Monday, July 27, 2020

Portable Ice Makers

Portable Ice Makers can be useful in certain situations.  It helps to understand how they work.

Americans love their ice.  If you go overseas, some snooty Europeans will mock you for wanting ice in your drink or drinking your beer cold.   But hey, fuck them.   Just because we're an industrialized country and invented the ice business, refrigeration, ice-making, and air-conditioning, doesn't mean they have to be jealous as they sweat all summer long drinking their warm beer.  (And yet, ask a Frenchman for a glass of Champagne, and see if they serve it at room temperature!).

Refrigeration really wasn't a "thing" until the 1800's when wily Yankees got the idea of harvesting ice from frozen lakes in the North and shipping it worldwide.   Ice houses, buried in the ground, would keep ice frozen all summer long, insulated with sawdust.   When my Mom was a kid, the ice man came around (along with the milkman, etc.) bringing a big block of ice for their "icebox" in the kitchen.   If you asked nicely, he would chip off a cool sliver of ice for you to suck on, on a hot summer's day.

But mechanical refrigeration took over in the early part of the 20th Century, at first making ice in ice factories to be delivered to homes, and later on, in the form of the home refrigerator.  Making ice for drinks was a clumsy affair - you needed ice cube trays, usually made of aluminum, and the cubes stuck to the trays half the time.   By the 1960's, you could buy a refrigerator with an ice maker in it, which basically automated the ice-cube-tray deal.  It sort of made white-ish ice cubes, which are OK for kiddie drinks and a glass of lemonade.

But bars and restaurants use commercial ice makers - you see them in hotels at the end of the hall, too.  They are a totally different beast, in that they make clear ice and they don't keep it frozen.  They pass water over a freezing plate, and after a half-inch of ice has formed on the plate, the plate is heated to make the sheet slide off.  It lands on a grid of heated nichrome wires which divide the ice into cubes.   The cubes fall into the bin, where they slowly melt, with the drain water being pumped out by a condensate pump.   They kind of waste water, as you might imagine, although the melting rate is pretty slow, once the bin is full of ice.

Our house came with a home version of a commercial ice machine, and they aren't cheap.  They also require regular maintenance - buildup of lime from the water eventually will kill them, which is one reason I eventually had to replace mine.  The new one has a reminder light telling you when to clean it with the special lime-removal fluid.  Once you have clear ice, it is hard to go back to those semi-circular white cubes.  It just isn't the same!

Many years ago, a friend gave us a portable ice maker, like the one shown above, but much larger.  Back then, they were close to $200 apiece - sometimes more - and were real counter hogs.    We used it down by the lake to make ice, as there was no plumbing there (just lake water).  We had to bring jugs of fresh water to fill it.

These machines are sort of like commercial ice makers, only they don't drain off the meltwater, but recycle it to make more ice.  When turned on, the machine cycles.   A small pan of water is mounted on a hinge.   A pump fills the pan from the reservoir until it overflows (the overflow goes back to the reservoir).    A refrigerated plate with a number of prongs (e.g., 9) on it, is immersed in the pan.  The compressor starts and these prongs get cold, forming ice on them.   In a few minutes (as few as six) nine little bullet-shaped ice "cubes" are formed.   The compressor then shuts off and the prongs are heated, causing the cubes to fall off into the little pan.   The pan then tips over and dumps the cubes into a tray and a mechanical shovel forces them up into the ice cube bin, with the leftover water draining into the reservoir again.   The process continues until the machine runs out of water or the bin overflows with cubes.

The machine uses a conductive sensor to detect if there is water in it, so distilled water usually won't work - the "add water" light will come on.  A temperature probe tells if the bin is full, so it helps to push the ice to the front of the bin, or the machine will shut off prematurely.

The cubes are white ice, not clear, which isn't as nice as clear cubes for a number of reasons, the first and foremost being that they seem to melt fast in a drink.  You have to use a lot of them!

The machine should be left on all the time, unless you are going away for a week or so.   One mistake I see people making is turning these machines off after they've made enough ice for one drink.   If left sitting for a few days, with the water inside at room temperature, bacteria in the water (which is present in all drinking water) will do funky things and create a smell or mold or whatever.    If you are going to shut the machine off, you have to be sure to drain it and dry it out.   It is easier to just let it keep running.

Online, you see reviews of these machines, and like with portable air conditioners, people just don't understand how they work, which is why they can be easily ripped-off..  Operator error is not the fault of the machine.   It would be like a review you read where someone says, "This new Chevy is no good, I put it on "cruise control" and it drove right into a tree!" - the user not understanding that cruise control doesn't steer the car for you (yet).   The same is true of portable air conditioners - people think you can plug them in and they will "make cold" without exhausting the waste heat somewhere.    There is no such thing in Physics as "cold" - only the absence of heat.   But in layman's terms, any air conditioner or refrigerator will produce more heat for every amount of "cold" it makes - and that heat has to be rejected somewhere, or everything just gets hotter and hotter.

And these portable ice makers are no exception.  If you place one in a small closet or cabinet or other enclosed space, that space will heat up to the point where the ice will all melt.  People don't understand that.

Many reviewers also complain that the machine won't keep the ice frozen.   Again, this is more like a commercial ice machine, where ice is continuously made and continuously melts.   If you leave the machine on all the time, there is always ice in it (provided you keep adding water to it as you use the ice).   Karen buys one of these machines, has it make nine ice cubes and then shuts it off and wonders why, an hour later, there is no ice in it!   It must be broken!   What a ripoff!   Shut up, Karen!

It reminds me of a review I saw online about a thermoelectric ice chest sold by Coleman.  Ours is 10 years old and works just fine.  But thermoelectric refrigerators are pretty weak and only cool down to 30 degrees below ambient.  You need to run them for a day to cool down things, or make sure the things you put in them are already cold.  Once cold, it will keep them cold.   But again, Karen decided to load it up with two cases of warm soda and then plug it in ten minutes after the little league game started, and wondered why a machine that runs on 12 volts can't instantly chill 48 cans of soda-pop to near-freezing temperatures.   We have raised a generation of helpless idiots in a technological world.

I am not meaning to take a piss on the Karens of the world - there are plenty of Kevins out there as well.   But it is disturbing to me that so many people in the world today have strong opinions about things they don't understand, and what's more they have no inclination to want to understand or learn, and posit that being uneducated about things is actually superior, because only lower-class people understand technology, and the Karens and Kevins of the world were born to the corner office and some management job.

These are the kind of people who are against nuclear power because they think the power plant will blow up like Hiroshima.  Granted, there are logical arguments to be made - largely today the cost of such plants, which never pay for themselves, or the nuclear waste problem, or the issue of meltdowns when the reserve water supply is interrupted.   They are against nuclear power - but for all the wrong reasons.   It is sort of like 20-something white kids from the suburbs trying to tell me what it is like to be black, because they know, by dint of being "woke" and having gone to college.  Maybe they are "right" - but for all the wrong reasons.

But I digress.

When we sold the lake house, the new owners wanted the ice machine (and half the furniture) so we sold it to them.  A lot easier than moving stuff!   But in the camper, we have had to use ice bags to either make ice, or buy bags of ice, which at $2.00 to $2.50 a bag, gets expensive over time, and inconvenient, if there is no retail store nearby.  So we thought about a portable ice maker.

Since the old days, they have gotten cheaper and smaller (thank you, China!).   Today, they have a footprint about the size of a legal pad (remember those?) and cost about $99 at WalMart.   They make them under a number of different brand names, but they all look exactly the same.   Amazon sells the same damn thing for $150.   Score:  Walmart 1, Bezos 0.   While they claim to draw only 2 amps (200 watts) they will not work on the 400 Watt inverter on our truck, as the inrush current for the compressor is too much for the inverter.  So the idea of making ice and mixing martinis while driving down the road is out - probably a bad idea, anyway.

Are they a good value?   Well, at $2.50 for a bag of ice, it will pay for itself after it's made 40 bags of ice.  Most ice is sold in ten pound bags, and this machine can make "up to" 26 pounds a day.  So in about 20 days, it could pay for itself.  But I think convenience is the real deal.  While the machine will keep its little basket full of cubes if you leave it on, Karen,  ice from the store needs to be stored in the freezer, or left to slowly melt in an ice bucket.   In our camper, the freezer is a lot larger than in our old camper, but a ten-pound bag of ice still takes up about 1/4 the space.

Of course, it still requires electricity, and we are going "off the grid" for a few weeks, so we may go back to using ice bags then (the refrigerator runs on gas).

As an economic proposition, these ice makers are not a very good one.  The payback, versus buying ice, is still pretty long.  For home use, you are better off installing an icemaker kit in your refrigerator.  They are not hard to install - I've done it myself at our old condo in Florida.   They even have a device that taps off the water line under the sink, so you don't have to dick around with the plumbing too much.  And an icemaker kit for a standard refrigerator is cheap and most refrigerators today - even the simple two-door ones -  are pre-wired for the icemaker, even if they didn't come with one.

But if you have a camp, a boat, or a camper, and have electricity but not a standard refrigerator, these kind of icemakers can be convenient and less hassle than dragging bags of ice along.   And really, the darn thing doesn't weigh much more than a bag of ice, really.  As an added bonus, it does keep the camper warm on cold nights - or at least takes the chill off - as it does produce a modest amount of heat.

We bought the "Frigidaire" model from WalMart, although we looked online (a lot!) and saw them advertised in a number of colors and under a number of brands at a number of price points - but they all looked identical.   I am not sure it is worth paying $20 more for a red one, although we saw a baby-blue one on sale at a WalMart for $55 (returned) but it was gone by the time we got there (damn!).  $99 seems to be the lowest price.  WalMart seems to be the place to get them - not all stores carry them in stock, and they may be a seasonal item (probably going on sale, soon).

Frigidaire, of course, used to be owned by my alma mater, General Motors.   The brand is now owned by Electrolux, apparently, which oddly enough owns (among other things) Dometic, which makes the stove, the gas refrigerator, the air conditioner, the awning, and God-knows-what-else on our camper.  Busy folks, those Swedes.

In Roman times, they had elaborate bathhouses, where you could sit in what we call a sauna, but they called a Caldarium.   Once you were hot enough, you could cool down in the Frigidarium which was a cool room or bath, or lounge in the Tepidarium, where the temperatures were temperate.  I had always assumed that "Frigidaire" was a portmanteau of "Frigid" and "Air" but perhaps it is a nod to our Roman forebears.

All that being said, they are not a product for everyone.  While they may start to make ice in as little as six minutes, they won't make mountains of it - but more than enough for two people, provided you leave it on......