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.