Maine Gas Refrigerator

Below is an article (one of many) written by The Wall Street Journal about our company.

A Chilling Effect: Repairer Gives Life To Old Gas Fridges

Burlington, Maine - Arthur Gauthier fixed fridges. His is a special talent, because the refrigerators he fixes use an unusual technology and have been off the market for 35 years. They are also known killers.

Despite that, the ice boxes - which draw their chilling power not from an electric cord but from a propane gas flame - remain popular with select groups of fans, from Amish owners who shun electricity to outback dwellers who want to keep their beer cool far from power lines. Were it not for the old Servel-brand refrigerators and Mr. Gauthier's expertise, they might have to go cold turkey.

Such would be the preference of the Servel Action Committee, a group that represents a company that inherited the liabilities of Servel Inc., an appliance maker that closed its doors in 1958.

Deadly Emissions

Liability is a problem: From 1980 to 1990, the committee says, carbon monoxide gas emitted by faulty Servel refrigerators killed 20 people. The committee's sole reason for being is to persuade anyone who still owns an old Servel gas fridge to junk it - in return for a $100 payment plus disposal cost.

"Stop using our old Servel gas refrigerator immediately." Reads a warning the committee publishes periodically and posts in places without electric service. According to the notice, "Operators are standing by 24 hours a day" on a toll-free hot line to respond to rebate claims.

But hundreds of loyal Servel customers, most living beyond the reach of electricity, scorn the offer. And all that stands between them and the committee's mission of destruction, it seems is Mr. Gauthier. The Maine woodsman's workshop, next to his one-bedroom house on Saponac Pond in this town of 350, bears witness to Servel loyalty. Four Servels dropped off by their owners are scattered about. Three others, their rib-cages of looping pipes and tubes exposed, lean against a wall.

Mr. Gauthier, a 65-year old man with a weathered face, says he has resuscitated more than a thousand Servels in the past five years, some brought in from as far away as Michigan and Pennsylvania. "I have had Servels here that were older than their owners. Some of them died on me - not the Servels, the owners."


Family Heirloom

Phil Drew doesn't know what he would have done without Mr. Gauthier. The Servel at Mr. Drew's summer home on Bustins Island off the Maine coast has been in the family since his father bought it in 1958. In August it seemed to have reached its natural end: It wouldn't get cold. He cleaned the burner and adjusted the flame. No luck. Then he tried folk remedies suggested by neighbors. Vigorous shaking "didn't do a bit of good," he says. Tipping it upside down for an hour "worked but not for long."

After someone showed him Mr. Gauthier's ad in Uncle Henry's Weekly, a bargain-hunter's guide, Mr. Drew loaded the 200-pound fridge on a 35-foot passenger ferry, then onto his pickup, and drove three hours to Mr. Gauthier's workshop. The problem was a clogged pipe.

What about the Servel warning? Mr. Drew saw the notice in a local store on the island in 1991. "Having lived with it for 30 years, we figured we could live with it for another 30," he says. "It has the attraction that old things have."

The attraction works even when the refrigerator doesn't. Edward Colburn, a retired machinist in Peabody, Mass., held on to a broken Servel for 25 years. The local gas people looked it over but couldn't fix it. Frustrated, Mr. Colburn bought a much smaller Servel, the only one he could find, to tide him over pending repairs. "That's how much I like Servel." He says.

In July a relative told him about Mr. Gauthier, who had the old refrigerator running again in three days. "I think my Servel will last longer than me," says Mr. Colburn, 75.

The Servel Action Committee, which came into existence in 1991 after an investigation of the refrigerator by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, says it harbors no ill will toward Mr. Gauthier. "We would rather have the Servels back," a committee spokesman says. "The more he fixes the longer our (rebate) program will have to run, and that's a frustration.

Hugh Bode, the committee's general counsel, estimates that Servel, which was based in Evansville, Ind., made three million refrigerators. So far, the committee has paid out rebates and disposal cost on 15,000 Servels. "When we announced the program I wouldn't have guessed that we had as many as 2,000," he says.

The Servel Action Committee consists mainly of one member: Gould Inc., and Eastlake, Ohio, maker of medical instruments and electronic components. Gould, which has never made a refrigerator, ended up inheriting the original Servel company's liability through a third company it purchased in 1969.

People are attached to their old Servels partly because the alternatives, all smaller, leave them cold. Only two modern gas refrigerators for home use are available in the U.S. today. One, made by the Dometic Corp. of Elkhart, Ind., carries the name Servel, although it has no relation to the original company. Dometic bought the brand name in 1987. The other brand is Consul, made by Brazilian manufacturer Multibras SA. The largest of the new models are 8.5 cubic feet, compared with 12 for the largest original Servel. (The U.S. consumer Product Safety Commission say modern burner and flue designs have eliminated the carbon monoxide threat. The agency hasn't received any reports of deaths caused by the new fridges.)

Mr. Gauthier's interest in Servel goes back to 1936, when as an eight-year-old he saw a Servel display in a Boston trade show: A metal ball, heated by a burner, was connected to another metal ball that was cold and covered with frost. The young boy touched the icy ball and watched slivers of frost melt in his hand.

"How does hot make cold?" he recalls wondering. In fact, a mixture of ammonia, water and hydrogen is heated. When the pure ammonia evaporates, it absorbs heat, cooling its surroundings. "It's intriguing, you got to admit that," says Mr. Gauthier. "Very few things about that era still fascinate me."

In 1970 Mr. Gauthier, a machinist, moved to the woods here for a life of fishing and hunting and opened a car-repair shop next door for income. As locals with their Servels turned to him for help, however, he slowly drifted into the Servel repair business.

But it wasn't until 1986 that he became a full-time Servel repairman, after paying $5,000 to learn the formula of the gas refrigerator's coolant. Knowing the formula allowed him to cut open pipes to clear clogs, then replace the solution. Mr. Gauthier charges from $60 to about $250 for repairs, depending on whether he has to recharge the fridges.

Mr. Gauthier says the refrigerator's burner is the most fiddled-with part in a Servel. In fact, it is the only part that invites tinkering, because everything else in the back of the refrigerator is part of a sealed loop. When a Servel doesn't stay cold or takes a little extra time to turn cold, "people play with the burner," says Mr. Gauthier. "If it isn't reset to burn a clear blue flame, or if it's clogged, it will produce carbon monoxide."

As he stands amid propane tanks, pressure gauges and air compressors, Mr. Gauthier can't help but admire the old technology. The problems usually start, he says, when owners tinker, take the refrigerator apart and then can't put it back together. "Let me tell you," Mr. Gauthier says. "Servels don't break down; the owners do."

Mr. Gauthier would gladly answer any questions you may have, just e-mail him!

'Last Servel Repairman' Art Gauthier restores obsolete gas refrigerators

Many owners of Servel gas-fired household refrigerators apparently prefer to repair rather than scrap their units, even though the youngest are some 37 years old. That market has not only kept Arthur Gauthier busy, but has enabled him to establish and profitably operate Maine Gas and Refrigeration, a business dedicated to repairing and selling gas refrigerators.

As the self-proclaimed "last Servel repairman," Gauthier repair more than 200 Servel refrigerators annually, most of post world War II vintage but also a few made as early as the 1930s. Most are shipped by freight to Gauthier's business here. Many come from remote areas where electricity is not readily available. Manufactured to operate from natural gas, most have been converted to run on propane.

The cooling technology is rather basic. Gas is burned to heat a refrigerant -- consisting of water, ammonia and hydrogen gas -- inside the product's sealed system. As the ammonia evaporates, it absorbs heat from its surroundings and is expelled elsewhere in the system when it is condensed back into a liquid.

The most common repairs involve clogs in refrigerant lines, which are corrected by opening the lines to rod out the blockage. After the lines are cleared, Gauthier recharges the system with fresh home-made refrigerant produced in accord with the original Servel formula.

Another common problem results from misadjusted burners, which occur when owners attempt to make the product run better.

Parts are required in some repairs, Gauthier says. Most frequently needed are burners, door gaskets, turbolators and door handles. Some are sourced from products that are beyond repair; others are made to order. Gauthier provides a replacement burner with a modern thermocouple that enables faster initial ignition that the original part.

Demand for Gauthier's expertise has not ebbed despite the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission decision in 1991 that all Servel gas refrigerators should be retired. That ruling was based on reports that carbon monoxide emitted by faulty units had caused the deaths of 20 people since 1980. The recall is conducted by the Servel Action Committee, which is supported by Gould Electronics, a medical equipment producer that acquired the Servel liability from a company it absorbed in 1969. The committee offers a $100 bounty and reasonable disposal cost to persons who phone its toll-free contact: 800-782-7431.

Gauthier has restored Servel gas refrigerators almost since he relocated to Burlington, Maine for the hunting and fishing. A machinist by trade, he initially opened an automobile repair shop. But requests for Servel repairs from area residents eventually moved the business into appliance repair. The switch became final in 1986 when he converted his business into Maine Gas and Refrigeration.

Gauthier also sells new gas refrigerators -- Consul brand models made by Multibras S.A. of Brazil. However, many customers prefer the larger Servels of 12 cu. ft.; the biggest Consul model is 8.5 cu. ft.

The business also sells and services other gas-fired equipment, including furnaces, and campground cookers, heaters and lamps.

Gauthier will sell Servel repair manuals and parts to service professionals. To obtain a catalog, write: Maine Gas and Refrigeration, Dept. ASN, P. O. Box 483, Sibley Road, Burlington, Maine 04417.

Servel gas refrigerators were made by Evansville, IN-based Servel Refrigerator Co., which are marketed by Elkhart, In-based Dometic Corp., have no connection with the early manufacturer.

Refrigerator repairman saves Servels

One of the last repairmen for Evansville-made Servel refrigerators is becoming a celebrity of sorts for defending the dangerous but long-lived propane appliances.

Arthur Gauthier of Burlington, Maine has gotten "about 200" phone calls since he was featured in a Oct. 19 Wall Street Journal article on owners who won't give up their Servel refrigerators.

"It's been incredible," the 65-year-old Gauthier said of the interest in his specialty.

Gauthier said he's gotten calls from owners seeking parts for their old Servels and professors looking for an easier way to explain the refrigerator to students.

At least 20 deaths have been blamed on the use of Servel refrigerators, which can produce lethal concentrations of carbon monoxide in confined space.

Owners of old Servel refrigerators have been urged for years to get rid of the old refrigerators by a committee that represents the defunct manufacturer.

The Servel Action Committee offers a $100 bounty for demolishing old refrigerators, along with disposal costs.

Yet many owners lacking electrical service to their homes, barns, or cabins refuse to get rid of the old Servels, which run on easily transportable propane.

Some dismiss the dangers because they keep the refrigerators in well-ventilated areas. Others don't put much stock in the warnings.

Gauthier said he simply advises Servel owners to invest about $50 in carbon monoxide monitors.

"It sets peoples' minds at ease," Gauthier said.

One of a dying breed of Servel repairmen, Gauthier says Servels are about the best-built refrigerators he's ever seen.

"I have to tell you, there was some talent that went into those things," he said. "Every weld is beautiful," Gauthier said, "like it was done with needles and thread."

Jim Sieber, a retired Servel personnel department employee, said 15,000 employees once worked at the Evansville plant.

"It's probably the biggest employment any factory has ever had in this city," Sieber said.

Sieber said Servel bought propaned cooling technology from Electrolux, the Swedish company known for its vacuum cleaners. He said Servel later advanced the technology through its own efforts, even making refrigerators powered by kerosene.

More than 4 million of the propane-powered refrigerators rolled off the assembly line at Servel's Evansville plant before Servel stopped making them in 1958.

Even though the surviving Servel refrigerators are older than many people, Gauthier says they remain more reliable than most of the propane-powered refrigerators produced today for recreational vehicle.

"They'll be around long after I'm gone," Gauthier said.

Gauthier welcomes calls from workers who might have produced Servel refrigerators in Evansville. "Those guys were craftsmen, I'll tell you that."

Fixing Servel refrigerators is no lark, Gauthier said. The three-day repair process is "harder than you think," he said. Gauthier said he has arranged for a company to manufacture replacement burners, which he ships all over the country.

While unaware of any Servel repairmen in the Evansville area, Gauthier said he has been in contact with a man who repairs Servels in Goshen, Inc. Unfortunately, he said, the Indiana Servel man isn't easy to reach. The man, who is Amish, does not have a telephone.


Arthur Gauthier has retired after 50 years of service with gas refrigerators. The business will now be passed on to his son-in-law Richie Nelson who has worked beside Art for the past five years.

1228 Longridge Road
Burlington, Maine 04417
Phone (207) 732-5361 
Ritchie Nelson - 207-403-0026