Ron's Notes on How to Build Your Own Walk-in Cooler
Below are some links to other folks that have put up links to making a walk-in cooler.
- Kentucky State University offers specific home-built cooler plans using stick-built construction. We are calculating that now well over 1000 people that WE know about have used their plans to make a CoolBot Cooler. We love KSU! I do recommend using 1.5 inches of poly-isocyanurate insulation instead of the 3/4 of an inch recommended in the article. That's not to say the article isn't great! they are right on with meeting industry standards, it's a GREAT plan. But doing a bit more does save electricity and pay off in the long run. For coolers that don't get a lot of public action the other change that quite a few people have made is to switch the rigid polyisocyanurate foam insulation to the INSIDE of the cooler instead of the outside of the walls. This saves you another layer of plywood because it can serve as the inside walls (and then you break even on costs, even though you are doubling insulation!) Also it minimizes condensation on the inside of the walls if you DO get air infiltration from outside. These changes are not necessary, the plans are great as they are, but this is a very simple change to make for folks without publicly accessible coolers.
- Pack N'Cool CoolBot Trailer Instructions write-up from North Carolina State. This is beautiful -- check out the lower left hand side of the website for links to detailed construction plans and budgets... So well done. I think we have been getting as many requests for trailer-coolers as room coolers lately, and this will certainly help a LOT of people.
Direct link is here: http://plantsforhumanhealth.ncsu.edu/2012/08/17/%E2%80%9Cpack-%E2%80%98n-cool%E2%80%9D-provides-farmers-with-mobile-refrigeration-solution/
- Another absolutely wonderful site done by a coolbot Customer for how to built a cooler on a TRAILER can be found here:
- A Restaurant in Maine built one of the tightest coolers I've ever seen. Materials for the walk in were about $3,000, the AC was $400, and of course the CoolBot is $299. It's a terrific write-up! Plenty of people have hacked together cheaper coolers (including me) but these folks really didn't waste a dime. It's all in better materials and wall finishes that many people skip in non-restaurant coolers. It's outstanding!:
Maine Restaurant Cooler Build write-up
Please keep in mind that these sites were not put up by someone that makes any money from cooler building (like we do!). They just wanted to share their experiences. PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE do not contact them to ask questions as it can be overwhelming and then they'll ask us to take these down. There's already a lot of info in there!
** Vapor Barrier Note **
Before we get to the actual article, I want to highlight one thing, and that's VAPOR BARRIERS in home-built walk-in coolers. Although we discourage people to build with fiberglass insulation, lots of you still do, and a professor at KSU has designed a coolbot cooler I link to above that is sort of a hybrid that mostly uses fiberglass insulation and his design is REALLY good. But you can't change or subtract from what he did (you can add, though!). The biggest issue is the VAPOR BARRIER.
As you are building your cooler, imagine that there is a constant spray of water against the OUTSIDE wall of your cooler. low pressure, but constant -- shooting straight sideways. You can't see it, but that's exactly what's going to be happening. Warm air OUTSIDE your cooler contains more moisture than the cold air INSIDE your cooler. This is even true for those of you in Phoenix, AZ! In a normal house, you put a vapor barrier on the INSIDE of the house, and so that's what lots of people do when they are building their coolers. Big mistake!
Use a continuous sheet of polyethylene (carpenters plastic from Home Depot). And when you are putting it up on (between the outside air and the fiberglass insulation) just keep thinking about that CONSTANT side-ways water-spray and protect against that. The KSU document has you put up rigid foam insulation on the outside of the carpenter's plastic and I think he even has you caulk the seams. That's GREAT! Do that! We have to stop that water from getting into the fiberglass.
Okay, that's all... Now onto the regular article :-)
Notes on Home-Built Walk-in Coolersby Ron Khosla
If you're reading this article, you probably fit into one of two groups. The first group has basic building skills and won't think twice about putting up a new shed or barn. Those folks just want to know how much and with what to insulate the walls, what to do about the doors and floors and how to deal with the high humidity levels levels found in the cool fall night that will be your walk-in-cooler's perpetual reality. The second group has very little building experience, but can't afford a “real” walk-in box. They need a primer on everything from how to put down a concrete slab to basic framing and roofing questions – and then they get to all the same questions the first group has.
There are plenty of great basic-building resources already out there at (library, Internet, hardware store) on how to build small shed-type structures, so this article won't cover basic building techniques. Instead we'll focus on what's specific to making and inexpensive but energy-efficient walk-in-cooler box. Once you understand the basic concepts, you can apply them to whatever size and type of building appeals to you most.
If you don't have a lot of building experience (or even if you do!) you might find that starting out with a pre-built shed, box trailer, shipping container, or even just the inside corner of your barn or garage might be a huge time and money saver. These structures are already structurally sound and weather-tight and just need to be cooler-customized.
Cooler Placement and the Roof
You know how in the middle of summer it's so much more comfortable in the shade rather than out in the hot sun in the middle of your field? It's the same with your cooler, except instead of dripping sweat, a cooler sitting out in the sun drips dollars – lots of them each month of the summer you keep it in operation! Site your cooler inside an existing building, under a tree, on the north-side of a barn, or build a shading overhang onto an existing structure. If none of those are possible, then at least make sure you have a ventilated shading roof on the cooler box. Because coolers are so small, it's not difficult to build a flat roof that is still structurally sound in wind, rain and snow loads. Because insulation is so expensive, people tend to build flat tops to save money, which makes sense, but they would save even more money if they added a ventilated shading roof overhanging the structure to shield it from the sun.
People in colder climates tend to put lots of extra insulation in the ceiling of their coolers. In a house, heat rises and that's why we put twice as much insulation in the roof as the walls. But in here we're building a box to keep cold in –and cold just sinks. Keep your cooler roof out of direct sunlight and you can put the same insulation in the roof as you did in the walls and you'll save money both in construction and long-term operating costs.
Two fundamental concepts to remember when building your cooler are that cold sinks and water falls. It sounds obvious, but again and again I get calls from folks with converted box trailers or structures built up on decks that did such a great job insulating the walls and roof but then put nothing or half as much in their floor! Perched floors need at least as much and preferably more insulation in the the floor as in the walls.
If you're building on a concrete slab (or dirt floor) and plan to stay above 45 degrees then insulating the floor will never pay. For folks down at 40F... there's a bit of an argument for insulating the floor, especially depending on your region. For folks in the 30's, you really need to insulate that floor. Even just 2 inches makes such a big difference.
Whether you're building up on an existing trailer deck (or above a basement) or on a slab you do NOT need to frame out a floor. Save yourself time and money by just putting rigid foam insulation down flat on the floor and covering it with plywood. The plywood spreads the load out enough over the rigid foam that even after 10 years both our foam still looks fine. Studding out a floor is not only slow, but fitting insulation between the studs generally leaves leaks and allows for thermal bridging through the framing studs. Save time, save money and do a better job -- how often does that happen!
When we built our first cooler we put a vinyl floor product on plywood thinking it would protect it. The vinyl has long since disappeared – it just couldn't hold up to the mud and gravel abuse we exposed it to. The plywood underneath, however, still looks fine since no water sits on it.
Which leads to... “Water Falls”! Cold air, like a cold heart, leaves no space for love. When you open the door of your cooler and the warmer, more water-vapor-laden air comes whooshing in, within moments it sadly suffers the pangs of rejection and condenses in tears on the cold heartless walls of your cooler. To make matters worse (or better if you think misery loves company) most farmers spray off their veggies, so they are already dripping wet as they're coming into the cooler. Kate and I actually bring the garden hose into our cooler and regularly “spritz” the veggies inside during the week – and give it a full spray to clean it out after each distribution. So... water falls, and it needs to go somewhere. If your floor is tilted towards the door even just the littlest bit it will drain our right quick in a lovely waterfall! Don't forget to site your structure so the water has someplace to go once it leaves the front door. If your building on a trailer or a deck-type floor, this is obviously easy to do. If you're pouring a new slab, just build it above grade a bit and put your form-work a barely noticeable “off-level” towards the door.
Because we have an untreated wood floor under our cooler, we put three layers of carpenter plastic between the styrofoam and our top layer of plywood. Some people happily report using single pond liners instead. We stretched the plastic out into a “bathtub floor” that goes up the walls a couple inches where it's gathered under “Roof Edge” that is screwed about 3 inches up from the floor all the way around the wall like metal baseboard trim. We caulked the entire top of the Roof Edge so the water dripping off the walls won't slip between the plastic and the wall and pool up under the floor. Roof Edge is cheap and available in the flashing and roofing sections of all the big box grocery stores.
use Fiberglass insulation! I know there are people out there
who've done it and seem happy but inside, they are not happy at all
and you might want to tell them that. What's happened with them is
that (even with a very good vapor barrier) moisture laden warm air
from outside somehow found it's way into their walls where it
condensed back into drops of liquid on the cool inner wall of their
cooler. It saturated the fiberglass batts, reducing the insulation
value and ultimately growing a goth-style black mold which dragged
down both the spirit and loft of the fiberglass even further until
they have whole areas of their walls with gaps in the insulation. If
they have a small enough cooler and big enough compressor then it
will still stay cold, fooling them into thinking they are happy, but
they could be buying several packs of expensive clove cigarettes and
black eyeliner each week with the money they'd be saving if they had
sprung for the higher-cost rigid foam insulation to begin with.
We get a LOT of calls from people telling us just what we know, so... save yourself money, time and heartache and avoid using fiberglass insulation
I have two minor suggestions:
*-OR- If you want to use fiberglass insulation (and it does save money!), then use the excellent plans I link to above from Kentucky State University. This is a hybrid system where the rigid foam is protecting the water in the air from condensing inside the walls!! It's a brilliant solution for folks that are more comfortable with stick-frame construction and want to save a little bit of money (plus the plans are very detailed.)
1) Use more rigid foam insulation. What he recommends is great, but adding 3/4 of an inch of extra foam (so you have a total of 1.5 inches instead of 3/4 of an inch) will save considerable money over the long run. 2) A question I get, and it's fine, is "Can I put the rigid foam insulation on the INSIDE of the cooler rather than the outside?" And the answer is YES! But then absolutely you *must* use more rigid foam insulation than just 3/4 of an inch. If it's on the inside, make sure you have at least 1.5 inches -- and don't skimp on the tightness of your vapor barrier on the OUTSIDE. (You could also do 3/4 on the outside and 3/4 on the inside -- and then if you are a bit sloppy on your vapor barrier outside it's not so bad)
** If you put the foam on the inside, you can skip the inner layer of plywood that is recommended in the plans. You'll see that lots of folks in the pictures we posted on the website have done exactly that. If it's not a cooler that is going to get abused or have little kids taking a knife to the walls... or harsh employees, this is a great way to save money -- well... you'll actually break even, because you'll save the money on the plywood, but then you'll spend it on the extra foam insulation. But it's worth it!
I have two minor suggestions:
The industry standard for walk-in coolers is 4" of rigid foam insulation. R-values vary based on different kinds of foam and the age of the foam but you should try for at least R20 in your floors, wall and ceiling. Going up to R30 will save even more money especially if you are keeping your cooler at 40 or below. It's probably not financially worth it to insulate above that. With rigid foam insulation vapor barriers aren't necessary.
There are three types of rigid foam insulation and the cost and availability seems to vary around the country:
Pink or Blue polyurethane is rigid and strong the first choice for floors loses a significant percentage of it's insulating value over the first 5 years. After that it stays stable. While it's the best choice for a floor, unless it's cheap in your area it's probably not the best choice for the walls. Make sure to use at least 4 inches of this material in walls, floor an ceiling and you'll be fine. It comes in 4x8 sheets.
Grey or yellow "polyisocyanurate" insulation also comes in 4x8 sheets and it's a better choice for the walls and ceiling but a bit soft for the floor. It's usually foil backed on one side (foil goes to the hot outside) in Lowe's or Home Depot. This product can be a bit irritating to skin so wear long sleeves when you install it. Four inches would be ideal here.
White Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) is the “older” (it was actually discovered back in 1839!) white beaded insulation that packing peanuts, some plug trays and 1970's bean-bags are made of. It's manufactured as a by-product of gasoline refining so it's often the cheapest insulation you can find on a per-inch basis. It won't ever off-gass or break down for thousands of years but it has less of an insulating value per inch so if you decide to go with EPS make it 5-6 inches thick instead of four and you'll be in great shape.
A practical and affordable solution in some parts of the country is spray-in-place foam insulation. This is usually professionally applied and it's a polyurethane product and it's blown against a wall or between the studs of an existing building. Here in NY, grungy male farmers who happen to be suffering from tree-allergies and sneezing into their shirts will find that this stuff is cost-prohibitive at over twice the price of the rigid foam products. But if you happen to be a more attractive neighboring female farmer, the same company might spray-insulate your 12x20 cooler for around $100. Go figure. Folks living in the midwest seem to be finding prices are neither gender specific or prohibitive, so check with your local spray-foam installer. Spray foam applications can turn leaky barns or pre-built sheds into tight, respectable well-insulated walk-ins and require no time or skill. Don't be fooled by the high insulating values some installers quote. They aren't accurate (they use "equivalent values" based on the leakage in fiberglass insulated structures). Insist on getting a full four inches of spray foam if you'll be keeping your cooler at 40 or below and at least three inches if you'll be keeping it at higher temperatures.
One note about basement coolers. I get a lot of calls from people that insist that they are building in an underground basement with concrete walls, so they don't need insulation. Here in NY the average underground temperature is about 52 degrees. At my parents house in Virginia it's closer to 62. The insulation value of a concrete block basement wall is about 1/20th that of standard cooler insulation. So... if you want you room to be 52-62 degrees, then, you're right! You don't need insulation. But if you want it to be 40 degrees, you can get there but you'll constantly be spilling your “cold” through the walls into ground which is pretty silly. Building a cooler in the basement is a fine idea (though access can be annoying) but you still need to insulate it!
BUILD IT TIGHT
For folks that have access to spray foam, this is really easy. For the rest of us, it can be a bit of a challenge. Building your walk-in cooler air-tight is just as important as the amount of insulation you put it! The bigger the temperature difference between the inside and outside air the FASTER your expensive cold air flies out even the tiniest cracks and seams between insulation sheets, under the door, around the air conditioner and in every corner. Buy several bottles of spray foam and caulk and apply it to every corner and seams even if you don't see a noticeable gap. It takes less time and makes more of a difference than you might think!
Don't cut your insulation up and fit it between the studs! Not only will you invariably leave a few gaps and holes, no matter how careful you are polyisocyanurate shrinks a bit over time, making your kids think you were a sloppy builder when they re-build the cooler 15 years down the road because the cooler costs too much to keep cool! EPS doesn't shrink but it's still better to use the full 4x8 sheets of whatever insulation product you buy and tack up on the outside of the studs. None of the big box stores sell rigid foam insulation 4 inches thick, but you can use that to your advantage. Buy two layers of 2 inch foam and overlap the seams to keep things sealed up.
I've seen really beautiful home-made doors that do an excellent job, but unless you've got great building skills, I don't recommend it. It's cheaper and faster to buy a standard pre-hung insulated exterior door. This is because the key to the door is that it seals up tight and that's not so easy to get right! If you leave the smallest gap in your door, much of the effort you put into insulating and sealing up the rest of your structure will be wasted. Glue another layer of 2" rigid foam to the inside of the door (it'll break down in the sun on the outside). You also have to remove the bottom metal piece of the pre-hung doors so it doesn't dam up the water inside your cooler (and that means you have to cut the sides of the door down so the bottom stays flush against the floor. Since you are now mounting the door flush against the floor do make sure your door opens to the outside world or it will scrape and stop against your inner floor. Obviously you need to make sure that your cooler is up a bit from the surrounding ground level so the door can swing outwards freely - but you'll have done that anyway so the water drains out!
INNER AND OUTER SHEATHING
Many people just leave the exposed insulation on the inside of their coolers. If you don't have employees and you're careful, that's fine. We have aggressively destructive employees and our cooler is open to a public I seriously suspect to be drunk most of the time by the way they ransack the place so our inner walls are sheathed with $7/sheets of "OSB board." We could have used plywood, it was just more expensive. There are proper, water-proof inner cooler siding materials but they are over $1/square foot and our neighbor built his walk-in cooler in 1985 with OSB board he painted with white porch paint and it's still completely solid 24 years later!
If your cooler is built inside an existing structure you don't need to sheath it, but if it's outside, it has to be protected from the sun or the insulation will start to break down. On our second cooler, we ripped cheap half-inch 4x8 sheets of “CDX” plywood into 1x8 foot strips to make home-grown overlapped siding! We live in a registered historic district and we are often in trouble with the village elders for not taking their “hysterical” district as seriously as we should, but our cheap plywood siding solution (properly stained a dull green) apparently looks nice enough from the road that it's one thing no one has ever bugged us about!
Building your own cooler can be much more cost-effective than buying a ready-made cooler box and since you can add extra insulation, the extra time you put in building it can also pay off in long-term energy savings down the road.
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