They work, but is it worth it?
August 23, 2012 12:25 PM   Subscribe

Looking to buy an old gas stove and old electric chest freezer (pre-60's). Advice wanted!

Wondering if mefites out there have advice about what to look for and what questions to ask when I go visit the seller, plus the pros and cons of owning these dinosaurs. (I understand efficiency is a more of problem with appliances from the '60s-90's, something friends with antique appliances confirm.)

I have been looking for an antique stove for a few years now. Incidentally, while searching craigslist for a freezer I came across BOTH for $50 (the owner just wants to pay someone to get them out of his house).

I figure if it works out, we can make a profit by selling our old stove; if it doesn't we can probably still make a profit by selling these for more than we paid for them. My husband, of course, is skeptical, seeing as he'll be the one helping move the tank(s), and he doesn't want to get sucked in a big time-waster.

(And we're on a time-limit, since 15 chickens need to be in a freezer--old or otherwise--tomorrow evening)
posted by katyh to Technology (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I would never trust my food to a 50 year old compressor that may fail spectacularly and unexpectedly at any time, with no parts available anywhere.

The right kind of old stove (Wedgewood and their ilk) on the other hand, can be really great appliances, and there is a dedicated community to keep them running, or at least there were several wedgewood specialists in the Bay Area. I still miss the one we had in an old apartment.
posted by rockindata at 12:29 PM on August 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you're patient, willing to hunt for parts, can work on the stove yourself, and can go without during breakdowns (or can afford a top-of-the-line model in very good condition) this might be worthwhile.

We recently junked our ailing 1950's Royal Rose after several breakdowns (pilot light refusing to stay lit, not lighting the burners when it was lit, controls deteriorating.) The kicker came when the oven control no longer controlled the temperature, and we were unable to find a replacement or anyone who was willing to try to repair the existing one.

The oven itself was inefficient and baked unevenly, too. Overall, I'm much happier with our comparatively ugly but reliable 2011 Kenmore range.
posted by ryanshepard at 12:39 PM on August 23, 2012

Consider the size of modern dishes. I fell in love with a house almost entirely because I loved its spectacular antique stove. However, the oven was tiny. I would never have been able to cook at Thanksgiving turkey.

(I ended up not buying that house, but I still think of how adorable that stove was.)
posted by 26.2 at 12:49 PM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Old stoves are in a class of items like clawfoot bathtubs and pianos -- on one hand valuable, but on the other hand often given away for little or nothing simply because of the difficulty of moving them.

That said, I have an old O'Keefe & Merritt stove that I'm obsessed with. It's built like a tank and with very occasional maintenance has been completely reliable. I would suggest buying a brand like Wedgewood or O'Keefe & Merritt where parts are relatively available. When looking at the stove, make sure everything's there. Little parts like knobs, burner grates, and so on can be expensive if you can even find them. Also, be aware that modern stoves are generally 30" wide, wheras older stoves are usually 36" or 48" wide.

While I have an old stove, I don't know that I'd go for an old freezer or refrigerator. Not only are modern fridges/freezer much, much more efficient, but you don't have to defrost them. I'm old enough to have lived in houses with freezers that needed to be defrosted, and I'm glad it's a chore that's gone the way of rotary phones.
posted by zombiedance at 1:11 PM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

The stove seems potentially useful, the chest freezer not at all. New chest freezers are not terribly expensive and you will pay more than their value in electricity in a few seasons of use, depending on your electricity costs. The only reason I would own and operate an old chest freezer (pre-EnergyStar) would be if it lived outdoors and I lived in a really cold climate, so that it wasn't actually operating for most of the year, or if I was only ever using it for a short period of time each year (e.g. "deer freezer"). Those are about the only circumstances I can think of where it wouldn't make sense to immediately get rid of it.

So that's a definite 'no', unless you are just freezing these chickens on their way to something else, and aren't going to be storing them there. But even then, if the refrigeration system in the old freezer lets go, it'll probably be impossible to get parts for it, and it may be impossible to even get coolant, depending on whether it uses R-12 or R-22. (Or R-11, in which case forget it.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:18 PM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

You really don't want a 50+ year old freezer. They are very inefficient compared to newer models (EnergyStar says you'll save $100+ per year in electricity costs by switching from a pre-1980 model to a new model, I'm sure a pre-1960 model would be much more). The owner wants it gone because it needs to go to the dump and he'd rather you do it than deal with the hassle himself!
posted by ssg at 1:24 PM on August 23, 2012

Thanks, everyone for all the cautionary advice. (ssg, from what I understand the pre-1960s freezers are actually more efficient than the 70's/80's freezers, because of the defroster, or lack thereof--as zombiedance pointed out, you have to defrost the old ones manually--and because of the position of the compressor on top instead of underneath.)

This is something I'll need to research a bit more before making a hasty purchase on a chicken deadline! Thanks especially to you who suggested brands with replacement parts still available.

On a side note, how often can we expect to replace a new freezer? Is the 5 to 10-year life expectancy for real?
posted by katyh at 2:11 PM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would check the seals on the freezer. If you can close the door on a dollar bill, and pull the bill out, then the seal is not working well enough at that spot to keep cold air from leaking out. Why pay good money to cool off the room the freezer is in, rather than your food?

If the seals seem tight, and the compressor sounds like it's running ok, then it would certainly work to keep food cold, but you're still going to be creating a larger carbon footprint than you would if you used a modern, efficient freezer.

I might ask the person getting rid of it if they could plug it in a couple of hours before you come to look at it, so you can gauge whether or not it's really working. But for $50, they probably won't want to be bothered. (?)

P.S. You can still buy manual defrost freezers! I have one just a couple of years old. It's much more efficient than a frost-free one, because it doesn't temporarily heat up my food at regular intervals. Less freezer burn, more yummy food getting my mouth. I maybe defrost it twice a year, which isn't that big a deal, and helps me remember to clean out the old stuff in there. But this is a second standalone freezer in the basement that doesn't see as much activity as the frost-free one attached to the refrigerator.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 2:52 PM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Data point: my mom has had a relatively modern standalone not-frost-free freezer for ~14 years. She bought it used, and I think the folks she bought it from may have bought it used. So 5-10 year life expectancy for new ones doesn't sound right to me.
posted by needs more cowbell at 4:06 PM on August 23, 2012

The stove should be fine.

The fridge/freezer not so much. I find the idea that the 50+ year old ones are MORE efficient to be suspect at best. If they were so efficient, why don't they just make them that way now? It's not like motor and insulation technology has gotten worse over the years. It sounds like the kind of thing grandpas with 60 year old refrigerators for sale would say.
posted by gjc at 7:03 PM on August 23, 2012

gjc, just more efficient than the 70's-early 90's ones, not modern ones.

I would find it interesting to read some data about life expectancy, reliability, AND energy efficiency of modern freezers and pre-60's freezers. If the life expectancy of a new freezer is 10 years (which needsmorecowbell says may not be quite right), is it really more environmentally friendly? Are these supposedly expiring-in-a-decade chests always being recycled or are they filling landfills?

I think probably the folks with 60-year-old chest freezers in their basement are just keeping them because they work fine and only cost $4 a month or so more in electricity than a new one (that's what my friend with one says)--it would not be worth it for them to drag it upstairs and to a dump. It appealed to me because I would rather get a freezer I never have to replace again, but of course there's no guarantee of that. Just because it's worked for 60 years, doesn't mean it will for another 60.

Sorry to thread sit, but this is a very interesting topic to me. I like buying things I can repair indefinitely, not things I may have to replace in 20 years.

But it's all moot, since we bought a "new" used one this morning for $70. Chickens will be properly frozen.
posted by katyh at 5:51 AM on August 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Owner of both a vintage stove and freezer. I have a 1950's Caloric range , bought at an estate sale for $35 and it's great. 6 burners and a small oven. Thankfully, I am more of a top of stove-top type cook, than a baker. My sister, who does bake HATES my oven because the temp is off. This can be remedied with an oven thermometer. I've had this stove for over 10 years and haven't had a lick of problems. I do need to manually clean the oven (less often than I really should). Also, the stove parts do disassemble quite easily for cleaning. I've given thought to having the burners re-porcelained, but haven't gotten around to it yet.

When you buy, hopefully, it's still hooked up, so you can see how well the burners work. If you have the time and the seller has the patience, you can take an oven thermometer and check out how the oven heats up.

I've had an old 60's upright freezer for about 8 years, which I got for free. It keeps things frozen, which is what I want. That said, I do need to defrost it once a year. Yes, the seals are not optimal, but it's working. I do have a plan in the back of my mind in case of it's eventual demise.

If I were you, I would go ahead and purchase the appliances, especially with your impending chicken influx. For $50, even if you have them for just a short time, you can make a contingency plan to replace them, and as you said, possibly recoup your investment (with patience). Given my experience, it will be a while before you have to worry about that, YMMV.
posted by sarajane at 6:01 AM on August 24, 2012

My mom's gracefully-aging modern freezer isn't a chest freezer, BTW. I doubt it matters, but just as an FYI. I hope your "new" one has many functional and efficient years ahead of it as well.
posted by needs more cowbell at 11:48 AM on August 24, 2012

I have a 1937 Universal gas stove, and a 1940 Frigidaire refrigerator. Of course, I have to defrost the fridge's tiny freezer/coils every few weeks. And we keep a chest freezer in the basement, as our real freezer. I've been using the stove and the fridge for over 6 years.

The only gripe I have with the stove is that the eyes are quite close together, so my pans crowd each other if I have more than one going at the same time. The oven itself is a little smaller than today's ovens, but that hasn't been an issue for me. If I cooked roasts or turkeys at all, that might be more of a problem.

The Frigidaire is a workhorse. I keep a thermometer inside to monitor the temperature, and it's never been above 38 degrees (except during defrosting). I really like that veggies stay fresher, because the lack of a defrost cycle keeps the air from drying out. My electric bill doesn't seem to have been affected at all. Keeping the gasket in order will really help with efficiency - and you can still buy gaskets for fridges from the 40s through today. If you're set on a 50's fridge and/or freezer, it will be possible to find gaskets and even some parts may be more readily available than you'd think. Oh, and I had my Frigidaire painted a jade-ite color by a local electrostatic painting company. They did a great job and it looks fab.

Here's a site that is helpful for stove resources (ignore the '1995 called, it wants its website back' layout): The Old Appliance Club

This is also a good site, but for refrigerators: The Antique Refrigerator

I'm very happy with my vintage appliances! I've been looking for a nice 40s-50s chest freezer, but no luck so far. One these days, though, it'll end up on Craigslist and I'll snatch it up.
posted by infodiva at 8:13 PM on August 24, 2012

from what I understand the pre-1960s freezers are actually more efficient than the 70's/80's freezers, because of the defroster, or lack thereof

You can buy a new chest freezer that's not frost-free. Most of the cheaper ones that I saw at Best Buy last week, in the $150-300 range, were manual defrost (meaning, you turn them off and let them warm up to defrost).

While there might be something to the reliability argument of an old freezer, and in general I'm a big fan of buying used stuff on the basis of it being better-built and easier to repair, keep in mind that not every old unit was necessarily built that well. When you're looking at freezers from the 60s, you're looking at survivors that have managed to last 50-odd years. That's probably several standard deviations above the mean even for freezers made in that era; lots of their brethren ended up as scrap along the way. There is no real guarantee that a machine that has outlasted its design life by 40 years won't keel over next year, and as I noted in another comment, an old fridge is actually much harder to repair than a modern one, because the coolant may no longer be available. (And R-11 and R-12 are no longer produced in the US, and R-22 is on its way out.) You are always going to be one pinhole coolant leak away from having an awkwardly-sized end table.

And just in general, you're creating a false economy by keeping an old, inefficient fridge or freezer around just because it keeps you from having to get a new one, both on monetary grounds (the new ones tend to pay for themselves rather quickly) and on environmental ones (the energy it takes to manufacture a new unit will be recouped in time as well). White goods are one of the few things that are routinely recycled almost completely, so there's less shame, IMO, in tossing an inefficient fridge than there is in many other things.

An old gas range? Awesome. They were built like tanks, and there's nothing stopping you from hooking one up to a modern gas line (unless it was designed for coal gas in which case there's some slight modification IIRC), and nothing that'll keep it from working for another 100 years. But fridges and freezers aren't quite like that.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:27 PM on August 24, 2012

Kadin2048 has a good point about refrigerants (all his other points are good, too) - my 1940 fridge happens to be able to use a modern refrigerant. It might not be an issue anytime soon since the motor is completely sealed and I am very careful with the coils. But metal corrodes, connections fail, things just fall prey to entropy.

There are 1950's and 60's refrigerators that can use newer refrigerants if needed. The sticking point in the end may be finding someone who is willing and able to work on the refrigerator.

One possible solution, if money is not an issue (this can get *very expensive*) you can get a new compressor/guts/everything put into an older model cabinet. Check out Antique Appliances. There is some drool-worthy vintage appliance-porn on their site. They list stoves and refrigerators for sale. They can do overhauls, too. Check out those prices :-D

My opinion is that if you can pick up a vintage fridge or freezer for very cheap, and if it runs and cools well, get it. If it fails, you can replace it. No harm, no foul.
posted by infodiva at 3:17 PM on August 25, 2012

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