Boat Refrigeration and Ice-box Insulation


by N. Bruce Nelson, Glacier Corp, Inc. California, USA

The box insulation you choose or inherit will affect several aspects of your boat refrigeration ice-box performance. Among these are the usable volume you will end up with, the heat load and corresponding energy use, how long you can expect the insulation to perform, and the cost.

A common approach is to multiply the surface area of your box interior by the expected heat gain per square foot, making assumptions regarding the quality of the insulation and the expected temperature difference, but such an exercise will leave you under predicting real world heat loads by several times. There are several reasons for this.

For one, it is interesting to note that not all of the heat that has to be removed from the box comes through the insulation. A significant portion is caused by the oxidation of the food, otherwise known as spoilage. Therefore, a box full of food will have a higher heat load than an empty one. The heat load from this source is less at freezer temperatures than at refrigerator temperatures.

Other factors will include edge effect, which refers to heat that flows around the edges of insulation panels, and air leakage through loose fitting hatches and drains, the heat added through the addition of warm food items and the frequency and duration of opening the box.

The Movement of Heat

Some discussion of insulation function and the movement of heat is useful to lay a foundation for evaluating the many choices available. The function of insulation is to slow down the movement of heat from the outside to the interior of the box. Heat energy moves by three mechanisms. These are radiation, convection and conduction.

Radiation is the electromagnetic transfer of heat energy. At refrigerator temperatures it is the least important source of heat gain, probably less than three percent of the total heat load on the box. Convection is heat transfer through the movement of gas molecules. Good convection flow in a box will result in a more even box temperature.Conduction is the transfer of heat through the motion of the molecules in a solid. Most of the heat flow into a box is through a combination of conduction and convection.

In the United States the resistance of an insulation material to heat flow is commonly measured in units called R value. R value is the reciprocal of the K number. K is defined as the number of BTUs which will move through one one square foot of one inch thick insulation material with one degree F temperature difference between the two sides. The larger the K number, the higher the thermal conductivity of the material. The higher the R value, the better insulator it is.

The R value for a given material is not constant, but varies depending on the temperature the material is tested at. Doubling the thickness of a material doubles the conductive heat resistance of the material, but does not double the radiant heat resistance. For practical purposes at refrigeration temperatures, this difference can be ignored and the R values of like thicknesses of insulation can be added together.

The measurement of R value can be done in several ways. The most appropriate for our purposes is ASTM 518 standard for “Steady-State Heat Flux Measurements and Thermal Transmission Properties.” This test approximates the conditions seen by boat refrigeration cold box insulation. There are other test methods which involve an air gap between the heat source and the insulation being tested. These methods will usually overstate the R value added by a radiant barrier if the results are applied to cold box performance. Thus high R value claims for certain insulation types may not be untrue according to the test procedures followed, but may not give a correct picture of the performance of the insulation in a boat refrigeration cold box.

If a radiant barrier is installed so that there is an air gap between the barrier and the heat source, some thermal benefit can be gained. An example of an effective use would be as a blanket covering the food in a partially full box. If a radiant barrier, which is usually a shiny, foil-like surface, is sandwiched between another solid material, such as fiberglass or plywood, the heat energy it sees is largely in the form of molecular motion and the heat is rapidly conducted through the foil.

Boat refrigeration insulation types and Performance

There are some very old boats that have boat refrigeration systems that consist of cold boxes built with fiberglass bat insulation, but the most common type is two part pour-in polyurethane foam. As this foam cures, the cell size depends on the curing temperature, which is typically not well controlled. This inability to control the temperature leads to voids that often develop in areas of the pour in foam. It is not unusual with stock boats to find no insulation at all between the box hull-side liner and the hull, or under the counter top.

Even if a good thickness of insulation is present, polyurethane foam insulation tends to adsorb water. Cold boxes that started out with good performance may lose up to two thirds of their original insulation value if the foam becomes wet from condensation. Other foam types that share this moisture absorption problem include sheet polyurethane, polyisocyanurate foams, and molded bead, or expanded polystyrene. Note that this is not just an open or closed cell foam issue, but depends on the moisture adsorption properties of the resin used to make the foam. One way to evaluate your existing box insulation for wetness is by drilling a small hole somewhere at the bottom of the box and checking the insulation space with a cotton swab. If the swab comes out wet, the original insulation value of your box is compromised. In such a case you should consider completely rebuilding your box.

Extruded polystyrene is the best type of foam insulation to use because it doesn’t adsorb water and will maintain its insulating value indefinitely. Two common brand names are Dow Square Edge STYROFOAM®, often called blueboard, and Owens Corning FOMULAR INSULPINK-Z®. Additional information and sources for the Dow product can be found at Information and sources for the Owens Corning product can be found at How much insulation do you need? The tradeoffs in boat-refrigeration are between energy consumption, usable box volume, and cost. For tropical conditions the recommended minimum is R-20 for a refrigerator and R-30 for a freezer. Extruded polystyrene has an R value of about 5 per inch. This would correspond to an insulation thickness of 4 inches of foam in the reefer and 6 inches in the freezer.

A plot of the energy use with increasing insulation thickness curve, would show that the amount of energy saved as insulation thickness increases also tails off past a certain point. More insulation is good, but a point of diminishing returns is reached as more insulation is added.

The heat load is not evenly distributed in the box. The temperature differential is greatest at the bottom of the box and for this reason the bottom generally carries the greatest heat load. It makes sense to install an extra inch or two of insulation at the bottom of the box, and if necessary reclaim the extra space by using less at the top. Notice that a freezer of a given size will have a lot more heat to remove than a refrigerator. Keep in mind that it also takes relatively more power to remove each BTU of heat at the colder temperature.

Super Insulation

In boat refrigeration there are many boats that simply do not have room to apply the insulation thickness guidelines above and still have room for a box of the desired volume. So called super insulation, or vacuum insulation panels (VIPs) can provide the answer. There are two basic types of VIP on the market at present. The first type of panel uses a special one inch thick foam core from Dow Chemical, called Instill™.

Dow has recently discontinued the manufacture of this foam core material and when the existing inventory is gone, these panels will no longer be available. The foam cores for this type of panel are wrapped in a vacuum barrier membrane material. When the panels are pulled down in a vacuum and sealed, they achieve an insulating value close to R 30. This product was originally developed for shipping applications and was reasonable in cost.

On the down side, the vacuum membrane around foam core panels punctures easily. Even if the membrane can be maintained intact, the internal pressure rises over time. The pressure rise occurs because of the slow diffusion of air through the membrane and possibly some outgassing of the foam material comprising the core. The insulation value of these panels goes down to about R 3 per inch when they are no longer holding a vacuum. They still may be a good option if only short term performance life is required or provision can be made in the box design to easily replace the panels. There are some technical options to increase the service life of these panels such as adding packets of a chemical called a getter when the panel is manufactured. Even so, there were no manufacturers of this type of panel that offered a performance life warranty.

A second VIP technology is available that uses aerogel as a core material. Aerogel is a powdery silica based material which has an R value of around 9 per inch at atmospheric pressure. Glacier Bay, Inc., uses this core material in BARRIER ULTRA-R super insulation panels. BARRIER ULTRA-R panels have an R value of 50 per inch. They come with a 25 year performance warranty against loss in R value. This is possible because the aerogel core chemically adsorbs gas molecules that pass through the vacuum barrier membrane. This getter activity allows the panel to maintain its high vacuum level and R value over an extended time.

Boat refrigeration ice-boxes built with BARRIER ULTRA-R have a total wall thickness of about two and one quarter inches. Although the initial cost of this material is higher than other insulation options, it is often chosen for new boat refrigeration construction and boat refrigeration ice-box retrofit projects because usable space can potentially be doubled or more for a given external volume. When coupled with the long performance life and superior energy performance, it may offer the greatest value.

Both types of VIP panels have to be custom built to fit the application. If they were to be cut or punctured after manufacture, they would lose a high percentage of their performance. Use of these high tech materials is not an either/or option. VIPs can be used in hatches or high heat load areas while the rest of the box is constructed of conventional insulation.

Boat refrigeration ice box Design Features

One of the most common features to be found in boat-refrigeration cold box design is the box drain. Drains are usually supplied whether the box was originally equipped with mechanical refrigeration or whether it was designed as an ice box. They are also one of the more troublesome features. Often boat refrigeration iceboxes are configured so that the drain drains into the bilge. A stinky bilge is the usual unfortunate result. The drain pipe can also conduct as much as 50 percent of the total daily heat load on the box.

An open drain coupled with leaky hatch seals will cause a continuous air exchange as cold air sinks through the drain and is replaced by warm outside air. Over time this can introduce a great deal of additional heat. The drain pipe can be fitted with a stopper or a shut-off valve, which stops the air loss, but does not fully stop the heat loss by conduction. It can also be a source of odors inside the box by trapping organic material.

An alternative way to empty the box of water is to bring a plastic tube in from the top of the box. The tube can be attached to a small electric or manual pump, such as a foot pump, and the water dumped through the sink through hull.

Boat refrigeration ice-box hatches

If you are redoing your boat refrigeration ice-boxes, you can take a fresh look at hatch locations. For safety reasons, cold box hatches should have some way of latching, even if they are top opening. This may be a rules requirement for racers. Side opening hatches may be unusable if, when on the unfavorable tack, the box contents end up resting up against the side of the door, ready to fall out as soon as the door is opened.

It is common advice to avoid doors and only use top loading hatches. The best approach is to use the type of opening that will provide the most convenient access. A cubic foot of air at 100ºF (about 38ºC) contains only about 18 BTUs of heat. Even if all of the cold air in your box were to spill out when you open a door, it would only take a few seconds of compressor run time to remove the heat that entered. If you have to remove food and set it on the counter while you access something at the bottom of a box, it will probably add more heat to the box when you put it back in than would have been contained in the hot air that could enter through a front opening door.

It is very important that your hatch gaskets do not leak air, especially with side opening hatches. Many top hatches are designed with a center hinge in the hatch lid, so that only one side needs to be opened. These often suffer from a constant leak of air and heat conducted by the metal hinge. The best thermal solution is to replace this with a one piece design. The next best thing would be to block the air flow with insulating tape placed between the two sections under the hinge.

You can find more detailed information about boat refrigeration and Glacier ready made hatch kits on our web site at

Condensation issues can arise even with the best materials and construction techniques. One common complaint is condensation behind a settee cushion adjacent to a cold box. This happens independently of the quality of the box insulation. The extra insulation provided by the cushion makes the back side of the cushion colder than the ambient air. If the air temperature reaches the dew point, condensation will occur. The air cools more with the condensation process, causing a low pressure area which pulls in more moist air. Remarkable quantities of water can be generated this way. The solution is to provide ventilation between the cushion and the cold box wall. Another condensation trouble spot can be the hatch frames, especially with a front opening freezer door. Two ways to minimize the amount of heat conducted, and thus the chances for condensation or even freezing of the gaskets, are to minimize the mass and maximize the length of the heat path through the hatch frame. Commercial boxes often have heating strips in the gaskets or door edges to eliminate this problem. If a stainless steel liner is used, a thermal break should be designed in, so the liner material does not continue past the gaskets to the outside of the box.

While attention to these details can cut your energy consumption by 1/3 or better, there are even bigger potential energy savings available due to the energy efficiency differences between average and the most efficient mechanical refrigeration systems. This will be a topic for a future boat refrigeration article.

I hope you enjoyed this excellent article on boat refrigeration insulation, it is the key to a good boat refrigeration system.

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