There are always naysayers . . . . .

Fergus Nolan | Contributor

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My Thoughts

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I was a bit late getting to the gig economy at age 59, but, three weeks ago, I filed my first patent, so now I am officially an inventor. I’m a geek by trade, so in my latter businessman role, I reverted to form and solved a business problem the geek way, by building a system.

The problem in question turned up in one of my other gigs, my food business. As usual with startups, distribution was the problem. After cycling through a dozen, mostly fictional, business plans, I had five small local distributors. Two of them, in Atlanta and New Orleans, were non-performing. The solution was to do for myself and run truck routes, but I needed a reefer. A reefer is what they call a refrigerated truck in the food biz. I know what you were thinking.

So, for months I searched for a good used panel van reefer. Small truck refrigeration units are driven from the truck motor, so you have to run or idle the engine 24/7 if you are over the road. The auxiliary power options available were 240 volts or three-phase AC. Fine if you have a warehouse, but not available at the motels where I stop.

My friend, Ed Bell, a refrigeration engineer, and I had been looking at solar systems for our houses and watching the panel prices come down. Ed, who has built numerous land-based freezers, reckoned we could put a freezer on a truck. When we looked at power requirements, we realized that it could be powered by solar panels on the roof.

I know a former reefer builder, guy in Atlanta who used to run a conversion shop. I ran the idea past him and he said it’d never work. According to the standard refrigeration tables, this was true, but Ed and I gambled on the “parasol effect”. Freezers under a set of solar panels are shielded from about 30% of the sun’s energy, converted to electrical energy, or lost as heat in the panels. That’s a little more than 30% less work for the freezers to do because freezers are more efficient at lower temperatures.
That’s lesson one for inventors. There are always naysayers. Above all, to thine own self, thine own calculations and thine invention be true. If your invention is not alien to current practitioners, you’re probably not far enough out of the box.

We gambled on our own numbers. In the summer of 2014, I bought an old Econoline van and we jigged the ladder rack that came on it, mounted 1 KW of Sharp panels, made in Memphis, added some batteries, electronics, and an inverter. This unit converts the 24V DC from the batteries into 110 volts AC, like you get from a regular socket. We plugged in a couple of chest freezers and took it on the road in August 2014. We named it Man the Van as an homage to Van “the Man” Morrison, a national hero where I come from. I visited the former reefer builder and he spent an hour going over Man the Van with a shocked look on his face, the freezers humming away at zero degrees F.

Two and a half years later, Man the Van has completed more than 84K miles, more than 80 road trips, saved over 3000 gallons of fossil fuel and has never temperature deviated a sausage. It is a strange feeling to pilot it. A regular reefer bulldozes its way through the laws of physics, throws GHG at the problem, is expensive to run. Man the Van seems to sail on the sunshine, begs permission from Sol to negate a tiny portion of its heat, parsimoniously budgets out the energy, proceeds with permission and finesse. You are aware, through the instruments, of the minutely fickle ways of the sun. The days wax and wane with a new ration of energy, and you voyage from winter to summer solstice, trimming your solar sails and your itinerary to the whims of the Sun. My ancestors built Newgrange to worship and measure the sun. My monitoring and respect come via a set of Chinese-made instruments, but the thought is there. The solstices and equinoxes are the turning points of my year.

Persistence, perseverance, probably more p-words are the only attributes that count. That’s rule two for inventors. Never give up!

The result of getting in tune with the system was a set of operational procedures, called an HACCP plan in the food biz. Things like “don’t park under a tree at lunchtime” to the last of the troubleshooting “throw 50 lbs of dry ice in the freezers”. Never got there but nice to know we have a plan. We ran Man the Van on about seven-kilowatt hours per day, compared with the 540-kilowatt hours used by the conventional reefer. Less than two percent, and the majority of it renewable.

The limitations of Man the Van soon became apparent. We measured a 23% energy loss in the inverter. And we also found that, during summer, the system used 50% more energy during the night cycle than it did during the day. That’s because the freezers vented heat inside the van, making it very hot. During the day, rolling down the highway, it was easy to blow it out the rear vent with natural airflow. We were losing up to 20% more energy because of that. I needed a bigger unit, with more roof-space for panels, a freezer system that worked on the 24 DC volt system power, avoiding the conversion penalty, a walk-in freezer for operational convenience, and a split system venting to the outside.

Ed and I started building Van de Soleil in January 2015, and we have been alpha testing it since November. We’re still tweaking and adjusting system parameters. But it works, keeps food frozen down to about six degrees and gets closer to optimal performance as we continue to adjust it.

It’s built into a used 16’ rental box truck. The core of the system is a 24-volt compressor sourced in China, a couple of mil spec 24V fans made in Canada, and a defrost circuit I built and installed in the evaporator, which is the piece inside the freezer box. We mated it with 1800 watts of solar panels on the roof, a couple of lead-acid battery arrays and various control circuitry. It took two years but it is done. Like the gestation period of an elephant.

On January 28th, we filed the provisional patent, and now we can talk about it. Ed has now retired and headed off in his RV, and right now I am getting ready to crowdfund a business to get the design out there.
I wish I could tell an inspirational story of two guys in a garage venting genius 24/7 until done, but inventing is not like that. For a start, the trucks would not fit in my garage, so it happened, winter and summer, in our yards. What they say about 1% inspiration, 99% perspirations. Try 99.99999 percent perspiration. The inspiration was over in a few seconds, over a beer in the spring of 2014. I lost 27 lbs of blood and sweat over two summers making it happen, and in many ways, we are just starting out.
Persistence, perseverance, probably more p-words are the only attributes that count. That’s rule two for inventors. Never give up!

Fergus Nolan

Fergus Nolan

The Sausage Guy

Fergus Nolan, the sausage guy, had a business crisis in 2014. He needed a small ‘reefer’ freezer van and could not find one suitable. Follow this story on

Van de Soleil can save 17 gallons of fuel in an over-the-road run, about 10 gallons in a daily delivery workload, and solar panels have a 25-year manufacturer warranty. As there are only three moving parts in the system, it doesn’t need the 1000 hour service interval of the conventional reefer. It can also have up to four redundant power sources depending on configuration.

We plan to specialize in medium and small size, 24 foot or less, reefers and to make tiny pickup mounted models for an unsatisfied market of small producers, distributors, farmers, food hubs and purveyors of local and sustainable food. Like I found, there’s nothing there for this market. Yes, it is green as all get out, but it is profitable. It saves up to 20 times its initial cost in fuel and maintenance. Fossil fuel will get more expensive and run out. Solar panels get cheaper and more efficient every year. I won’t be here to see it, but the future belongs to solar powered reefers.

Our factory will be in North Memphis. There is no reason why Memphis can’t be at the forefront of the renewable food tech that a sustainable future will demand.

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