Time-Tested Iranian Solutions to Cool and Refrigerate

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions


Keeping food cool is critical for human health. No matter what the climate, a cool environment will prolong food preservation, stave off spoilage and lower the risk of food poisoning. This is crucial for the poor because it means they can reduce food waste and avoid illnesses caused by food poisoning. Diarrhea is a common problem when people do not have access to refrigeration for their food.

Food security is also enhanced, as more can be stored and less thrown away as waste. Keeping food cool also means less need for preservation techniques, such as using salt, spices or smoke. Salt and smoke both can have adverse affects on human health. Salt increases sodium in the diet, which leads to high blood pressure, and smoke is a carcinogen which can lead to various forms of cancer.

It is healthier to keep food in its natural state – and keep it cool.

While the invention of the electric refrigerator was a major breakthrough, it requires a steady supply of electricity, which is expensive and difficult for many people.

Various pre-electric refrigeration technologies have been developed over the centuries. Among them was a pioneering technology used in Persia (modern-day Iran) as far back as the 11th century (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avicenna). And now, it is being looked to once again today as a sustainable refrigeration solution that does not damage the environment.

Iran’s solution involves creating a domed ice house made from earth bricks. Many ancient ice houses have been discovered on the edge of deserts, where ice was scarce and supplies remote. The solution was to create a dugout channel at the rear of a domed house and then flood the channel with water. When the temperature dropped at night in the desert, the water would freeze into ice.

Rising early in the morning, the resident would break up the ice into blocks and store them inside the ice house. This was repeated night after night until there was enough ice in the house that it could last the summer months.

The water was drawn from elaborate irrigation systems used for farming.

The ice houses were cone and dome-shaped and included some with underground structures. To date, a project headed by Dr. Hemming Jorgensen has documented 129 centuries-old ice houses at the fringe areas of large deserts in Iran. Jorgensen, from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, has documented the use of these structures on his “Ice Houses of Iran” website (http://www.hemmingjorgensen.com/).

In 18th and 19th century England, ice houses were also common place in country estates to keep food cool in kitchens. Today, there are growing numbers of people around the world who are turning to technologies such as ice houses to find sustainable, non-electric, low-carbon alternatives to electric refrigeration.

Another environmentally friendly cooling solution from Iran involves using wind catchers to circulate air during the hotter months. Called bagdir wind towers, or windcatchers (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windcatcher), they have been used in Yadz, Iran since the 19th century.

Profiled in Green Building Magazine (http://www.greenbuildingpress.co.uk/product_details.php?category_id=10&item_id=235), the wind towers are made of stone, and channel wind down into a shaft to cool or heat the rooms below. It is an air circulation solution that does not take any energy – because it uses the wind – and is carbon neutral. In summer, the wind is drawn down into a stone chimney by low air pressure zones in the ventilation system. It is cooled, and then is circulated through the dwelling, rising as it warms up through the house. This is combined with a strategy of moving rooms depending on how hot or cool they are, adjusting clothing based on the temperature, or even placing water on the floor to cool the air.

In Nigeria in West Africa, a cooler called the zeer (http://practicalaction.org/zeer-pots) has been developed. It works like this: two ceramic earthenware pots of different sizes are arranged one inside the other. The space between the pots is filled with wet sand and kept moist. The user then places drinks or vegetables inside and covers it with a damp cloth. As the water from the moist sand evaporates (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evaporation), the air inside the centre pot is cooled several degrees, enough to preserve some foods and drinks.


1) ChotuKool fridge: The ChotuKool fridge is designed to stay cool for hours without electricity and to use half the power of conventional refrigerators. Priced at US $69, it is targeted at India’s poor. Website: (http://www.new.godrej.com/godrej/godrej/index.aspx?id=1)

2) Ice house designs from the 18th and 19th century in the United Kingdom. Website: http://www.icehouses.co.uk/petworth.htm

3) The High Desert Chronicles: “Sometimes you need to look back to move forward!”. Details use of contemporary ice houses in the desert for refrigeration. Website: http://www.highdesertchronicles.com/2012/10/ice-in-the-high-desert-without-electricity-or-refrigeration/

4) History Magazine: The Impact of Refrigeration: The role played by refrigeration throughout human history. Website: http://www.history-magazine.com/refrig.html

5) Methods of Alternative Refrigeration: Three solutions in detail. Website: http://www.provident-living-today.com/Alternative-Refrigeration.html

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London Edit

31 July 2013

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