Title:
VACUUM OR PRESSURE STORAGE SYSTEM FOR FOOD OR BEVERAGE CONTAINERS
Kind Code:
A1


Abstract:
A vacuum or pressure refrigerator for storing containers having one-way valves and maintaining contents thereof under vacuum or pressure within a specific temperature range. Upon receiving an input that the door is closed, a refrigerator controller is adapted to cease operation of the cooling device and initiate a vacuum or pressure cycle. The vacuum or pressure cycle includes evacuating at least a portion of or pressurizing the air inside the compartment, operating the pump until a desired degree of vacuum or pressure is attained and terminating pump operation. The one way valves then evacuate or pressurize the containers. The controller is also adapted to subsequently initiate a cooling cycle, the cooling cycle commencing when it is determined that the temperature is above an upper set point and to operate the cooling device until the temperature reaches a desired lower set point, at which time the cooling cycle is terminated.



Inventors:
Lemme, Anthony R. (Wallingford, CT, US)
Application Number:
12/038203
Publication Date:
08/27/2009
Filing Date:
02/27/2008
Primary Class:
Other Classes:
53/440, 62/170
International Classes:
B65B31/04; B65B63/08; F25B49/00
View Patent Images:



Primary Examiner:
COMINGS, DANIEL C
Attorney, Agent or Firm:
DeLio Peterson & Curcio LLC (NEW HAVEN, CT, US)
Claims:
Thus, having described the invention, what is claimed is:

1. A method for storing containers and maintaining contents of the containers under vacuum comprising: providing at least one container, each container having a one way valve, the one way valve permitting flow of air into the container when the interior of the container is at a higher pressure than ambient pressure outside the container and restricting flow of air into the container when the when the interior of the container is at a lower pressure than the ambient pressure; providing a compartment having a door and an interior of sufficient size to receive the at least one container, the door having a hermetic seal to permit the compartment interior to be maintained under at least a partial vacuum when the door is closed; opening the door of the compartment; placing the at least one container in the compartment interior; closing the door; evacuating at least a portion of the air from the compartment interior around the at least one container, whereby air in the at least one container flows out through the one way valve until at least a partial vacuum is achieved in the compartment interior and the interior of the container; reintroducing air into the compartment interior until the interior is at atmospheric pressure while the one way valve maintains the interior of the at least one container under at least a partial vacuum; opening the door of the compartment; and removing at least one container from the compartment interior while the one way valve continues to maintain the interior of the at least one container under at least a partial vacuum.

2. The method of claim 1 further including: after closing the door, cooling the compartment interior to a desired temperature; and maintaining the container in the compartment interior at a desired temperature and the interior of the at least one container under at least a partial vacuum.

3. The method of claim 2 wherein the compartment interior is cooled to the desired temperature after a desired portion of air is removed from the compartment interior.

4. The method of claim 1 further including the step of ensuring that the interior of the compartment is at ambient pressure before opening the door of the compartment, by releasing any vacuum and allowing ambient air to enter the compartment.

5. The method of claim 2 including releasing the at least partial vacuum and allowing ambient air to enter the compartment while maintaining the container in the compartment at a desired temperature and maintaining the interior of the at least one container under at least a partial vacuum.

6. The method of claim 1 wherein a plurality of the containers are placed in the compartment interior and at least one container is left in the compartment interior after the door is opened, the one way valve continuing to maintain the interior of the at least one container left in the compartment interior under at least a partial vacuum, and further including placing an additional container into the compartment interior, closing the door, and evacuating at least a portion of the air from the compartment interior around the additional container, whereby air in the additional container flows out through the one way valve until at least a partial vacuum is achieved in the compartment interior and the interior of the additional container.

7. The method of claim 1 wherein the at least one container is a beverage bottle.

8. The method of claim 1 wherein the at least one container is a wine bottle.

9. The method of claim 1 wherein the at least one container is a food storage container.

10. A method for storing containers and maintaining contents of the containers under elevated pressure comprising: providing at least one container, each container having a one way valve, the one way valve permitting flow of air into the container when the interior of the container is at a lower pressure than ambient pressure outside the container and restricting flow of air out of the container when the interior of the container is at a higher pressure than the ambient pressure; providing a compartment having a door and an interior of sufficient size to receive the at least one container, the door having a hermetic seal to permit the compartment interior to be maintained at a pressure higher than atmospheric pressure when the door is closed; opening the door of the compartment; placing the at least one container in the compartment interior; closing the door; pumping air into the compartment interior around the at least one container, whereby air in the container flows in through the one way valve until an elevated pressure above atmospheric pressure is achieved in the compartment interior and the interior of the container; removing air from the compartment interior until the interior is at atmospheric pressure while the one way valve maintains the interior of the at least one container under an elevated pressure; opening the door of the compartment; and removing at least one container from the compartment interior while the one way valve continues to maintain the interior of the at least one container under an elevated pressure.

11. The method of claim 10 further including: after closing the door, cooling the compartment interior to a desired temperature; and maintaining the container in the compartment interior at a desired temperature and the interior of the at least one container under an elevated pressure.

12. A vacuum or pressure refrigerator for storing containers and maintaining contents of the containers under vacuum or pressure, and within a specific temperature range comprising: a compartment having an interior; a door for hermetically sealing the interior; an air vent for allowing atmospheric air to enter or leave the compartment interior; a pump for evacuating air from or adding air into the compartment interior; a cooling device for cooling the compartment interior; a temperature sensor for measuring the temperature in the compartment interior; and a controller having a first input from the temperature sensor, an output for controlling the operation of the cooling device, an output for controlling the operation of the pump, and an output for opening and closing the air vent, wherein when the door is closed, the controller is adapted to: i) cease operation of the cooling device and initiate a vacuum or pressure cycle, the vacuum or pressure cycle including commencing pump operation, evacuating at least a portion of or pressurizing the air inside the compartment, operating the pump until a desired degree of vacuum or pressure is attained inside the compartment and terminating pump operation, and ii) subsequently initiate a cooling cycle, the cooling cycle commencing when it is determined that the temperature is above a desired temperature upper set point and operate the cooling device until the temperature reaches a desired lower set point, at which time the cooling cycle is terminated.

13. The vacuum or pressure refrigerator of claim 12 wherein the refrigerator includes a door sensor for determining whether the door is open or closed, and the controller includes a second input from the door sensor, and wherein the controller is adapted to cease operation of the cooling device and initiate a vacuum or pressure cycle upon receiving an input from the door sensor that the door is closed.

14. The vacuum or pressure refrigerator of claim 12 wherein the controller is further adapted to open the air vent and add air into or remove air from the compartment before or during the cooling cycle.

15. The vacuum or pressure refrigerator claim 12 wherein the controller is further adapted to close the air vent and repeat the vacuum or pressure pump cycle after the cooling cycle is terminated.

16. The vacuum or pressure refrigerator claim 12 wherein the controller is further adapted to initiate the vacuum or pressure cycle at a desired time after the door is closed.

17. The vacuum or pressure refrigerator claim 16 wherein the controller may be adjusted to vary the desired time to initiate the vacuum or pressure cycle.

18. The vacuum or pressure refrigerator of claim 12 wherein the pump is a vacuum pump for evacuating air from the compartment interior and the controller is adapted to initiate the vacuum cycle, and further including a container in the compartment interior having a vacuum stopper contacting and sealing with an opening in the container, the stopper having an opening therethrough between the container interior and exterior and a one-way valve disposed in the opening, wherein the one way valve opens and air is released from the container through the one way valve during the vacuum cycle when the pressure inside the container is greater than the pressure outside the container and wherein the one way valve closes when the pressure outside the container is greater than the pressure inside the container.

19. The vacuum or pressure refrigerator of claim 12 wherein the pump is a pressure pump for adding air into the compartment interior and the controller is adapted to initiate the pressure cycle, and further including a container in the compartment interior having a pressure stopper contacting and sealing with an opening in the container, the stopper having an opening therethrough between the container interior and exterior and a one-way valve disposed in the opening, wherein the one way valve opens and air is added into the container through the one way valve during the pressure cycle when the pressure outside the container is greater than the pressure inside the container and wherein the one way valve closes when the pressure outside the container is less than the pressure inside the container.

20. The vacuum or pressure refrigerator of claim 12 wherein the cooling device includes a refrigerator compressor.

21. The vacuum or pressure refrigerator of claim 19 including a common electric motor for operating both the compressor and the pump.

22. A system for storing containers and maintaining contents of the containers under vacuum or pressure comprising: a compartment having an interior; a door for hermetically sealing the interior; an air vent for allowing atmospheric air to enter or leave the compartment interior; a pump for evacuating air from or adding air into the compartment interior; a controller having an output for controlling the operation of the pump, and an output for opening and closing the air vent; and a container in the compartment interior having a stopper contacting and sealing with an opening in the container, the stopper having an opening therethrough between the container interior and exterior and a one-way valve disposed in the stopper opening, wherein when the door is closed, the controller is adapted to initiate a vacuum or pressure cycle, the vacuum or pressure cycle including commencing pump operation, evacuating at least a portion of or pressurizing the air inside the compartment, operating the pump until a desired degree of vacuum or pressure is attained inside the compartment and terminating pump operation, whereby the one way valve opens and either: i) if the pump evacuates air from inside the compartment, air is released from the container through the one way valve during the vacuum cycle when the pressure inside the container is greater than the pressure outside the container and wherein the one way valve closes when the pressure outside the container is greater than the pressure inside the container, or ii) if the pump pressurizes the air inside the compartment, air is added into the container through the one way valve during the pressure cycle when the pressure outside the container is greater than the pressure inside the container and wherein the one way valve closes when the pressure outside the container is less than the pressure inside the container

23. The system of claim 22 wherein the system includes a door sensor for determining whether the door is open or closed and the controller has an input from the door sensor, and wherein the controller is adapted to initiate the vacuum or pressure cycle upon receiving an input from the controller that the door is closed.

24. The system of claim 22 wherein the compartment is refrigerated to cool the container in the compartment interior.

25. The system of claim 22 wherein the compartment is disposed within a refrigerator having a refrigerator door, and wherein the refrigerator has sufficient volume to store items at a desired cooled temperature outside of the compartment and the refrigerator door is opened and closed independently of the compartment door.

26. The system of claim 22 wherein the compartment comprises a main compartment and further including an auxiliary compartment having a door for storing additional containers, the auxiliary compartment being connected to the main compartment by a conduit that permits air flow therethrough to evacuate or pressurize the auxiliary compartment at the same time as the main compartment.

27. The system of claim 22 wherein the main compartment is refrigerated to cool the main compartment interior and wherein the conduit permits cooling air flow therethrough to cool the auxiliary compartment at the same time as the main compartment.

Description:

BACKGROUND OF THE INVENTION

1. Field of the Invention

This invention relates to a storage system used for storing food or beverage containers, preferably wine bottles, at a sufficiently cool temperature and at a desired pressure above or below atmospheric pressure to maintain freshness and proper flavor of the contents. In addition, the present invention relates to a compartment and stopper combination for use in the system and method for using the compartment and stopper combination.

2. Description of Related Art

Vacuum beverage storage systems may be used to remove air from bottles or other containers in order to protect their contents from oxidation, such as for preserving wine after the cork or cap is unsealed. Pressurized beverage storage systems may be used to introduce pressure into containers in order to preserve pressurized beverages, such as champagne, sparkling wine or carbonated soft drinks. U.S. Pat. No. 5,031,785 discloses a combination vacuum/pressure pump and valve stopper for food or drink container and U.S. Pat. No. 7,198,074 discloses a motorized vacuum/pressure pump and stopper. These systems require the user to mate the vacuum or pressure pumps individually to the container opening in order to evacuate or pressurize the contents. Additionally, such containers may have to be stored and removed frequently from refrigerated compartments in order to maintain them at proper temperature. Where many containers are involved, such as in restaurants or other commercial establishments, this task is tedious and is often ignored, resulting in spoiled beverages.

SUMMARY OF THE INVENTION

Bearing in mind the problems and deficiencies of the prior art, it is therefore an object of the present invention to provide a system and method of evacuating or pressurizing a plurality of food or beverage storage containers which does not require individual mating with a pump.

It is a further object of the present invention to provide a combination refrigerator and air pump for attaining and maintaining food or beverage containers under vacuum or pressure.

It is another object of the present invention to provide a combination refrigerator and air pump for attaining and maintaining food or beverage containers such as wine bottles within specific temperature and pressure limits.

It is still another object of the present invention to provide a combination refrigerator and air evacuation or pressurizing system for the storage and use of food or beverage containers.

A further object of the invention is to provide a method of using a combination refrigerator and air pump.

It is yet another object of the present invention to provide a method of evacuating air from or introducing air under pressure into a container while the container is inside a refrigerator or other storage chamber.

Still other objects and advantages of the invention will in part be obvious and will in part be apparent from the specification.

The above and other objects, which will be apparent to those skilled in the art, are achieved in the present invention which is directed to a method for storing containers and maintaining contents of the containers under vacuum comprising providing at least one container, with each container having a one way valve. The one way valve permits flow of air into the container when the interior of the container is at a higher pressure than ambient pressure outside the container and restricts flow of air into the container when the interior of the container is at a lower pressure than the ambient pressure. The method also includes providing a compartment having a door and an interior of sufficient size to receive the at least one container, the door having a hermetic seal to permit the compartment interior to be maintained under at least a partial vacuum when the door is closed. The method then includes opening the door of the compartment, placing the at least one container in the compartment interior, closing the door, and evacuating at least a portion of the air from the compartment interior around the at least one container. Air in the at least one container flows out through the one way valve until at least a partial vacuum is achieved in the compartment interior and the interior of the container. The method further includes reintroducing air into the compartment interior until the interior is at atmospheric pressure while the one way valve maintains the interior of the at least one container under at least a partial vacuum. The method then includes opening the door of the compartment, and removing at least one container from the compartment interior while the one way valve continues to maintain the interior of the at least one container under at least a partial vacuum.

Preferably, the method further includes, after closing the door, cooling the compartment interior to a desired temperature, and maintaining the container in the compartment interior at a desired temperature and the interior of the at least one container under at least a partial vacuum. The compartment interior may be cooled to the desired temperature after a desired portion of air is removed from the compartment interior. The method may included releasing the at least partial vacuum and allowing ambient air to enter the compartment while maintaining the container in the compartment at a desired temperature and maintaining the interior of the at least one container under at least a partial vacuum.

More preferably, the method further includes the step of ensuring that the interior of the compartment is at ambient pressure before opening the door of the compartment, by releasing any vacuum and allowing ambient air to enter the compartment.

A plurality of the containers may be placed in the compartment interior and at least one container may be left in the compartment interior after the door is opened. The one way valve continues to maintain the interior of the at least one container left in the compartment interior under at least a partial vacuum. The method may further include placing an additional container into the compartment interior, closing the door, and evacuating at least a portion of the air from the compartment interior around the additional container, whereby air in the additional container flows out through the one way valve until at least a partial vacuum is achieved in the compartment interior and the interior of the additional container.

The container may be a beverage bottle, for example a wine bottle, or any other food storage container.

In a related aspect, the present invention is directed to a method for storing containers and maintaining contents of the containers under elevated pressure comprising providing at least one container, with each container having a one way valve. The one way valve permits flow of air into the container when the interior of the container is at a lower pressure than ambient pressure outside the container and restricts flow of air out of the container when the when the interior of the container is at a higher pressure than the ambient pressure. The method also includes providing a compartment having a door and an interior of sufficient size to receive the at least one container, the door having a hermetic seal to permit the compartment interior to be maintained at a pressure higher than atmospheric pressure when the door is closed. The method then includes opening the door of the compartment, placing the at least one container in the compartment interior, closing the door, and pumping air into the compartment interior around the at least one container. Air in the container flows in through the one way valve until an elevated pressure above atmospheric pressure is achieved in the compartment interior and the interior of the container. The method further includes removing air from the compartment interior until the interior is at atmospheric pressure while the one way valve maintains the interior of the at least one container under an elevated pressure. The method then includes opening the door of the compartment, and removing at least one container from the compartment interior while the one way valve continues to maintain the interior of the at least one container under an elevated pressure.

Preferably, the method further includes, after closing the door, cooling the compartment interior to a desired temperature, and maintaining the container in the compartment interior at a desired temperature and the interior of the at least one container under an elevated pressure.

The present invention also provides a vacuum or pressure refrigerator for storing containers and maintaining contents of the containers under vacuum or pressure, and within a specific temperature range. The refrigerator comprises a compartment having an interior, a door for hermetically sealing the interior and an air vent for allowing atmospheric air to enter or leave the compartment interior, a pump for evacuating air from or adding air into the compartment interior, a cooling device for cooling the compartment interior, and a temperature sensor for measuring the temperature in the compartment interior. The refrigerator also includes a controller having a first input from the temperature sensor, an output for controlling the operation of the cooling device, an output for controlling the operation of the pump, and an output for opening and closing the air vent. When the door is closed, the controller is adapted to cease operation of the cooling device and initiate a vacuum or pressure cycle. The vacuum or pressure cycle includes commencing pump operation, evacuating at least a portion of or pressurizing the air inside the compartment, operating the pump until a desired degree of vacuum or pressure is attained inside the compartment and terminating pump operation. The controller is also adapted to subsequently initiate a cooling cycle, the cooling cycle commencing when it is determined that the temperature is above a desired temperature upper set point and to operate the cooling device until the temperature reaches a desired lower set point, at which time the cooling cycle is terminated.

Preferably, the refrigerator includes a door sensor for determining whether the door is open or closed, and the controller includes a second input from the door sensor. The controller is adapted to cease operation of the cooling device and initiate a vacuum or pressure cycle upon receiving an input from the door sensor that the door is closed. More preferably, the controller is further adapted to open the air vent and add air into or remove air from the compartment before or during the cooling cycle, and to close the air vent and repeat the vacuum or pressure pump cycle after the cooling cycle is terminated. The controller may initiate the vacuum or pressure cycle at a desired time after the door is closed, and may be adjusted to vary such desired time.

In one embodiment, the pump is a vacuum pump for evacuating air from the compartment interior and the controller is adapted to initiate the vacuum cycle. The refrigerator further includes a container in the compartment interior having vacuum stopper contacting and sealing with an opening in the container. The stopper has an opening therethrough between the container interior and exterior and a one-way valve disposed in the opening, such that the one way valve opens and air may be released from the container through the one way valve during the vacuum cycle when the pressure inside the container is greater than the pressure outside the container and such that the one way valve closes when the pressure outside the container is greater than the pressure inside the container.

In another embodiment, the pump is a pressure pump for adding air into the compartment interior and the controller is adapted to initiate the pressure cycle. The refrigerator further includes a container in the compartment interior having a pressure stopper contacting and sealing with an opening in the container. The stopper has an opening therethrough between the container interior and exterior and a one-way valve disposed in the opening, such that the one way valve opens and air is added into the container through the one way valve during the pressure cycle when the pressure outside the container is greater than the pressure inside the container and such that the one way valve closes when the pressure outside the container is less than the pressure inside the container.

The cooling device may include a refrigerator compressor, and the refrigerator may include a common electric motor for operating both the compressor and the pump.

In yet another aspect, the present invention provides a system for storing containers and maintaining contents of the containers under vacuum or pressure comprising a compartment having an interior, a door for hermetically sealing the interior, an air vent for allowing atmospheric air to enter or leave the compartment interior, a pump for evacuating air from or adding air into the compartment interior, and a controller having an output for controlling the operation of the pump, and an output for opening and closing the air vent. The system further includes a container in the compartment interior having a stopper contacting and sealing with an opening in the container. The stopper has an opening therethrough between the container interior and exterior and a one-way valve disposed in the stopper opening. When door is closed, the controller is adapted to initiate a vacuum or pressure cycle. The vacuum or pressure cycle includes commencing pump operation, evacuating at least a portion of or pressurizing the air inside the compartment, operating the pump until a desired degree of vacuum or pressure is attained inside the compartment and terminating pump operation. During such vacuum or pressure cycle the one way valve opens and either: i) if the pump evacuates air from inside the compartment, air is released from the container through the one way valve during the vacuum cycle when the pressure inside the container is greater than the pressure outside the container and wherein the one way valve closes when the pressure outside the container is greater than the pressure inside the container, or ii) if the pump pressurizing the air inside the compartment, air is added into the container through the one way valve during the pressure cycle when the pressure outside the container is greater than the pressure inside the container and wherein the one way valve closes when the pressure outside the container is less than the pressure inside the container.

The system may include a door sensor for determining whether the door is open or closed. In such case, the controller has an input from the door sensor, and the controller is adapted to initiate the vacuum or pressure cycle upon receiving an input from the controller that the door is closed.

The compartment may be refrigerated to cool the container in the compartment interior. Alternatively, the compartment may be disposed within a refrigerator having a refrigerator door. The refrigerator has sufficient volume to store items at a desired cooled temperature outside of the compartment, and the refrigerator door may be opened and closed independently of the compartment door.

The system may further include an auxiliary compartment having a door for storing additional containers. The auxiliary compartment is connected to the main compartment by a conduit that permits air flow therethrough to evacuate or pressurize the auxiliary compartment at the same time as the main compartment. Where the main compartment is refrigerated, the conduit permits cooling air flow therethrough to cool the auxiliary compartment at the same time as the main compartment.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS

The features of the invention believed to be novel and the elements characteristic of the invention are set forth with particularity in the appended claims. The figures are for illustration purposes only and are not drawn to scale. The invention itself, however, both as to organization and method of operation, may best be understood by reference to the detailed description which follows taken in conjunction with the accompanying drawings in which:

FIG. 1 is a schematic of the preferred combination refrigerator and air evacuation/pressurization system for food or beverage containers according to the present invention.

FIG. 2 is a partial front perspective view showing air evacuation from a food or beverage container inside a vacuum chamber according to one embodiment of the present invention.

FIG. 3 is a partial front perspective view showing air pressurization into a food or beverage container inside a pressurization chamber according to another embodiment of the present invention.

FIG. 4 is a schematic of the vacuum/pressure pump and compressor drive system of an alternate embodiment according to the present invention.

FIG. 5 is another embodiment of the system of FIG. 1 in which the evacuation/pressurization system is located as a separate compartment inside a refrigerator.

DESCRIPTION OF THE PREFERRED EMBODIMENT(S)

In describing the preferred embodiment of the present invention, reference will be made herein to FIGS. 1-5 of the drawings in which like numerals refer to like features of the invention.

The present invention describes uses of stoppers having one-way valves in a system for maintaining proper pressure and temperature, which stoppers are described in U.S. Pat. Nos. 5,031,785 and 7,198,074, the disclosures of which are hereby incorporated by reference.

FIG. 1 shows a schematic of a combination refrigerator and air evacuation or pressurization system. A combined refrigerator and vacuum and/or pressure chamber 20 is provided with an otherwise conventional refrigeration compressor or thermoelectric cooler 32 to cool the interior compartment of the refrigerator and a vacuum or pressure pump 30 to remove air from or add air to the interior compartment of the refrigerator. While a combined vacuum/pressure pump may be employed, so that the system may be used in both vacuum or pressure modes (though not at the same time), the preferred system of the present invention will set up for either vacuum-only operation, or pressure-only operation, and consequently will have either only a vacuum pump or a pressure pump. The vacuum pump embodiment creates a vacuum within the interior of the refrigerator, with the vacuum being defined as a pressure state below that of the ambient atmospheric air pressure on the exterior of the refrigerator. The pressure pump embodiment creates a pressurized atmosphere within the interior of the refrigerator, with the pressurized atmosphere being defined as a pressure state above that of the ambient atmospheric air pressure on the exterior of the refrigerator.

The refrigerator chamber 20 has walls 24 and a door 22 that is hermetically sealable, and may include a latch 46 to keep the door closed, particularly when used with the pressure pump embodiment. In the vacuum pump embodiment, when the door is closed and air is evacuated from the refrigerator, the interior of the refrigerator is a vacuum chamber. In the pressure pump embodiment, when the door is closed and air is introduced into the refrigerator, the interior of the refrigerator is a pressure chamber. The walls and door are preferably reinforced to resist crushing when the air is evacuated from the interior of the refrigerator, or expansion when air is added to the interior of the refrigerator.

As shown in more detail in FIGS. 2 and 3, food or beverage container 40 having an opening therein (shown by way of example as a wine bottle with the conventional cork removed) has a stopper 42 including a one-way valve 44 or 44a. The stopper may be of the type shown in U.S. Pat. No. 5,031,785 and is sealably inserted in the container opening. In the vacuum embodiment show in FIG. 2, one-way vacuum valve 44 automatically opens when the pressure above the stopper 42 is lower than the air pressure inside the container 40, and automatically closes when the air pressure above the stopper is greater than the air pressure inside the container. Such a stopper having a one-way vacuum valve 44 is referred to herein as a vacuum stopper. In the pressure embodiment show in FIG. 3, one-way pressure valve 44a automatically opens when the pressure above the stopper 42 is greater than the air pressure inside the container 40, and automatically closes when the air pressure above the stopper is lower than the air pressure inside the container. Such a stopper having a one-way pressure valve 44a is referred to herein as a pressure stopper, and preferably includes a locking mechanism to hold the stopper onto the container when the contents are at elevated pressure. The contents of the container may thus be maintained either under a vacuum (using the vacuum stopper) or under pressure (using the pressure stopper) until the contents of the container are to be accessed. To access the contents, the one way valve is opened, typically by tilting the valve, to equalize pressure between the inside and outside of the container, and the stopper is removed to open the container.

Again referring to FIG. 1, the preferred system of the present invention has a temperature sensor 36 for measuring the temperature inside the refrigerator 20. The temperature sensor may be placed inside the refrigerator so that the container 40 contacts the temperature sensor 36 directly, for example by locating the temperature sensor on a surface upon which the container 40 is placed. The temperature sensor may alternately be located in a position away from the container whereby the temperature sensor 36 indicates the temperature at a location within the refrigerator interior. A door sensor 38 indicates when the door 22 is in a fully closed position. A momentary contact switch may be utilized as the door sensor 38 by placing the switch in the path of the doorway such that the door activates the switch when the door is in a substantially closed position. Optional door latch 46 engages the door and prevents the door from opening until pressure in the chamber 20 interior returns to atmospheric pressure, whereupon the latch may be released. A vacuum or pressure release 50 is provided for allowing air to reenter or escape from the refrigerator 20 and includes an air exchange opening or vent 52 disposed on one of the walls 24 of the refrigerator. When in the vacuum mode, the release, when activated, allows the atmospheric air to enter the interior of the refrigerator 20 through the air exchange opening 52. When in the pressure mode, the release, when activated, allows the air from the interior of the refrigerator 20 to escape to the atmosphere through the air exchange opening 52.

The preferred refrigerator/evacuator system embodiment includes a controller 34 which coordinates the utility of the refrigerator compressor or thermoelectric cooler 32, vacuum pump 30, and vacuum release 50 with signal inputs from the temperature sensor 36 and door sensor 38. More preferably, the vacuum release is operable both by the controller in an automated vacuum release and by the user in a manual release, whereby the user may release the vacuum for allowing the door to be opened. The manual release may be a mechanical release or an electronic release wherein the user depresses a switch (not shown) to instruct the controller to operate the automated vacuum release to permit air 71 (FIG. 2) to flow into the compartment interior and equalize pressure between the interior of chamber 20 and the exterior atmospheric air.

Upon the door 22 closing, the controller 34 initiates a vacuum cycle, the vacuum cycle including commencing the vacuum pump operation, evacuating at least a portion of the air inside the compartment and terminating the vacuum pump operation when a desired degree of vacuum is attained inside the compartment. Alternatively, the vacuum cycle may be commenced at a desired time interval after the door is closed, for example, using a delay of from about 5 to 15 minutes, which time interval may be set by the user through the controller. The vacuum cycle may also be commenced manually, in place of or overriding the controller. Preferably the refrigeration cycle is then initiated by controller 34, by commencing operation of either the refrigeration compressor or the thermoelectric cooler, only after the termination of the vacuum cycle and when it is determined that the temperature is above a desired temperature upper set point. Optionally, the refrigeration cooling cycle may operate during the vacuum pump-down cycle. The refrigeration cycle may include re-introducing air into the compartment until a desired pressure is achieved (up to and including atmospheric pressure outside the refrigerator), operating the compressor 32 until the temperature reaches the desired temperature lower set point, and then terminating operation of the compressor. A vacuum cycle is then optionally repeated. Alternately, the compressor cycle may exclude the introduction of air into the refrigerator compartment whereby the repeating of the vacuum cycle may also be omitted. Since the inside of container 40 is already evacuated (or at a lower than atmospheric pressure) and one-way valve stopper 42 prevents air from re-entering the container, the air pressure inside the compartment may be at any desired pressure.

Referring to FIGS. 1 and 2, in the preferred method for using the vacuum embodiment of the present invention, the vacuum stopper 42 with the one-way vacuum valve 44 is placed in the neck of open food or beverage container 40, so that the inside of the container is initially at normal atmospheric pressure. A separate vacuum stopper is provided for each container when there are multiple containers to be maintained in the refrigerator compartment. The container with vacuum stopper is then placed inside the refrigerator 20, and the door 22 is closed for a vacuum pump-down cycle. The refrigerator cooling compressor or thermoelectric device 32 is shut off and the air exchange opening 52 in the refrigerator is sealed closed. The vacuum pump 30 operation is then commenced and air is evacuated from the interior of the refrigerator 20. As the air pressure in the refrigerator interior decreases, the one-way valve 44 in the stopper 42 automatically opens as a result of the air pressure differential to release air from the container interior into the refrigerator interior, which air is then pumped out by the vacuum pump. When the vacuum pump 30 reduces the air pressure in the refrigerator interior to a desired vacuum level, the pump is turned off.

When the temperature inside the refrigerator 20 rises to a predetermined temperature set by the user, the controller 34 commences a cooling cycle which reduces the temperature of the refrigerator interior and the container 40 inside the refrigerator to a lower temperature set point. The cooling cycle optionally includes activating the vacuum release 50, allowing air to enter the refrigerator through the air exchange openings 52, whereby the vacuum is released and air pressure inside the refrigerator returns to atmospheric pressure. Since the one-way valve in the vacuum stopper 42 closes when the refrigerator interior pressure increases to a pressure above that inside the bottle, the vacuum inside the bottle is maintained. The cooling cycle includes the controller 34 operating the cooling compressor or thermoelectric device 32 until the refrigerator interior and wine bottles 40 are cooled to the desired temperature. The controller then operates the vacuum pump 30 to evacuate the air from the interior of the refrigerator 20. In an alternate method of the cooling cycle, the vacuum pump operation may be omitted if the door has not been opened subsequent to the previous vacuum cycle since the stopper 42 one way valve 44 maintains the vacuum inside container 40.

If the refrigerator door needs to be opened when there is still a vacuum inside the refrigerator, air is introduced into the compartment by engaging vacuum release 50 to bring the interior up to ambient atmospheric pressure before the door 22 can be opened. For example, a new container 40′ having contents at atmospheric pressure may be placed inside the refrigeration chamber 20 with a vacuum stopper 42′. Original container 40, which was in the refrigeration chamber 20 during the previous vacuum pump-down cycle, has contents that remain under vacuum due to its vacuum stopper 42. After the refrigerator door is closed, the refrigerator goes through the vacuum pump-down cycle described above to remove air from the interior of chamber 20 and from only new container 40′. Should air leak into container 40 through vacuum stopper 42 over time, container 40 will also be evacuated. Thus, multiple containers may be placed in or removed from the chamber, with those containers remaining in the chamber maintaining their vacuum by their vacuum stoppers, and the new containers being evacuated during the next vacuum pump-down cycle. Those containers that remain in the chamber will also tend to maintain their refrigerated temperature if the chamber door is not left open for an excessive amount of time.

In another embodiment of the system and method of the present invention, air may be evacuated from a container using a vacuum chamber 20 without incorporating a refrigeration system as described in the combination refrigerator and air evacuator system above. As before, the system and method employ container 40 having a one way valve 44, with the one way valve restricting flow of air into the container when the when the interior of the container is at a lower pressure than ambient pressure outside the container. The system and method utilize vacuum chamber 20 having a door 22, an interior of sufficient size to receive the container and a vacuum pump 30 for evacuating air from the vacuum chamber 20. Neither refrigeration compressor 32 nor temperature sensor 36 are required in this embodiment. The method is practiced in the same manner as described above, except that the compartment inside chamber 20 is not temperature controlled. Once the interior is at ambient pressure, door 22 is opened, container 40 with the one way valve 44 is placed inside the vacuum chamber and the door is closed. The method also includes commencing operation of the vacuum pump 30, evacuating at least a portion of the air in the interior of the vacuum chamber 20, permitting air inside the container 40 to be released through the one way valve into the interior of the vacuum chamber as the pressure inside the vacuum chamber is reduced, and terminating operation of the vacuum pump when the pressure in the interior of the vacuum chamber reaches a desired level below ambient pressure.

In FIG. 2 the air flow arrows 70 indicate the air flow during the vacuum pump operation, evacuating the air from the container 40 as the air inside the vacuum chamber 20 is evacuated by the vacuum pump. The one way vacuum valve 44 then substantially maintains the interior of the container 40 below ambient pressure. The air flow arrows 71 show the flow of air from the atmosphere, through the air exchange opening 52 and into the vacuum chamber 20 interior during operation of the vacuum release. During this time the one-way valve 44 in vacuum stopper 42 prevents the air from reentering the container 40. The vacuum may be released, and air reintroduced into the interior of vacuum chamber 20 immediately after air is removed from container 40, immediately before the door 22 is opened, or at any time therebetween.

To increase the rate of air removal from the vacuum chamber, an optional additional vacuum chamber or tank 80 may be connected to the interior compartment from refrigerator/chamber 20 by line 82 and valve 86, as shown in FIG. 1. Vacuum pump 30 is operatively connected to pump air out of tank 80 in advance of the evacuation of the interior of chamber 20 and create the desired degree of vacuum in the tank. Once the system begins to evacuate the interior of chamber 20, valve 86 is opened by controller 34 and a portion of the air in chamber 20 flows into tank 80, providing for faster evacuation of the former. Valve 86 is then closed, and vacuum pump 30 then continues to remove air from the interior of chamber 20 in the manner described previously. The volume of tank 80 relative to the volume of the interior of chamber 20 will determine the degree to which speed of evacuation of the chamber interior is increased.

As an alternative to evacuating air from the container 40, the present invention may be used to pressurize the contents thereof, for example, carbonated beverages such as soda or sparkling wine. In such case, the pressure stopper has one-way valve 44a positioned opposite to that shown in FIG. 3, so that air 70′ may enter through the valve in pressure stopper 24 into the container when the pressure above the stopper and outside the container is above the pressure below the stopper and inside the container. If the pressure inside the container is above that outside of the container, the valve 44a then is sealed against the stopper. The steps used to pressurize the containers inside refrigerator chamber 20 are the same as those described previously, except that air is pumped into the chamber compartment instead of evacuated therefrom. The controller 34 in the preferred refrigerator/pressurizing system embodiment coordinates the utility of the refrigerator compressor or thermoelectric cooler 32, pressure pump 30, and pressure release 50 with signal inputs from the temperature sensor 36 and door sensor 38. The pressure release is operable both by the controller in an automated pressure release and by the user in a manual release, whereby vent 52 is opened to cause pressurized air 71′ (FIG. 3) to flow out of the compartment interior and release the pressure in the chamber 20, which then disengages door latch 46 and permits the door to be opened. The manual release may be mechanical or electronic, operable by a switch (not shown) to instruct the controller to operate the automated pressure release.

Upon the door 22 closing, the controller 34 initiates a pressure cycle that commences the pressure pump operation to pump air into the chamber 20 interior and terminates the pressure pump operation when a desired degree of pressure is attained inside the chamber. Alternatively, as with the vacuum embodiment, the pressure cycle may be commenced at a desired time interval after the door is closed, as set by the user using the controller, or commenced manually, in place of or overriding the controller. Preferably the refrigeration cycle is then initiated by controller 34, by commencing operation of either the refrigeration compressor or the thermoelectric cooler, only after the termination of the pressure cycle and when it is determined that the temperature is above a desired temperature upper set point. Optionally, the refrigeration cooling cycle may operate during the pressurizing cycle. The refrigeration cycle may include evacuating air from the compartment until a desired pressure is achieved, e.g., atmospheric pressure, operating the compressor 32 until the temperature reaches the desired temperature lower set point, and then terminating operation of the compressor. A pressure cycle is then optionally repeated. Alternately, the compressor cycle may exclude the evacuation of air into the refrigerator compartment whereby the repeating of the pressure cycle may also be omitted. Since the inside of container 40 is already pressurized at above atmospheric pressure and one-way valve stopper 42 prevents air from leaving the container, the air pressure inside the chamber 20 interior may be at any desired pressure.

As shown in FIGS. 1 and 3, the preferred method for using the pressure embodiment of the present invention, the pressure stopper 42 with the one-way pressure valve 44a is placed in the neck of open food or beverage container 40, so that the inside of the container is initially at normal atmospheric pressure. A separate pressure stopper is provided for each container when there are multiple containers to be maintained in the refrigerator compartment. The container with pressure stopper is then placed inside the refrigerator 20, and the door 22 is closed for a pressurizing cycle. The refrigerator cooling compressor or thermoelectric device 32 is shut off and the air exchange opening 52 in the refrigerator is sealed closed. The pressure pump 30 operation is then commenced and air is pumped into the interior of the refrigerator 20. As the air pressure in the refrigerator interior increases, the one-way valve 44a in the stopper 42 automatically opens as a result of the air pressure differential to introduce air from the refrigerator interior into the container interior. When the pressure pump 30 increases the air pressure in the refrigerator interior to a desired level, the pump is turned off.

When the temperature inside the refrigerator 20 rises to a predetermined temperature set by the user, the controller 34 commences a cooling cycle which reduces the temperature of the refrigerator interior and the container 40 inside the refrigerator to a lower temperature set point. The cooling cycle optionally includes activating the pressure release 50, allowing air to exit the refrigerator through the air exchange openings 52, whereby the pressure is released and air pressure inside the refrigerator returns to atmospheric pressure. Since the one-way valve in the pressure stopper 42 closes when the refrigerator interior pressure decreased to a pressure above that inside the bottle, the pressure inside the bottle is maintained. The cooling cycle includes the controller 34 operating the cooling compressor or thermoelectric device 32 until the refrigerator interior and wine bottles 40 are cooled to the desired temperature. The controller then operates the pressure pump 30 to pump air into the interior of the refrigerator 20. In an alternate method of the cooling cycle, the pressure pump operation may be omitted if the door has not been opened subsequent to the previous pressure cycle since the stopper 42 one way valve 44a maintains the pressure inside container 40.

If the refrigerator door needs to be opened when there is still elevated pressure inside the refrigerator, air is removed from the chamber interior by engaging pressure release 50 to bring the interior down to ambient atmospheric pressure before the door 22 can be opened. For example, a new container 40′ having contents at atmospheric pressure may be placed inside the refrigeration chamber 20 with a pressure stopper 42′. Original container 40, which was in the refrigeration chamber 20 during the previous pressure cycle, has contents that remain under pressure due to its pressure stopper 42. After the refrigerator door is closed, the refrigerator goes through the pressure cycle described above to pump air into the interior of chamber 20 and new container 40′. Should air leak out of container 40 through pressure stopper 42 over time, container 40 will also be pressurized. Thus, multiple containers may be placed in or removed from the chamber, with those containers remaining in the chamber maintaining their pressure by their pressure stoppers, and the new containers being pressurized during the next pressure cycle. Those containers that remain in the chamber will also tend to maintain their refrigerated temperature if the chamber door is not left open for an excessive amount of time.

As with the vacuum embodiment, the pressurization system embodiment may be constructed and operated without incorporating a refrigeration system.

Although the present invention has in one embodiment a refrigeration compressor and a vacuum or pressure pump, each with a drive system having a dedicated motor, FIG. 4 shows an alternate embodiment of the drive system, wherein the compressor and the vacuum or pressure pump may be powered from a common electric motor 100. A first clutch 120 engages the compressor 32 with a shaft 130 on the electric motor and a second clutch 110 engages the vacuum pump 30 with the shaft. Preferably the compressor and the vacuum or pressure pump do not operate concurrently.

As further shown in FIG. 1, an auxiliary chamber or compartment 26 may also be incorporated into either the vacuum or pressure embodiments of the present invention. The interior of chamber 26 is connected by conduit 54 to the interior of chamber 20, and includes a valve 84 to close the conduit. When valve 84 is open, either manually or by controller 34, and door 28 is closed, the interior of chamber 26 is evacuated or pressurized to the same degree as the interior of chamber 20 by operation of vacuum or pressure pump 30, as described previously. Auxiliary chamber 26 may include the same controller-operable door and temperature sensors, vacuum or pressure release, and door latch as chamber 20. While chamber 20 preferably includes the refrigeration compressor or thermoelectric cooler to maintain the contents at a controlled temperature below room temperature, auxiliary chamber 26 may forgo such cooling device. Instead, conduit 54 may employ a fan or air pump 88 to draw a desired amount of cooled air therethrough from chamber 20 to reduce the temperature in auxiliary chamber 26 below room temperature. (In the case of the vacuum embodiment, after chambers 20 and 26 were evacuated to remove the air from containers 40, 40′ and 40″, air vent 52 would have to be opened and air reenter the chambers in order to achieve a cooling air flow through conduit 54. Such an embodiment would permit white wine in bottles 40 and 40′ with vacuum stoppers 42 and 42′, respectively, to be stored under vacuum at preferred cooler temperatures in refrigerated chamber 20 while red wine in bottle 40″ with vacuum stopper 42″ is stored under vacuum in auxiliary chamber 26 at room temperature or at a temperature between room temperature and the lower temperature of chamber 20.

In a further embodiment, the vacuum/pressurization chamber or compartment 20 is located inside a refrigerator 20a of larger volume, as shown in FIG. 5, so that there is provided additional space in the refrigerator 20a around chamber or compartment 20 that may be cooled to a desired temperature without being evacuated or pressurized. In this embodiment, refrigerator door 22a may be opened independently of chamber door 22, so that items may be placed in, stored, and removed from the refrigerator separately from the containers stored in chamber 20. The containers in chamber 20 may still be accessed via chamber door 22 within refrigerator 20a, and operation of chamber or compartment 20 in the vacuum and pressure modes proceeds in the manner described above.

Although the invention is described above in connection with the storage of wine in bottles, it may also be used in connection with storage of any beverage or other product (foodstuff or otherwise) in a container in which vacuum or pressure storage would be advantageous.

Thus, the present invention provides a system and method of evacuating or pressurizing a plurality of beverage or other liquid containers that does not require individual mating with a pump while the containers are in the refrigerator. The preferred combination refrigerator and air pump maintains beverage containers in storage under controlled vacuum or pressure within specific temperature and pressure limits. The system of the present invention further permits one or more containers to stay vacuum or pressure sealed and temperature controlled when the chamber door is opened. New containers placed in the chamber will be automatically evacuated or pressurized to the desired level after the next automatic or manual vacuum or pressure cycle.

While the present invention has been particularly described, in conjunction with a specific preferred embodiment, it is evident that many alternatives, modifications and variations will be apparent to those skilled in the art in light of the foregoing description. It is therefore contemplated that the appended claims will embrace any such alternatives, modifications and variations as falling within the true scope and spirit of the present invention.