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Solar Pantry Part 2: Analysis

Now what? In "Solar Pantry Part 1" I shared my calculations and conclusions about the feasibility of putting the fridge and freezer in my pantry on a small dedicated solar energy system.

A photo from my archives! This one of my pantry was taken in 2010
soon after we bought the freezer. The refrigerator came with the house.

The conclusion was that such as system would cost considerably more than my available funds at this time. That was not only disappointing, it also left me with a big question mark regarding my goal of minimizing food loss in the event of a prolonged power outage. I had to ask myself, are there other alternatives? How did people in my part of the country keep food before electricity? (I've mused on that topic before - see "Food Storage in the South.")

Dan and I have taken small steps toward a simpler, less complicated lifestyle, but we are still products of the 20th century. That means our solutions to problems are usually based in modern methods and technologies, simply because that's what we know. It's taken some time, but we've gradually been learning how to think outside that box. We've moved along with some of the 21st century's technological advances, and rejected others because they require more time and resources to maintain than we are interested in giving. While solar energy does take time and resources to maintain, it does seem like the best option for my goal. Now I had to ask myself, if I can't afford the technology what else can I do? Is there another way? Is there anything I can change?

As I pondered that, I had to question how I use my freezer and two refrigerators. So much of what we humans do is by habit, and habits form routines. We become so accustomed to our routines that we rarely question them. In the light of my goal, now was the time to question them. Have my routines caused me to be too dependent on my freezer and extra fridge? Have I fallen into inefficient habits? Is there anything I can do to make food processing and storage more energy efficient?

My first step was to make a list of everything I keep in these appliances. Then I asked myself why and categorized my list. Some items are listed twice because they are in more than one category.

Refrigerators

To increase longevity:
  • dairy
    • milk (up to 10 half-gallon & quart jars)
    • butter (to keep it from melting)
    • cheese: fresh, brined, & stored in olive oil
    • kefir (1/2 gallon)
    • primost
    • whey (gallon+ for leavening, lacto-fermenting)
  • brine for cheesemaking (1/2 gallon)
  • eggs (6 dozen or more)
  • bread
  • some fresh fruit such as figs and berries for immediate use
  • vegetables: lettuce, greens, cut tomatoes
  • root veggies: potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic
  • condiments
    • ketchup
    • mayo
    • mustard
    • pickles
    • lacto-fermented: kimchi, sauerkraut, sauerruben
    • salsa
    • salad dressing
  • maple syrup
  • jams and jellies (opened jars)
  • peanut butter (natural, to prevent oil separation)
  • fresh meat
  • beverages except water
  • opened jars or cans of food
  • leftovers

To protect from insects:
  • pantry moths (always a problem):
    • flours
    • grains
    • bread
  • fruit flies (frequently a problem):
    • strawberries
    • blueberries
  • ants (occasionally a problem, items refrigerated as needed)

For long-term storage (such as a year's supply):
  • onions
  • garlic
  • eggs
  • rendered fat

To save until I get enough to process:
  • green beans

To stock up (because I found a deal I couldn't pass up):
  • case of organic coconut oil mayo (75¢ per pint jar!)

Livestock and garden supplies:
  • veterinary antibiotics & vaccines
  • essential oils
  • homemade insect spray
  • garden seeds
  • bulk seeds for pasture and hay

Freezer

Preservation (for hopefully a year's supply)
  • meat
  • cheese: grated mozzarella, paneer, halloumi
  • primost
  • powdered rennet
  • cream
  • goat colostrum
  • berries (for smoothies, pancakes, and oatmeal)
  • melon chunks (for smoothies)
  • pureed winter squash
  • okra
  • chopped peppers

To save until I get enough to process:
  • bones for bone broth
  • fat to be rendered
  • tomatoes
  • blueberries
  • strawberries
  • figs
  • fruit juices from small batches of fruit for mixed fruit jellies

Convenience foods
  • unbaked pies
  • breads, baked goods
  • jars of leftovers for winter soups

To protect from insect damage:
  • flours
  • breads and crackers
  • grains (up to 50 pounds or more of homegrown grain)
  • nuts (mostly in-shell pecans from our trees)
  • bulk seed: grain and pasture seed

It's the only way to keep:

The thing that stands out most to me is that many of these items don't actually need to be kept in the fridge or freezer. That's just been the way I've addressed my food storage challenges.

My primary challenge is our temperatures in summer, especially July and August. After we get a string of days in the mid-90s°F (35°C) outside, my kitchen and pantry temps gradually rise to about 85°F (27°C) during the day and drop to around 80°F (27°C) at night. When we get to about 100°F (38°C) in the shade outdoors, my pantry thermometer can reach 90°F (27°C). Not an ideal temp to store food.

This is why I refrigerate items that wouldn't otherwise need refrigeration. (You can find a list of these at the Farmer's Alamac website.) Unwashed eggs, for example, have their own protective coating called the bloom, which keeps them fresh without refrigeration. Even so, I know from experience that summer eggs I refrigerate immediately will keep all winter for me, whereas eggs left on my countertop in summertime will start to fail the float test before autumn arrives. That points to my temperature problem.

Until I started looking into shelf life, I didn't realize there is a formula to describe it! Called the Q10 temperature coefficient, it's defined as the measure of the rate of change in a biological or chemical system for every 10°C (18°F) change in temperature. Starting with a baseline of "room temperature" or 22°C (72°F):
  • For every 10°C (18°F) increase, shelf life is halved. 
  • For every 10°C (18°F) decrease, shelf life is doubled. 

You can see why storing even canned and dehydrated goods at cooler temperatures is important. And that makes me realize that I need to address more than just the fridge and freezer.

My other big problem is pantry moths. They infest not only grain products, but they also love dried fruit! I can't tell you how much food I had to throw away before I started dry-pack vacuum canning most of my dry goods. (How-to here). But that only covers quart and half-gallon amounts, and I also have moth problems with the bulk grains we grow and the farm seed we buy. Even the barn isn't safe from them, so bulk quantities end up in the freezer.

If you're still with me, you might have noticed was my "To save until I get enough to process" category. This is because my food production is small scale. I don't have a huge prepper's garden; in fact, I've downsized my garden quite a bit over the years to keep it one-person manageable. Besides, I don't have a crowd to feed, it's just Dan and me.

One example of this category is tomatoes. When I harvest tomatoes, I don't pick them by the bushel, I get a dozen or two at each picking. That isn't enough for a canner load of tomato sauce, so I toss my tomatoes into the freezer and then process and can later in the year. This routine works very well for me, even to the point of draining the water from my defrosted tomatoes and using it to can tastier dried beans. Plus I don't mind waiting until cooler weather to do some of my canning.

Some folks tell me I'm overly analytical, but identifying the factors involved and closely examining them is the only way I know to problem solve. In looking over my list, one thing that stands out to me is that of all the items listed under "refrigerator," all but the dairy category could be stored elsewhere. And actually, that could be too if we had the right resources. For now, I'm researching and collecting ideas. Some old, some new, but all with a view to develop a plan for better food storage. I'll share what I come up with soon → Solar Pantry Part 3: Alternatives

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