least as much as a brand new refrigerator! Of course, most of the expense was in labor, and we also chose to use pretty expensive materials because we wanted it to look really nice.One choice that could have been made differently was the use of polyurethane insulation. This is a non-recyclable petroleum product. If I were to do it again, I might choose some other type of insulation, such as recycled denim. However, I'm not sure that other types of insulation would do such a good job, or work for a long time with moisture present.

If you live in an old house that has a boarded up California Cooler, would you consider doing something like this? I'd love to hear comments from you. If you are a builder, would you consider putting a California Cooler in a new house?

Also, out of curiosity, I'd be interested to hear from people in other cities where houses were built between 1900 and 1930. How common are California Coolers there?

I actually think that resurrecting the California Cooler is a subset of a larger energy saving idea - to use outdoor air to aid refrigeration. Under certain conditions, it could be more efficient for a regular electric refrigerator to exchange air with the outdoors instead of the air in your kitchen. And, in certain places, during certain months, it's cold enough to use outdoor air as a freezer. Imagine if in places like Minnesota if people had the choice to operate their freezer with outside air in the winter and then use it normally in the summer. That could save a lot of energy when compared to running a freezer in the winter while heating the air inside the house for comfort. I have started doing little things to make our fridge not work as hard. For example, when I cook a big pot of soup, I let it cool down to room temperature until putting it in the fridge. Sometimes I'll leave something out overnight (if it doesn't have a smell that would attract animals) and then put it in the fridge in the morning, shaving off the amount of cooling the fridge needs to do on that item.

Icelander3 years ago
My wife and I are planning to remodel our kitchen and have decided to build a big pantry cabinet into the corner of it. Since I'm going to have to open up the floor to remove the island, (too big for our litle kitchen) maybe I'll plumb in ventilation from our crawl space (fully lined concrete) and vent it out from under the eaves. Ours would have to be a "Washington Cooler" though as we're in Seattle. :) Thanks for the idea!
first off EXCELLENT job:) shouldve built it yourself though. itd be dirt cheap that way but since dones done.....i think the copmment before about using thermal cooling attached to a 12 volt power supply(battery backup) and attached to a solar panel indeed would be a great approach. if you study the composite that makes up the coolers(aka mini fridges-basically insulated metal lined) youd notice the 4 screws holding the peltier on the fridge. pop a fan on the back of the heatsink, flow arrows should indicate that the air will come in from vent(lower) and out over the sink. youd achieve an average temp 45 degrees cooler. also the smaller fridge: my one ex gf had a thermal fridge in her dorm and i borrowed a mini thermal when i lived in my friends basement for a bit(from her cousin) that fridge kept milk, eggs,cheese you name it cold enough not to spoil. just remember to give it PLENTY of room for the hot air to escape outside. maybee a seperate heating type duct positioned around the heatsink hole in center,fan attached blowing on heatsink, to capture hot air and move it away downward and outside. you wont freeze stuff unless its super cold out but with some careful thought and a bit of an artistic mind you can get it to the point where youd not even need a seperate fridge. just a few suggestions there its very hard to type what im visioning lol.
hkmalhi4 years ago
I am so glad to have come across your post after googling "California Cooler". We just bought a 1922 Spanish Style house in Los Angeles that has an intact California Cooler. It's about 15 degrees cooler than the rest of the house and receives cool air from the basement. We are moving in next week and are looking forward to using the cooler the way it was intended. Thanks for your helpful information!
patenaude4 years ago
Have you considered automating the opening and closing of the vents using a small microcontroller like an arduino?  Hook up a couple of probes to measure outside and cabinet, a couple of servos for the vents, and a status LED or two and a simple algorithm could be:

If the outside temp is lower than the cabinet temp, but above 33 def F, then open the vents and turn on the LED, otherwise close them and turn it off.  I'd put in a small hysteresis so that when the outside and inside temps are about the same, the vents don't open and close constantly.

If the cabinet temp gets above 60/65 (whatever) flash the status LED on the door, to warn that it has gotten too warm.  

If you wanted to deal with high temperature semi-automatically, you *could* even have the controller turn on a small peltier heat pump to dump heat into the kitchen, though you'd have to hide the external (hot) heat-sink somewhere inconspicuous. that would still get good airflow (perhaps disguise it as trim near the top.)
 Small algorithm change:

The criterion for opening the vents is that the outside temp is lower than the cabinet temp, and the cabinet temp is above some lower cutoff, like 40F.

This is great way to to save energy and as an extra idea have you tried to frieze a gallon or two of water.  And if you kept the original in there at all times for thermal mass this would really help to keep it a bit cooler.
mazatty4 years ago
been thinking about building a walk-in beer cooler similar to a california cooler. i'm high in the colorado rockies and our average low in the summer is 40F. i was planning to have a large barrel of water for thermal mass, besides the gallons of beer. was also planning on using an exhaust fan with a couple of temperature controllers and a couple of barometric dampers. sounds like i shouldn't have a problem maintaining cellar temps. it blow me away that the beer distributer and bars in town aren't already doing this.
stevepuk4 years ago
How do you stop insects getting in through the vents yet allow a sufficient flow of cooling air?
Probably something like a window screen.
XofHope4 years ago
Have you considered using cork for isolation? I don't know how readily available or how expensive it is there but I'm from Portugal, the number one producer of cork in the world, and that's what we used traditionally around here. In the past years it has been replaced by synthetic products but there's now a resurgence, which I think is great.
Servelan4 years ago
My great aunt's house in Seattle was built in [I believe] the 20s or 30s and had a California cooler cabinet in the north wall of the second kitchen [the house was built as a sort of unofficial duplex for my great aunt and uncle and her in-laws].  I know our uninsulated breezeway also often functions as a cooler of sorts in the winter - when potatoes are cheap, bags of them are congregated there in anticipation of being cooked up.
Lizz124 years ago
I doubt this would count, but up in the northern states where you can count on it being really cold all day and night in the winter, the enclosed porch becomes a fridge/freezer. Leftover turkey at Thanksgiving? On the porch. Keep the beer cold for St. Paddy's day? On the porch. But it has to be enclosed or the wild animals will make quick work of Aunt Lindy's extra pumpkin pie.