Friday, July 17, 2009

Retrofitting a thermoelectric refrigerator with a conventional compressor system

A couple years ago, I built a nice wooden table that housed a small refrigerator. The idea is that it keeps drinks handy in the living room for parties and guests. It's also cool, and fits with my idea of what "functional furniture" should be.

I chose a refrigerator meant for storing wine because it had a nice glass door, was pretty small, was very quiet, and could operate facing upwards because the thermoelectric device doesn't care about its orientation. I knew that thermoelectric refrigerators generally suck at actually refrigerating, and this one was not exception.
On really hot days, the fridge would get up to 5o-60*F, which is cool, but not nearly as nice as drinking 40*F beverages. The other problem is that it draws 70W, essentially constantly. This comes out to 613 KWh/year. Most small conventional refrigerators use around 300 KWh/year. Also, I like to tinker and wanted to mess around with a refrigerant system.

I bought a small 1.8 cu ft Haier fridge off craigslist for $15. Geez, can't beat that! My first task was to pull out all of the system components from the insulated box. This required draining the system of refrigerant through a small hole that I drilled in the compressor fill tube. Before doing this, I checked the label, and it indicated the system used 1.6oz of R134a. I can buy R134a at the auto parts store, so I will be able to refill the system.

I de-soldered the tiny capillary line from the accumulator / dryer and de-soldered the suction line on the compressor. I used an oxy-acetylene torch to heat the joint, then I just pulled the tubes apart when the solder became molten.

Here is the evaporator liberated from the fridge.

Luckily, with one flap unfolded, the evaporator fit perfectly in the thermoelectric cooler (TEC) fridge.

I mounted the compressor underneath the table (also getting very lucky that there was enough clearance). I cleaned the copper tubes carefully, then re-soldered them with silver solder and some paste flux. I had to extend the suction tube by a few inches, and so I just got some tube that fit around the existing line and soldered it to the outside.

I soldered the capillary tube back into the dryer, and put a valve on the compressor fill tube. The system was sealed at this point. Now, I connected my vacuum pump (Welch 1400) with a micron vacuum gauge and a tee that connected to a can of R134a. I positioned the can on a sensitive scale so that I could meter out 1.6 oz of refrigerant.

I pulled a 375 micron vacuum in about 15 minutes or so. I even ran the compressor while the system was under vacuum. It raised the pressure just a couple hundred microns, then it settled back down quickly, so I felt the system was dry and sealed.

After I metered out 1.6oz, which only took a few seconds with the valve just cracked open, I tightly closed the valve that I added to the fill tube, and was very pleased to see feel the evaporator getting very cold.

Tomorrow, I will re-insulate the TEC fridge and hopefully give it a final test.


  1. it's nice but i think if you want to safe more mony yuo can power your thermoelectric fridge with a photovoltic cell.

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