Magic Refrigerator

By E. R. Haroldsen

Grandpa was putting away the milk, when he turned to his little granddaughter.

“Sydney,” said Grandpa. “Would you like to see a magic trick?”

Sydney nodded with enthusiasm.

Grandpa opened the refrigerator door. “See the light. When I say light out it goes out. Light Out!” The refrigerator light went out.

“When I say light on, it comes back on. Light on!”

Sydney was impressed. “Can I do it.?”

“Try it.”

“Light off.” Nothing happened. “Light off.” Still nothing happened.

“Maybe if you made your voice lower. Like this: Light off,” said Grandpa in a very deep and resonant voice. The light went off.

“Light on,” said Sydney in a voice as low as should could, which wasn’t very low for a little girl. The light went on. Sydney laughed with delight.

“Light off.” It went off and Sydney laughed again.

“Sydney,” said Grandma, “Is that Grandpa trying to trick you!”

Sydney became serious. Grandpa pointed a finger at the recessed button near the door latch. “Well, it also helps to push this button.”

Sydney looked irritated. “Oh Grandpa.”

“Would you two stop playing,” said Grandma, “You’ll defrost everything.”

Sydney looked puzzled, “Why will we defrost it?”

Grandpa pointed to the inside, “Everything in here is cold but if we leave the door open, it will get warm and we don’t want warm milk and we really don’t want Grandma to get mad at us. He closed the door.

“I knew a guy who had a problem like this with his refrigerator…


Ray stood before the refrigerator, trying to imagine what was happening inside. The electric power to the house was off. He had already checked the house’s circuit box. The problem was definitely with the power company and he had no idea how long it might last.

When should he open the refrigerator door and check inside, one hour, two? He knew, each time he opened the door, it would shorten the time that the food would stay cold.

He knew the laws of thermodynamics. Without electrical power, the compressor wouldn’t run. Slowly, but certainly, the refrigerator and it freezer compartment would start to warm until it was at room temperature. With the house air conditioner off, even the room temperature was going to rise until it was at the temperature outside the house. In this case, that was at 83 degrees.

He could imagine the ice melting and dripping on the packages of food, lettuce and celery. The milk would get lumpy. Water would form a ghastly pool, until it overflowed and ran out onto the kitchen floor. Given enough time, the broccoli casserole would probably crawl out on its own. But mostly, it was the ice cream that he thought about. His family considered ice cream to be a necessity. They even thought of it as one of the five major food groups.

As an engineer, he had calculated temperature problems like this. Given time and specific details about the insulation in the freezer, he could create good estimates of the time required.

On previous occasions, he had heard from the local news that if power was off for three hours, that people should throw away all the food, because it wasn’t safe. He knew that was wrong. The correct guide in judging food safety was whether it had been at room temperature for three hours. Only then was it no longer “safe,” whatever that meant.

It all came down to the question, should the family be eating their two gallons of ice cream as if it was a condemned man’s meal or should they wait and hope the power came back on. He knew what the kids would say. “Why take chances. Let’s eat it now.”

It was about at this moment, when the electrical power came back on and Ray heard the compressor start to hum. Crisis adverted. Still he stood there, thinking. The family had evaded a disaster. The problem about escaping a disaster, is they often come back. There was nothing to indicate that the family would be fortunate again.

So, what was the right thing to do? Should he buy a generator? If so, how large? Should it be able to run the freezer, the refrigerator, and the furnace?

How could he know the temperature inside the refrigerator without opening the door? That’s when he smiled. As is common with most problems, when you finally ask the right question, it is easy to get the right answer.

Immediately, he went to the local hardware store and bought three indoor-outdoor thermometers—the type with a sensor on the end of a 3 foot wire. In theory, by running the sensor outside a window, a person could read the temperature outside the house without going outside.

He installed the first thermometer to measure the temperature inside the refrigerator inside the freezer box. The second went inside the refrigerated section. The third went to the deep freezer in the utility room.

There was one unexpected consequence to his action. He discovered the deep freeze wasn’t very deep. Instead of being at the recommended zero degrees, it was running at 28 degrees. Eventually, he had to buy a new deep freeze for several hundred dollars.


“Grandpa, what do we do if the refrigerator stops working?”

“Oh, that easy. You get out two bowls and two spoons and find me. Then I’ll help you eat all the ice cream.

“Hey, about me,” said Grandma?

“She’s right. Get three bowls and three spoons.”


Truth in writing section: Grandpa, Grandma, and Sydney are real people, even though the events here are not. The indoor-outdoor thermometers are real. The need to buy a new freezer did happen. Check Consumer Reports. If you don’t have a subscription, get one. It sure beats buying a deep freeze that isn’t very deep.

© 2011 Copyright notice: This story may be reproduced provided it is done in whole and that this notice is included. For additional information, contact erharoldsen(at)

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