How Not to Use a Marine Refrigerator
Warning: this post is about a fairly disgusting event on the boat. Read at your own risk!
Living on a boat really stinks sometimes. And by that I mean makes you want to wretch and go get some fresh air kind of stink. Small spaces with minimal air flow can turn into some seriously horrendous smells if not fixed quickly. Any combination of diesel fuel, oil, gray water, black water, or delightfully unreliable marine refrigeration problems can turn a good day into a very, very bad one. Luckily, both of us have fairly strong stomachs but they have certainly been pushed to the limit more than we had thought before buying our boat.
Our first such experience happened only in the second week we were on board (welcome to cruising!) On the trip down from Illinois, we had brought our remaining stash of venison from last year’s hunting season, knowing that we had both our 120V freezer and our 12V marine refrigerator/freezer on board. One of the first things we did upon arrival was fire up both of them to ensure that they were in fact cooling well and then loaded up both freezers with whatever meat still looked in good condition after the trip, about 30 pounds in all. I loaded up the fridge/freezer with the items I’d want to use first as the 120V chest freezer was a bit of a pain to get into.
For the next week, we did not check the new freezer again since we had a lot of other things on our minds at the time, one of which being our first move from Indiantown to Stuart. We knew that the 120v wouldn’t be on during the trip but figured that 5 hours inside of a fully frozen freezer would be no problem to keep our meat frozen. That probably would have been true…if it had ever turned back on. Three days later we started to notice a slightly sour smell when we walked into the boat, but I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. Two days after that, it was strong enough for me to find it.
Let me just say that there is nothing I have thus far encountered, even after making it through potty training with a little boy, that smelled quite as horrible as when I opened up that freezer. Twenty pounds of bloated meat sitting in its own juices was a total nightmare to clean up, especially since it was in the bottom of a deep chest freezer that I had to dive in to reach the bottom. Two hours of holding my breath to try to keep from gagging was not a great way to spend an afternoon. Even after cleaning it with bleach, baking soda, and vinegar I still wasn’t able to completely get rid of the smell of rotten meat. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to eat venison again.
A few lessons we learned from this experience:
- If something smells bad, find it now. Do not wait for it to get worse or you will regret it.
- When dealing with a new refrigeration system, check it multiple times before you trust it. We’re still not sure if the freezer was working fully to begin with or not. In the end we decided to get rid of it anyway due to the smell and not wanting to get used to using the 120V freezer since we wouldn’t be running it at anchor.
- It takes a while to get used to using a marine refrigerator even when it works correctly. Multiple items have thawed out on me that I thought would stay frozen at the top of the freezer and others have burst from sitting too close to the cooling coils. Finding random ooze at the bottom of your fridge that is now somewhere down the drain into the bilge is never a good thing.
- Consider installing a separate sump for your refrigeration (and shower water). We haven’t yet done this but are planning to in the future. If this same story had happened with the drain plug opened, we probably never would have gotten rid of the rotten meat smell out of our boat which would have really been a damper on living conditions. Any bacteria that gets into the bilge is probably going to stay in the bilge for a long, long time especially if yours is very deep and hard to clean completely like ours is.
- 120V refrigeration on a boat doesn’t make a lot of sense unless you are planning on running a generator or being plugged into shore power full time. Even then I think we would prefer a 120/12v option for those times when you are moving or even just want to go out for a weekend.
Take it from me, you do not want to be spending an otherwise lovely day draining rotten juice one paper towel at a time.