New or Used Fridge for a Fermentation Chamber?

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I should probably begin with where I brew, as I believe this has played a huge role in my process. I live and brew in south Mississippi. Our 95 degree heat in the summer provides another challenge in the process of fermenting. I know what you are thinking, “Just put the fermenter in the cool basement and let it bubble away.” That would be an excellent option if we lived in an area where basements were part of every house, but in our piece of the world, the water table is so high that any basement would quickly turn into a very unpleasant, aromatic mildew spa. Much to the chagrin of my wife, my fermenter took up residence in our closet, right next to her clothes of course; and no, I was not using a blow off tube.
This is the point in my tale where my version of the events and my wife’s version differ slightly. My version is that the air lock and bung were ever so gently pushed out of the fermenter and my beautiful wort bubbled down the side of the fermenter, leaving a very tiny puddle for me to clean up. Now my wife believes that Astronaut Scott Kelly saw the explosion from the International Space Station as my “smelly beer” spewed out over all of her clothes. You can decide for yourselves which version is true, but I must disclose that our Pastor asked my wife that following Sunday if she had been drinking.
My experience quickly taught me that I needed a new place to ferment and a hot garage in August would probably not be the way to go. I decided that I needed to find a refrigerator to serve as a fermentation chamber.

What Are You Looking to Accomplish With Your Refrigerator?

Make sure you are looking for a fridge that will hold as many fermenters as oyu need it to.
If you are looking to just use it for fermentation control of one carboy, then maybe a mini-fridge would work just fine for your purposes. An added bonus is that they are relatively cheap, even brand new, usually around $100. If kegs, as in more than one, are in your future plans, then a full size refrigerator or freezer is likely a wiser choice. Since we live in the era of the internet, and more importantly HomeBrewTalk, why should we reinvent the wheel and do all of our own time consuming research? Edwort over in the forum has already done an amazing job of researching and documenting freezer sizes and how many kegs each will hold. Check it out when you have a spare few minutes, I promise that you will be impressed and have a better understanding of what you may need to meet your own personal requirements.There are a few things to consider when making your decision as to whether or not to go used or with a brand new refrigerator or freezer.
First of all is cost: Are you, or better yet your spouse, ready to drop anywhere from a few hundred to a thousand dollars (and up for ultra high end ones) on an appliance that you will modify to suit your purposes?
Second of all is your home brewing vision: What are your long term plans or goals with home brewing? Are you planning on just fermenting in it or are you planning on kegging or using refrigerator/freezer for cold storage of food? Is this a passing “hobby” or are you in this lifestyle for the long haul? I know, I know it is a stupid question, but I had to see if you were still reading.

Pros & Cons of New and Used Fridges.

New Pros:

Reliability: A brand new fridge is well, new. There is no risk of the compressor dying the moment you complete your modifications.
Cleanliness: Let’s face it, who among us relishes the thought of cleaning up someone else’s mess? A new fridge still has that “new fridge smell” and zero mold or years of food and grime build up.

New Cons:

Warranty: The moment you take a drill or a pair of wire cutters to your new fermentation chamber to be, you can kiss your warranty goodbye.
Price: A new fridge can be expensive, especially when could be modifying it.
Probobly not a good idea to shoot for a fridge this old, but a used fridge can serve your purpose.

Used Pros:

Price: A used refrigerator or freezer will be much cheaper and in some cases even free.
No warranty hassles: You can modify your fermentation chamber to your heart’s content without worrying about voiding any warranty.

Used Cons:

Reliability: You have no idea how long the compressor will last. It could very well last for years but you just don’t know.
Higher electric cost: Your used fridge could end up costing you more in the long run by costing more in higher electric bills.

Sourcing a Used Refrigerator

If you get lucky, you can get a decent fridge on the cheap or even free.
If you find it difficult to drop a few hundred dollars on a brand new appliance just for fermentation, you may be headed down a path to acquire a used unit. Try scouring the local classifieds, Craigslist, Facebook, or yard sales for some great deals. If you are patient, you will eventually land a fridge on the cheap. If it is graduation season, you may be fortunate enough to find some sobering up frat boy that is unloading his beer fridge.

Temperature Control Options

Either way you go, you will need some additional help to control your fermentation temperature. There are a myriad of choices, from the inexpensive STC-1000 that requires a bit of wiring and planning, to the pre-wired versions that are simple to use and setup.
The STC-1000 version is one of the most widely recognized and used temperature controller used in the home brew community. It does take a bit of wiring knowledge to set it up but nothing more than some basic home electrical wiring. They are pretty simply device. The STC-1000 uses a temperature probe to monitor your temperature in your fermentation chamber and then either close a circuit to turn on a heat source, usually an incandescent light bulb placed in your chamber, or turn on the compressor to cool the chamber. The crux is that you need to wire up 2 outlets to power your heat source or your compressor. Not terribly difficult, but a bit more work than a simple plug and play.
The pre-wired versions by Inkbird, Johnson Controls, and numerous others operate using the same concept. The main difference between the 2 is the simplicity of setting them up. They come pre-wired with outlets ready to connect your heat source and your compressor. Your only “chore” is to set the temperature range, and your fermentation chamber is ready to go.
My vote is a new freezer. A freezer is going to cost less than a fridge, and you know a new one is going to work. Pair it with an Inkbird controller and you can have a setup for less than $200.
I like new as well most of the time, but my recent acquisition of a used fridge for free was too good to pass up.
Refrigerators are not designed to operate at 60F. I tried that once and the fridge was dead in 6 months. If you are handy with tools you can easily build a fermentation chamber with a window AC. My garage tempo averages 110F in the summer, but using scrap plywood, some 2X4's and styrofoam insulation I built a chamber for my conical that allows me to ferment lagers at 55F in the summer. I've had this for 8-10 years now, still works great.
Total cost for this project, including the dual stage temp controller was $350, as far as I can remember. Now's a good time to buy a window AC, stores are discounting them nicely.
I'm with PADave...chest type freezer with an InkBird controller...all in brand new was about $180.00. Cool air stays inside when you open the lid....cold crashing is push button down 33 degrees...just the easy way to go. BIG BONUS...you can use it like fridge, a freezer, kegerator, or fermentation chamber, and I like using the lid/top as an extra work surface in my 1o5 degree Texas shop.
I have an old side by side that I just turned into a fermentation chamber using an inkbird controller. It is still a work in progress, but having a shelf for multiple fermenters is what I'm doing. I fermented on the fridge floor, then after 3 weeks, moved the fermenter (speidel) to a shelf for cold crashing. The goal is to transfer from the fermenter to keg without having to move it from fridge and stir up any stuff. Did not know how much weight double brackets and plywood would hold so I reinforced it big time with 2x4s. After this batch is kegged, I'll evaluate a better method of reinforcing shelf so I can fit two batches in at the same time.
I got a nice used stand up deep freezer, with a simple temp control; holds 4 6.5gal carboys perfectly and keeps a nice 65*F all year around. I painted mine and put blackboard on the front to help with seeing what is primary, secondary, kegged, bottled and dates
Deep freeze with the Stc-1000 is the way to go! I bought a new deep freezer and then found a used one on CL, couldn't be happier with both of them. Now one is a fermenter and the other my kegorater that doubles for lagering when needed. Good to see South Mississippi deep in the brew game!
As noted, fridges are often free. I have a couple extra free fridges at the moment. My fermenters require a lot more heating than cooling, so a free fridge makes a great fermentation chamber. STC is a fun little project.
I forgot to add....even though I have only done one temp controlled beer (second one is there now) that beer was the best I have ever brewed in terms of clean taste, no off flavors, no twangs. Cold crashing also made the clearest beer I've ever bottled. It is just finishing up bottle conditioning...we sampled one last night...got 4 WOWS!
Had always read temp control makes a huge difference in your finish quality....it took me about a year and half to take this step. That was a mistake on my part! If temp control is on your list...move it up to the top...do it now.
Side note...some friends have an off grid cabin/compound in far West Texas. They use the exact same set up I have for fridge. He told me a normal newer fridge uses about 1800 watts a day. The chest freezer with controller uses about 100...in a non air conditioned cabin...making it very solar friendly.
Nice article. There are a lot of things to consider when making this decision. One thing to decide is stand up or chest style. Chest has some advantages, but one disadvantage that I can attest to is it can be a challenge to get a heavy fermenter in and out of one. Stand up ones you need to be careful and do your research...don't get one where the shelves are fixed as you will inevitably not be able to fit something in by a half inch or so.
I bought a used stand up the first time. It lasted about a year. I bought a Craig's list, brand new, in the box, chest freezer on the second go around and it has been going strong for a few years now. I would lean towards new as I paid about $25 more for the new one, but I did get a heck of a deal. I use a Ranco for temp control.
Hands down the cheapest way to go is get a dorm fridge, then add on to it and make a fermentation chamber. This way there is no heavy lifting of carboys to get into the chamber or out. Just slide them on the front. I usually put my carboys in milk crate type container to make them easy to move around. I also made my fermentation chamber so I can slide it back out and return it to a dorm fridge if need be. Check out the DIY section and look under fermentors. Numerous designs to choose from.
I've had my freezer/Inkbird combo for a couple of months and I think I would have gone for a Fridge in hindsight. First the freezer by nature of it being designed to operate below freezing seems to generate a lot of moisture that my fridge does not, this a virtue of the temperature swings creating condensation. It really only kicks on once a day to bring the temp back into range which is great but it does get wet in there. Secondly I got a chest freezer, and its no fun lifting a glass carboy over the side and in/out of those things ... if you are not a strong person, or have back issues, this isn't great for you.
Almost any, my chest freezer kicks on once a day to drop temp back into range and then the insulation that sucker has keeps the cool in amazingly well.
The timing of this article was perfect. I've slowly been gathering the parts to make a STC controller of my own. Over lunch today I am meeting a guy from Craigslist with a chest freezer that he has listed at $50, I figure it's 1/3 the cost of a lot of new ones, probably worth the risk.
I have a Criterion 7cbf( fits 2 carboys) not very big but didnt want to take up much space. Temp control is a Johnsons A419. Set up has been working flawlessly! The freezer was on sale at Menards for $120, work had sent me a $100 gift card for Christmas....was well used!
This +100. I have 2 of them in the brewshed. One for kegs to serve the beer, the other for fermentation. I cycle fermenters out about every 2 weeks and I have all the beer I can drink and then some. Total for both of them was less than $400 with temp controllers as I found them on sale in the scratch and dent section of the appliance aisle at Lowes (I have 2 5.0CU chest freezers for this setup).
Funny, my fermentation fridge has operated non-stop for over 4 years at temps ranging from 62 f to 34 f without the slightest issue. The key to this is simple, make sure you either know what you are doing with the internal electronic controls of the unit, or get a non-frost-free mechanical control unit. At that point all you need is a temperature controller with minimum cycle time.
If you choose to go frost free, mechanical controls you just have to take the defrost timer out of the circuit.
I love how most people are saying "x" IS the way to go. I considered all the options of new/used, upright freezer/chest freezer/fridge-freezer/dorm fridge and surplus walk in freezer from and auction. Everyone has a different set of needs and wants so quantifying what yours are FIRST is the most important.
Need low lift-over due to back issues? Floor standing fermentation chamber is the possibly best but a top-freezer fridge or upright freezer is a close second. Alternatively, adding a block and tackle/ratcheting pulley over a chest freezer is a good option as is pumping into the fermenter and using C02 pressure to transfer to kegs.
So I guess my criteria for selection would include all the follow:
Floor space and height required for all active fermenters at one time
How much floor space and height is available in the intended location of the chamber
Is a dedicated 15 or 20 amp 110V outlet in reach
Do you want multiple temperatures at the same time in the chamber
Do you also need a serving kegorator
How handy are you with tools and electricity
How "risk averse" are you verses "thrifty"
Can/do you want to lift 40-120#'s of bulky ferementer vertically 3' and then lower it gently back down
Do you have a handy floor joist to attach a lifting aid
Is appearance important
After all that…I chose option Z. I already had a 1955 GE flattop fridge in the basement that used to be my serving fridge. I turned that into the fermentation chamber when I was given a “no one wants that color” almond top-freezer 21 cu ft fridge. The old GE is excellent for my needs because I ferment in a 20 gallon plastic barrel that, with 10 gallons of beer, is about 90 #’s.
"Hands down the cheapest way to go is get a dorm fridge, then add on to it and make a fermentation chamber." I would beg to differ with such a blanket statement. Even with new mini fridge you go free, nothing is cheaper than a free refrigerator or freezer big enough for your needs that requires nothing but a temperature controller (which both approaches would need).
That said, your approach has lot of positive points of which only listed one. A second would be the ability to make multiple sub-chambers so you could have two (5-a gallon) kegs on tap, one carboy at lager temp and one at ale fermentation temp...all from the same mini-fridge as a power source.
What Northbank said! Mine came from Home Depot on sale, $127.00.
My friend used cleaned milk jugs full of water to line the bottom of his "fridge" with a piece of plywood on top....all that water adds a lot of thermal mass, which once cooled down really helps keep things cool...and in effect raise up the bottom of the fridge making for less bending way over to get stuff out. They do not even have a water well, so it also doubles up their water supply. They have baskets inside...breakfast basket...sandwich basket...drink basket...salad basket...makes it easy to just everything at once. The chest design is just much more effective...you open a lid, the cold stay inside...open a door and the cold falls out...simple...but not as convenient.
Their indoor lighting system is pretty cool too! They took an old milk crate and added a plywood top with holes drilled in it. They sit outdoor solar lights in the crate and let the sun charge them up. Then they bring the box inside at night and have rings in the wall to hang up the lights...very basic, but workable system. So much so, they have never wired in a lighting system and do not plan to.
Get yourself a moisture absorbent and problem solved. Got one of these and the humidity in my freezer is kept around 20-30%. Sucks up all the condensation.
You are correct, there is not one answer to meet everyone's needs. Every brewer has different needs and obstacles to overcome. In a perfect world we would all have professional equipment and a strictly controlled environment with an unlimited budget. Sadly, until my long lost cousin in Nigeria sends me my share of the Nigerian lottery winnings I will have to work with what I have. Best solution is just as you said. Define your needs and desires and build to fit that within your budget.
It was a dream to start brewing for a few years and then we moved south to MS just as the state lifted their prohibition era law banning home brewing. MS has come a long way in a very short time when it comes to craft beer and home brewing. Now I just need a good local HB shop to open up near me.
I have a smaller deep freeze that would be great for holding two 5 gallon buckets of brew. Question for you and who ever else uses these. Do you recommend using the big glass jars? or plastic buckets for the fermentation process? I am just learning this process and trying to figure it all out before I go head first into it. Thanks!
I usually soak for a day or two with water and oxiclean, and it rinses clean. nbsp; If I need to use the carboy right away, then I have to break out the carboy brush. nbsp; Some people put a dish rag or a handful of sand in with the cleaning solution and shake it real well, but I nbsp;prefer to use the brush.
They're smaller than standard fridges but I bought a wine fridge. Holds my SS brew bucket perfectly and when paired up with my stc-1000 it works great
If you are going to go with a chest freezer for a Keezer, I would recommend a NEW one. Because, unless you are a complete klutz, you need to really build a collar for it. You can carefully make the collar so if the freezer breaks under warranty you can reverse all of the modifications fairly easily. In the PRO section you can put *MUCH* greater efficiency with newer units as well. The CON... maybe 2-3X the price of a good enough used one. But when you are talking $150 for a new one versus $60-70 for used that is five years old, you will make that up in electricity within two years or less.
Now if you are looking for a huge one, or an upright fridge, that cost equation might change.. but even so, waiting until you see new scratch and dents or closeouts will get you much closer to the cost of used anyway. You very likely will make up the cost difference in longevity.
If you get an old one "nearly free" that is different too. I got disillusioned very fast with Craigslist listings locally when I told the people I'd give them asking plus $10 if they would freeze a gallon of water in the freezer overnight and not a single one would do it. Caveat Emptor...
I think that one of the considerations should be the ability for your chamber to crash cool. Properly insulated, a mini-fridge may be okay for maintaining enough of a cool environment to keep temps in check during fermentation. However it will struggle to get temps down to crash cool temperature.
That said, I had a free small chest freezer I got for free that I used for a chamber and it was AWESOME. Then it died after a year. I hesitate to brew until I replace it because it makes such a huge difference in the quality of your beer.
This is a contentious topic and not really for this article. That said, start with buckets and if you really feel you need to, do the research on the forums of glass carboys verses plastic carboys or the myriad of other fermenters. I have used plastic buckets now for about 20 years though I started with a glass carboy.
Do you have more info on how you built this fermentation chamber? This is exactly what I was thinking of doing!!! Do you keep it indoors or outdoors? How does it keep up in the heat?
Here is the link.
Here is another great one as well.
I scored an upright "over - under" with the fridge on bottom for free on craigslist. The seller said is wasn't cooling so I went to pick it up so I could take it home and have a look for myself. It turned out to be a busted relay, so 2 days and $5 later I had a working fridge. I realized that a lot of people who own appliances that "go out" simply assume that the whole thing is just broken, but they don't think about looking into what may have been the failure mode.
If you don't mind the inconvenience of picking up and hauling a refrigerator back home then I would definitely look into a free refrigerator. Like me you may find that you can get it working for dirt cheap. One risk, however, is that if you cant get it working then you're stuck with a defective hunk of appliance taking up precious brewing space.
As an addition to the temperature controller section, I would also recommend using a water proof thermocouple (or thermowell). The thermocouple should be placed in a jug of water (I use a one gallon size) to keep the compressor from cycling too often. If the thermocouple is placed in the open air in the fridge then you'll just be cooling the ambient air, which will cause the compressor to turn on/off more frequently (remember you're cooling 5 gallons of beer or more). There are thermowells that can be inserted into carboys to take actual readings of the beer, but I find the "jug of water" method to be more convenient. Plus if you have more than one batch fermenting then your unnecessarily added precision is probably going to be useless.
Just my 2 cents