If you compare a refrigerator from 100 years ago to today, things don’t look that different. In part 3 we address the barriers to novel refrigerator design and share our process.


Design for a Cooler Tomorrow: Part 3 of 3 - Why Haven't Refrigerators Changed?

Nov 28, 2023

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This is the final part of a 3 part series and heavily references a proposed design in part 2 of our series here.

There have been numerous re-imaginings of what the refrigerator of the future could be (including IDEO’s Future Kitchen Concept for IKEA). The concepts look amazing and make sense in how they would fit in people’s lives. Why hasn’t there been industry adoption of these new ideas?

Changing the way a refrigerator works is more challenging than it seems. In this exploration, we used the technical constraints as inspiration, looking for ways we can work around or within them to craft a vision that is exciting, yet more feasible.

Size Standardization

If you want to build an appliance that has the potential to make an impact in the market, there are a lot of pressures that push toward aligning to a set of size standards. The primary one is that new construction is only a part of the market for new refrigerators, so with a drastically different footprint, the design would not appeal to customers who would be looking to replace a unit in an existing kitchen.

As mentioned earlier, the two factors that define efficiency are insulation and performance efficiency (CoP). By keeping a standard standup rectangular footprint, achieving high levels of insulation is possible, while allowing for ergonomics that allow the user to see and access most items easily. 

This proposed design brings new capabilities to a refrigerator but keeps the standard size for these reasons.

High-Pressure Refrigerant Lines

In this design, we are proposing bringing a hot water heater onto the unit. One might ask why we just make a system that works collaboratively with a standard water heater nearby? Moving heat from the heat pump to the water heater requires running high-pressure refrigerant lines. What this would mean is that installing this refrigerator would require similar skills as installing a central air conditioning unit. This added installation complexity is also what is preventing refrigerators from having outdoor compressors that could increase their efficiency when it is cooler outside. This relatively simple idea has never taken off in the residential market, so our design assumes custom installation of refrigerant lines is off the table, meaning it's a self-contained unit.

Heat Pumps vs. Peltier Devices (Centralized vs. Distributed)

Peltier junctions are devices that when you power them with electric current, they heat one side of the junction and cool the other. These devices are interesting because unlike compressor based heat pumps they can fit in a much smaller footprint and need no moving parts. However, refrigerator systems utilizing Peltier cooling are much less efficient than ones using compressor-based heat pumps. Additionally, they struggle when trying to attain large temperature differentials, so using them to keep something like our cold battery at below 0ºC, would cause their efficiency to be even less ideal.

Because our goal is to reduce carbon emissions, we want to be using the most efficient means of powering our proposed design. Currently, this is a compressor-based heat pump.

Taking the Concept Further

We are putting this idea out into the world because we hope someone takes this and makes it happen. In order to make this a success there are a number of considerations that need to be designed around:

Designing for Planning and Installing

There’s a tension between the size the hot water heater takes up in the fridge and what would be most useful for customers.  The size we are showing in our model is a 33.8 gallon capacity - big enough for 1-2 people, but too small to be for a family. We’d want to understand the pros and cons of a supplementary water heater for kitchen water and how a system might accommodate the various needs of the purchaser. This means not only designing for the end user but understanding needs from plumbers and architects who would be responsible for planning and installing these units.

Designing for Shopping

While many people strive to be as energy efficient as possible, adoption of high efficiency appliances succeeds best when the offering has more emotional resonance. Look at the Nest thermostat - At its core it’s a piece of tech that delivers efficiency by learning. It succeeded because of its beautiful design and intuitive user interface. Communicating savings in dollars can be less compelling than appealing to a desire to be more sustainable. One hypothesis is to equate carbon savings to trees grown (i.e. "The Grove") How well does this resonate? How do we best communicate this value?  

Designing for Client Capabilities

Taking a leap into bundling a water heater with a refrigerator could push many appliance companies outside of their comfort zone.  This is a big change and a big risk to take for a development project.  What ways can we take some of the core ideas, but make a smaller step that can still provide similar value to the customer? One way we imagine this could be to duct the cold air from a currently available heat pump water heater to a radiator channel on the back of the refrigerator. We could still gain efficiency benefits by using the waste cool air from the water heater, but this would require a smaller step for an appliance company to take. The cold battery can still time its power usage to align with peak generation times, and the waste heat it generates can be mitigated by warming up the cold air of a companion water heater. Depending on the capabilities of the client, we would tailor a solution toward their capabilities.

A proposal for a smaller step to efficiency and offsetting peak power usage - ducting the cold air from a water heater over the radiator of the refrigerator. The left volume that was formerly a water heater is now a ducted radiator to connect to an offboard water heater.

Part of the reason we find this space so interesting is that IDEO has expertise in numerous disciplines that are central to the success of a product like this. In addition to engineering and product design expertise, we would tackle a project like this by applying design research, data science, business design and communication design to hone in on an expression of this concept that is right for the market.

Interested in how your products might be redesigned to make a positive climate impact? Let's talk!