Politics in the kitchen

Energy use has never been so political. A significant portion of the electricity provided to homes in southwest Minneapolis is produced by burning coal. Coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel, it contributes the most to global warming. I don’t want to vote in favor of this unwise energy plan, so I have vowed to use as little electricity as possible.

We have an old refrigerator, but haven’t gotten a new one because it still works. I’ve been balancing concerns about energy use with those about how much stuff is rotting in landfills. Is our refrigerator, are we, is the planet better off if the thing is in here or out there?

I found a feature on the Xcel Energy website to help me think this through. You can punch in characteristics of an appliance and get an estimate of its energy use. “Fridge Calc” informed me that new refrigerators use a third of the electricity of the 15 to 20 year old models. Ours is at the far end of that span.

We would save between $50 and $90 a year on electric bills if we bought a new refrigerator, I learned, and would reduce the amount of CO2 we are contributing to the atmosphere by 900 to 1,500 pounds per year. The estimated price of a new refrigerator like the one we have is $700 to $1,000.

In tips on this same website I learned that you should not have your refrigerator next to your stove because it has to work harder to counteract the heat coming from the burners and oven. This makes perfect sense, but I had never thought about it before. Our two appliances are side by side.

We have a small, older home with a little box of a kitchen. The only reasonable place for the refrigerator is where it presently sits. We are talking a huge chunk of money and a lot more waste kicked into a landfill if we gut the room and start over.

According to an Xcel pie chart, the refrigerator uses 12 percent of a household’s energy, whereas heating and cooling use 58 percent.  I’ve set our thermostat to 65 degrees this winter, so we will be saving a significant amount of energy without the expense, disruption, or waste generation involved in remodeling our kitchen.

Given that, I had all but decided to set the concern about the refrigerator aside when I saw another tip on the Xcel web site. Take a dollar bill and close it in your refrigerator door. If you can easily pull the bill out, the seal is shot. Sure enough, I tried this on ours, and the bill slipped right out.

OK, we have to get a new refrigerator.

But I am attached to our old one, which may sound silly. We’ve had it since I got together with my husband, since my stepdaughter was little. It has played an important role in our lives because we love cooking and eating. We have pictures of our early family life plastered all over it.

And it figures into a family story. Years ago our cat got sick and our refrigerator stopped working on the same day. I joked that our pets and appliances were the same age, and were all going to pot at once. I called our neighbor for support. Soon there was a knock on the door. Her fine teenage son was holding in his arms an apartment-sized refrigerator for us to use until ours got fixed.

Then yet another problem arose. It was the first day of school, and the bus driver who was taking our daughter to aftercare got lost. My husband made frantic calls and waited almost two hours before she turned up unharmed.

Our daughter is now in college. The cat lived a couple of more years, and then died. The refrigerator has amiably hummed along, presenting no new problems.

But, clearly, we need to make a change. We are going to move out our old refrigerator and put in a new one. We’d want to paint and replace the flooring while we had the chance, I first thought. But the floor project would produce unnecessary waste. Though our tile is old, it is actually fine.

The modified plan: We will get rid of our old refrigerator and I will finally do the deed I have been putting off. I will paint the kitchen. We will wait until spring so I can open windows to air things out. We will have a narrow cabinet build between appliances that will hold insulating material to protect the refrigerator from the oven heat.

It will be sad to see that old refrigerator go out the front door, but the new one will wear our family photos, I predict, before we even plug it in. 

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at the Loft Literary Center.