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Servel Propane/Kerosene Fridge

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Original Bigfoot
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Servel Propane/Kerosene Fridge

Post by Original Bigfoot » Tue Feb 27, 2007 2:55 pm

Howdy all.

I see Servel or Whirlpool gas or kerosene fridges at just about every mining camp in the desert, either shot up, or tumbled down the ravine or in the wash, half buried in the sand...

Anyone have one setting around that they might have saved from the appliance grim reaper? One they might want to get rid of?

I know there is a recall on them, because if the burners aren't cleaned/adjusted correctly they can put out carbon monoxide and snuff you out in your sleep...but even the old-timers used to put them on the porch or in the shed, just to be safe.

I need one for my remote, off-the-grid camp here in New Mexico, and I am traveling out to DV for the annual "Lumbermen's Camp" at the end of March.

If there is one available that anyone knows of, I can bring my utility trailer to haul it back. I will consider any distance from the DV area or along the way from Farmington to DV...even Utah, Nevada, Arizona, etc.

Thanks...

owensdrylake
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Post by owensdrylake » Tue Feb 27, 2007 11:50 pm

I have a Servel in use now, wouldn't want to part with it though. For a time I was looking in the Sierra Reader (out of Bishop or Big Pine) and once in a while one would show up, usually for $300 or less.

Good luck in finding one, an old buddy of mine worked for the gas company and showed me a trick for getting the real old ones to work again. Take the fridge out of the house, turn it upside down and put it in the back of a pickup. Then ride a couple miles of rough dirt roads. (someone has to ride in the back to keep it steady) All the shaking helps clear out the pipes/tubes, and yes, I've actually had to do that once when the thing went on the fritz.

Original Bigfoot
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Post by Original Bigfoot » Wed Feb 28, 2007 12:27 am

I have heard of that turning them upside down thing. They call it "burping" the ammonia based cooling system. It's supposed to work with RV fridges too, if they won't cool right. Never heard of the truck down a bumpy dirt road thing, though. But I can see how that would work. It even worked on an old International truck I bought once which had a stuck clutch. :lol:

I found a Servel, for free, in Ohio. In perfect condition. But getting to Ohio and back, from New Mexico, isn't exactly free. The fellow is making a road trip out to the west in March and I am trying to talk him into hauling it out here. He was interested in learning about sightseeing and such in the Farmington area, and I offered to pay him some money if he can figure out how to bring it with him, but he also told me he had someone coming to get it, so we shall see how that goes.

Found another in Washington State, for $200, but that distance thing again.

I saw a Servel advertised on the bulletin board at Smith's in Pahrump a few years ago, but I didn't need one then.

Also have a line on a new Danby propane fridge, still in the box, from some folks here in New Mexico. They've never even used it, and it would save me a couple hundred off the price from an appliance outfit. But the Danby is a modern styled fridge, and a Servel would fit better with the decor in the old 1955 Spartan Mobile Home it would be going in. The fridge nook in the trailer even has a vent with a sliding cover in the ceiling just to vent propane fridges.

There's a nice 1950's vintage Hotpoint electric fridge in there now, but no electricity unless I run the generator.

owensdrylake
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Post by owensdrylake » Wed Feb 28, 2007 9:38 am

A new one in the box would be worth looking at because they use a lot less propane. Ours does about 1 gallon a day in the summer, our neighbor bought a brand new servel and it uses 1/3 gallon per day.

Of course ours looks ten times better paired with our antique wedgewood gas stove. What they need to do is manufacture a new model with the old retro look. But its a tough market when the things run forever...

New ones must be safer too, regardless we keep a carbon monoxide detector in the kitchen.

greatbasinguide
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Now is the time

Post by greatbasinguide » Wed Feb 28, 2007 12:01 pm

Anyone have a clear concise description of how they work? I have a propane frig, which currently doesn't work, but there cannot be much to go wrong with it.

Before I went "on the grid" I used it and an igloo thermal electric hooked to solar panels, at my house in the summer there would be ice on the milk in the igloo in the morning.

Original Bigfoot
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Post by Original Bigfoot » Wed Feb 28, 2007 1:21 pm

They work off a principle called "absorbtion". They way I understand it, the propane or kerosene flame (or electric heating element on some RV electric models) causes the ammonia/water mix to expand, maybe to the point of being a gas. It rises to the top of the tubing coils and while it runs downward through the cooling coils it re-condenses, creating intense cold, which absorbs the heat within the food and freezer boxes.

This is probably way oversimplified, and I may have even missed some steps or other important info concerning the process. I have learned by researching these things just the last couple days that the Servel/Whirlpool models at least were built using a design patented by Albert Einsein!!! And he was one smart feller!

From what I have learned, with no moving parts other than the liquid inside, only a couple things can go wrong. Either no flame, which should be obvious, an out and out leak, which would be noticable through the ammonia smell, eyes burning, gasping, etc. (I have read of dire consequences if one cuts the sealed coolant system open, including death from one whiff of the stuff, etc.)

If the flame is working properly, which directly controls the amount of "cold" the thing creates (bigger flame = more cold, to a point), and the cooling coils aren't compromised, then the only other thing that can go wrong is if something inside gets plugged up. Reading tells me that the ammonia solution is fairly corrosive, so if there was any leftover air in the system when it was sealed up, or even oxygen within the fluid that "released" later, it will cause corrosion inside the tubes, which can flake off and float around and then perhaps plug up the small tubes in the cooling system. Apparently there is a rather small orifice down around the burner that is most likely to plug up. Since the whole flow is controlled just by the fact that the heated stuff heads upwards, while the cooler stuff sinks lower, there isn't any real pressure to speak of. Also, I guess air bubbles can form which, if present right down there around the burner, keeps the fluid from heating and stopping the flow of the coolant.

Thus the shaking and jarring and turning them upside down and such, which hopefully frees up the blockage and gets the stuff moving again, or jars the bubble away from the burner area and allows the cooling process to start up. One account I read tells of a process where one lays the unit on it's side for few minutes, then upside down for a few, then the other side for a few, before standing upright and lighting again, going around in a complete 360 circle.

Hope this helps, and you can get yours running again. Those suckers are expensive to replace!

greatbasinguide
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Thanks

Post by greatbasinguide » Thu Mar 01, 2007 10:45 am

The way the work is pretty interesting, from the physics point of view. When mine comes out from under the snow I am going to play with it, see if I can get it going again.

Original Bigfoot
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Post by Original Bigfoot » Thu Mar 01, 2007 11:06 am

While Albert EinSTEIN was one smart feller, apparently I'm not smart enough to spell his name right in my previous post.

I just got off the phone with a fellow about a 7 hour drive from me and made a deal for 2 operational Servels. He says one is like new, and could be put in a new home and it would look good, the other isn't quite that good, but nearly so. I'm heading out to pick them up on Saturday. He's not sure of the exact vintage, but guesses they are from the 1930's or 40's. He says one of them is so heavy that it's going to take several people to move it. He guesses it weighs around 500 LBS!

Anyone else have any Servel stories? I read in Emmett Harder's book that Harry Briggs used to keep one on the porch at his camp at what is now the CR-Briggs Mine in Panamint Valley...cold beer in the desert!!!

greatbasinguide
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Servel

Post by greatbasinguide » Thu Mar 01, 2007 11:59 am

There was one for many years in a no longer used cabin up the road from my place, I wanted it. But, because the cabin was on private land and I am not much of a thief, it sat there until the property sold, for all I know the new owner tossed into a dumpster.

Honesty sucks sometimes.

Original Bigfoot
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Post by Original Bigfoot » Fri Mar 02, 2007 12:00 am

I just remembered this story today:

This isn't a Servel story, but it's about the propane fridge in the 30 year old motorhome I bought a couple years ago.

When I first fired up the fridge, on propane, it would get cool, but not cold. The freezer was maybe as cold as the fridge should be, and the refrigerator box didn't get very cool at all.

I lamented this because I didn't pay much for the motorhome, and it might cost over half as much to replace the fridge as I paid for the whole danged motorhome..

After checking with the local RV shops, I was told to turn it on using the electricity mode. Mine is either propane or 110 AC. (Newer ones can be propane, AC, or 12 volt DC.) If it worked on electric, they told me it could be made to work on propane..that the problem would then be with the propane system. (On electricity, a heating coil operates which takes the place of the propane flame..the cooling operation is the same.)

Sure enough, on electric, the durned thing got cold! Froze cups of water overnight in the freezer.

I fiddled with the propane burner adjustment for days, giving plenty of time between adjustments to see if anything worked. Usually overnight. Nothing I did with the burner made a difference I could recognize.

After several days of adjustment, and hours of internet research and talking with folks in the RV biz, I took a shot in the dark and replaced the propane regulator down by the tank underneath the motorhome...after that, the fridge worked perfect!

The regulator was the last thing I thought would be bad...the stove, furnace, and even the water heater all worked perfectly on the bad regulator. Apparently the propane fridge is the most sensitive to incorrect propane pressure...it simply wasn't getting enough heat with faulty/low gas pressure...

Pretty weird..a propane fridge won't get cold without enough heat....

Original Bigfoot
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Post by Original Bigfoot » Sat Mar 10, 2007 8:50 am

Went to Queen Creek, Arizona last Saturday and picked up the two Servel fridges. Man! Are they built like tanks!

By model number and comparison to old advertising photos, I was able to determine that one was made in 1942, the other, 1947. Turns out when I got back home, the burner was missing from one of them. The previous owner swears he didn't know that someone had stolen the burner from it, and he has promised to find me one. His buddies say he's a man of his word, so we shall see.

The one with the missing burner is the "newer" one, and has a more modern interior and better freezer compartment with a cool blue glass door. I swapped the burners between the two, and found the cooling systems on both of them do work.

It's pretty fascinating technology....the pipe leading from the boiler up the back of the fridge gets so hot you can't hold on to it, and the interior freezes...

I guess that 1942 model is fairly rare, in that Servel quit production of civilian fridges in April of that year to switch to war production..aircraft wings and components, and gas fridges for medicines and such for the military.

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Panamint Charlie
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Post by Panamint Charlie » Mon Mar 12, 2007 9:49 pm

Sounds like a great purchase. I've seen many old Servels in the outback, too bad most were shot up.

Original Bigfoot
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Post by Original Bigfoot » Sat Aug 31, 2013 9:59 am

Forgot about this old thread. I can report that I did get a burner for the missing one, and both fridges are still in service. Turned out, the one built in 1941 was set up for natural gas. It's been running out in the shed almost continuously as overflow for milk, beer, and other stuff we stock up on that takes a lot of space. Once or twice the flame has blown out where I've left the shed door open during windstorms, and I have to defrost it once in a while (anyone else remember defrosting freezers?). I took the "newer" 1947 model down to our backcountry, off the grid place near Ramah, New Mexico, and use it there. Usually light it up where we get there, and it gets cold in a few hours, helped along by cold stuff we put in when we get there. It's a bugger to light sometimes, but once it is, it stays lit. We even left it running for over a week between trips out there, with food in it, as a test. Either it would work, or we'd come back to a mess! It worked. I was concerned about it using up all the propane left in the tank, but I figured it only dropped the level in a 100LB bottle maybe an inch and a half or two, but no one was there opening the door the whole time. I picked up another, huge old Norge gas fridge from a Habitat for Humanity store in Durango, Colorado a few years ago. It uses a Servel refrigeration system and is probably from the early 1960's. I tested it out and it works, but then I stuck it in another shed to store it as a spare. Someone here in New Mexico was giving away an old Servel kerosene fridge a couple weeks ago on Craigslist. Would have liked to have gotten it to tinker with, because I'm on a kerosene kick with lamps, lanterns, and heaters, but I saw the ad late, and it was a almost 200 miles away.

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