Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Quest for an Organized Freezer

Ever since Brian and I first moved into this house, I've hated the fridge. I don't have any complaints about its actual performance; it does a perfectly decent job of keeping our fresh food cold and our ice cream frozen. It's a little smaller than average, at 18 cubic feet, but that's a reasonable size for the two of us. The motor is a bit on the loud side, but not so loud as to be disruptive. And its energy use, for a machine its age, is actually quite impressive. We tested it with our Kill a Watt meter over two separate 24-hour periods, one in the winter and one in the summer, and we calculated that it probably uses about 500 kilowatt-hours over the course of a year, which is better than many modern-day fridges. (Sadly, this means that according to the EPA's Refrigerator Retirement Savings Calculator, we can't possibly justify replacing it on the basis of energy savings alone.)

So what is it that bugs me so much about this fridge? In a word, organization—or more accurately, the near-total lack thereof. Here are the major problems with it:
  • The shelves are made of wire. If anything spills in the fridge, it drips right through onto the contents of the shelves below.
  • Although the shelves are theoretically movable, the only place it's possible to create a space that can accommodate tall bottles is on the top shelf—which means that the refrigerator light is smack in the middle of it, so bottles are all forced to one side or the other. It also means there's no way to keep milk on the bottom shelf the way Tip Hero says you should to keep it fresh; there isn't enough vertical space.
  • It has only a single produce drawer. In addition to being very big, heavy, and hard to open and close, it also causes all our veggies to rot faster as a result of being stored along with fruits. 
  • It has no meat and cheese drawer. Our supply of block and grated cheese all has to be piled up toward the back of the bottom shelf, where the stacks tend to fall over and individual blocks can get lost. And if I buy a bag of string cheese snacks, there's no good place to keep it where it will be accessible and not get buried.
  • Although it doesn't have one of those idiotic built-in egg compartments in the door, which are in the wrong place for storing eggs and completely useless for storing anything else, it does have an oversized dairy compartment that's too big for our butter dish and too small to accommodate anything else along with it.
Worst of all, though, is the freezer compartment. It has no shelves at all, just a big open box in which everything gets stuffed willy-nilly and won't stay put. When we first got the fridge, I tried to order a freezer shelf from Hotpoint, since they claimed to offer one; however, this turned out to be false, since the part they sent me was actually an extra shelf for the fresh food compartment. So instead, we've done our best to try and arrange the space with a hodge-podge of makeshift partitions: a wire cabinet organizer that goes only partway across, a couple of mismatched plastic bins, a Rubbermaid breadbox for storing meats, and an assortment of pint-size deli containers. Yet even with these crude organizers in place, we still invariably end up with a variety of bags and boxes stuffed precariously in sideways or upside down, constantly at risk of falling out when the door is opened. It's like Fibber McGee's closet in there.

For years now, I've had ambitions to replace this frustrating fridge. When I wrote the latest report on refrigerators for ConsumerSearch, I thought it would be a good opportunity to figure out which model would be the best choice for a replacement. Unfortunately, what I discovered was that top-freezer fridges—the most efficient, most reliable, and least expensive type—don't tend to get very good reviews. Even my Best-Reviewed choice, a Maytag that did well in professional tests, had a lot of complaints in user reviews about its uneven temperature control; owners said it was impossible to keep the freezer cold enough without freezing everything in the fridge. (It also comes with a built-in ice maker, which is worse than useless to us, since it requires extra plumbing work to install and takes up much-needed freezer space to boot.) My runner-up pick, a Haier, looked ideal except for one problem: the nearest store that carried it was an hour away in Langhorne, PA. I might actually have considered it worth making the trip, but I figured I'd wait for a sale first, and while I was waiting, the fridge disappeared from their inventory altogether, leaving us with no good alternatives at all. Given that the fridge we have now still works, there's no point in spending $850 on a replacement unless it's actually a major improvement.

So while we wait to see whether next year's models offer any better options, I'm looking for ways to make better use of the space in our current fridge, especially the freezer. A series of Google searches on this topic turned up lots of articles featuring pictures of beautifully organized freezers, such as this one at The Kitchn. However, all the homeowners in this article started out with freezers that actually had some kind of interior organization (bins, shelves or both) to start with, rather than what we have, which is basically just a box with a door. If we could simply find some way to add a full-width shelf, that would be a good start, but when I Googled "add shelf to freezer," all I found was an article on Lifehacker that suggests using a wire cabinet organizer—which is what we have now. I have searched and searched for a better one that would cover the full width and depth of the compartment, but to no avail.

Normally, when we have a storage problem to deal with, Brian just builds a custom-fitted piece out of wood to maximize the space (like the dividers for my sock drawer and the tilt-out drawer for our kitchen sink). Unfortunately, in this case, that approach won't really work, since a thick piece of wood would take up too much space and a thin one wouldn't stand up well to freezing. So last night, we went on a hunting trip at Target, looking for some sort of kitchen or home organizers that might help tame this beast of a freezer. Nearly everything we found, however, was unsuitable in one way or another: too big, too small, or not square enough to make good use of the space. In the end, all we came home with was a little $4 ice bin, which fits under the makeshift wire shelf and helps a bit with corralling the loose bags. We also weeded out some unnecessary items like excess ice cubes, and I tried a trick for cutting down the ice cream bucket as shown in this Lifehacker video. (They recommend it to keep the ice cream fresher, but for me, the bigger advantage is the space it saves. Also, we can see how much ice cream we have left without looking inside.)

This "after" picture, however, is only marginally better than the "before," so I'm still looking for better ways to organize. And I think I may actually have hit on a possible solution, if a rather unconventional one. While browsing the Container Store (a site that one of my fellow Word Nerds would call a "panagora" of all things storage-related), I came across these drop-front shoe boxes. The larger ones are exactly the depth, and just under half the width, of our freezer compartment, so two could sit abreast on the bottom and create a complete second level that completely spans the space. We could store meats in one, veggies in the other, and the drop-fronts would give us access the to contents without disrupting the rest of the freezer. And once we'd used those to make a solid base, we might actually be able to fit in some more traditional freezer organizers on top.

Am I crazy, or could this actually work? And is it worth $20 plus shipping to find out?
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