Playing It Cool: My First-Hand Experience with a Freezer Full of Meat during an Extended Power Outage

One reason people may be reluctant to buy in bulk is the fear that if the power goes out and their freezer stops running, they’ll lose all that food (and money). When doing the research for There’s a Cow in My Freezer, I’d read that, if kept closed, a reasonably full chest freezer should keep its contents frozen for at least 48–72 hours. It sounded reassuring on paper, but last month I got to see if that’s actually how things work in the real world.


Why chest freezers stay colder longer

A standard refrigerator freezer will keep food frozen for 24–48 hours, depending on how full it is. But standalone chest freezers can keep their contents frozen for quite a bit longer. They have two key advantages:

1) Their top-loading design is superior to the front-loading design of fridge freezers or upright freezers when it comes to keeping cold air in.

2) They tend to operate at a lower temperature than fridge freezers. A fridge freezer is usually set to about 0° F, give or take a few degrees. Chest freezers, on the other hand, often sit at about -5° F to -10° F. This lower temperature buys some extra time when the power goes out.

In addition, if you own a chest freezer because you buy meat in bulk, it’s important to know that those solid hunks of meat will stay frozen longer than, say, a package of frozen veggies or baked goods. A chest freezer should keep its contents frozen a minimum of 48–72 hours, although that can vary based on how full it is and the ambient temperature.

 

What to do if the power goes out

During an outage that you either know or suspect will last more than a few hours, it’s important to keep your chest freezer closed. This prevents the chilled air from escaping. The only time you should open the freezer is to put in dry ice. Personally, I wouldn’t bother opening it to add regular ice unless the outage has exceeded 72 hours and you can’t get any dry ice. You should also cover the freezer with blankets to help insulate it. (Be sure to either unplug the freezer or keep a close eye on the power, because once a freezer covered in blankets starts running again, it can’t dissipate its heat and will quickly become a fire hazard.) If you can, keep the garage, basement, or other room in which the freezer resides as cold as possible.

 

My experience

I’d learned all this when buying my chest freezer (and had been reminded of it again while doing research for and writing the book), but I’d never had a chance to really test out this advice. In the many years I’ve been buying meat by the animal and running a chest freezer, I’ve only experienced a few very short-lived power outages (four or five hours at the most). But in mid-February, Portland was gripped by an ice storm of historic proportions that downed over 8,000 power lines and left more than 300,000 people without power. I lost power at 9:00 p.m. on Sunday, February 14 (a fabulous way to end Valentine’s Day) and didn’t get it back until a little after 4:00 p.m. on Tuesday, February 16 — a hair over 43 hours.

When the power went out, my 8.8 cubic foot chest freezer was about 2/3 full. It held about 110 pounds of meat (mostly pork and lamb, as I was scheduled to get my next 1/8 beef at the end of February), plus some packages of frozen veggies and quite a bit of homemade bone broth. I immediately covered the freezer in blankets. I didn’t have any heavy wool blankets, which would have been ideal, so I used a yoga mat, two fleece blankets, and a medium-weight down comforter. I live in an apartment and keep my chest freezer in my home office, so unfortunately it didn’t get the benefit of being in a basement or uninsulated garage, which would have kept it colder longer. But even so, without any heat source, my apartment stayed at a chilly 49–53° F, which likely helped.

I had no idea how long the power would be out for, but considering the massive scale of the outage, I figured it would be a long time. I wasn’t too worried Monday; surely the contents of my freezer would be fine for at least a day. But by Tuesday I was getting anxious. Not only did that freezer contain hundreds of dollars of food, it also represented part of my identity. So many people know me as “the lady with a freezer full of animals,” and I’d even written a book about buying in bulk because I truly believe it’s a better way to eat. But if I lost a freezer full of meat during this power outage, would I really have the heart to continue buying this way? Could I continue to promote the book and advocate for buying in bulk with a clear conscience? Silly as it may sound, there was more riding on the outcome of this power outage than meat.

On Tuesday morning I tried calling around to see if I could find any dry ice, but of course every place I checked was already out of stock. Because the outages were spotty and many places still had power, I called around to see if I could rent walk-in freezer space, but the handful of butchers I spoke with didn’t offer that service.

In the end, I decided to trust my own research and just ride it out. When the power came back on, 43 hours after it went out, I flung off the blankets and immediately opened the freezer to assess the damage, scared of what I might find. The topmost layer of packages had a small amount of frost buildup, but everything was still frozen very, very solid. I’d estimate that things would have stayed frozen for at least another 48 hours. It was a huge relief, both monetarily and existentially.

(I later found out that during the outage my hairdresser was without power for six days. She also has a small chest freezer, which happened to contain, among other items, a 20-pound turkey. Thanks to that big bird and the energy-efficient design of a chest freezer, everything stayed frozen except a package of hamburger patties. Pretty impressive!)

 

Getting a generator

Obviously, things could have turned out differently if the outage happened at the height of summer or if it had dragged on for days. I acknowledge that in many ways I was fortunate, especially when I consider the catastrophic outages Texas experienced. Buying meat in bulk is a big upfront investment (both in terms of money and your health), and it’s important to protect that investment.

If you buy meat in bulk, and especially if you live in an area prone to extended power outages, you should consider buying a generator. A small one should be enough, since chest freezers aren’t electricity hogs. After my experience, I decided to buy a portable Honda generator, the size and shape of a chunky briefcase and weighing less than 50 pounds. Even in my small urban living space I have room to store and run it, should the need arise. Generators aren’t cheap, but they provide enormous peace of mind. If you can afford one and have even a small space outside to run one, I highly recommend getting a generator so that you can power your freezer (as well as your refrigerator and all sorts of other useful things) during an outage.

But even if buying a generator isn’t feasible in your particular situation, I want to assure you — based on my research and, now, first-hand experience — that your chest freezer will do an excellent job of keeping your food safely frozen when the power goes out.


For more information about choosing and maintaining a freezer, check out Chapter 4 of There’s a Cow in My Freezer.

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