If you can't stand the heat, you don't have to get out of the kitchen, says Rick Ledbetter.

If you can't stand the heat, you don't have to get out of the kitchen, says Rick Ledbetter.

Just fire up his invention, the Air Fridge, which fits on top of any stainless steel refrigerator and allows you to cook away in comfort, he says.

"You know how hot kitchens are — they can get up to 120 degrees or more," says Ledbetter, 58, of Central Point. "But this unit can cool it off to about 65 degrees."

While he was referring to commercial kitchens, the inventor, whose other creations include a vacuum pack to keep vegetables fresh, figures the special air conditioner would bring relief in all kitchens, from one found in an average home to a huge cooking facility for a military mess hall.

"All you need is a stainless steel refrigerator," he says. "You put the AC unit, which is also stainless steel, up on top. Then you press a button and 48,500 BTUs cool down a 5,000-square-foot kitchen."

If it happens to be during a cold snap in winter, the unit, which operates like a heat pump, can also be used to heat a kitchen, Ledbetter says.

Born in Klamath Falls, the retired asphalt paver originally came up with the idea to link a cooling system with a refrigerator while watching a TV game show in the early 1980s.

Over the years he has fine-tuned that idea to create the Air Fridge, which simply sits atop a stainless steel refrigerator. All that's needed is access to a 220-volt outlet in a nearby wall.

It's light enough for two people to lift onto a refrigerator, he says.

The two appliances operate independently of each other — while one is keeping food cool, the other keeps kitchen workers cool.

Ledbetter, president of The Airfridge Co. LLC., invented his newest model in 2000. He hired an engineer to help out with the prototype, and had it patented in February 2002.

"This has really strong market potential," says Buck Eichler, 59, of Medford, the product representative for Ledbetter's company. "It doesn't take up any space because it sits on top of an existing refrigerator. As far as installation, it's very fast. There is no duct work needed."

Several large companies have been looking at it, he says.

"Of course, with the economy being what it is now, people are extremely slow to move on something new," he says. "But there are interested parties."

The cost of the Air Fridge will depend on several factors, Eichler says.

"There is always that matrix of how many units are built, and the size of the run," he says. "Of course, if they manufacture more at a time, that will bring the cost way down."

At Southern Oregon University's Small Business Development Center, a practicum project is under way by graduate students to determine how much it will cost to produce, he says.

"The goal is to get it produced at a large enough volume to get the price to a reasonable level," he says.

The invention was well received at a trade fair in Portland, and two prototypes have been made, he says. One is at a Medford home where the Air Fridge immediately cools off anyone in the room.

"A lot of people have a better flashlight or a better fishing lure, but his is a new concept altogether," observes Renee Ledbetter, the inventor's wife.

"But the market phase is the hardest part of all," she adds. "That takes a long time."

"It's the biggest waiting game I've had in my whole life," Rick Ledbetter confirms. "I've never waited on anything as much as this."

As for other inventions, Ledbetter has more ideas but intends to focus on this one.

"This is big enough," he says. "This one is enough to drive you absolutely insane."

But he figures it's cool enough to be a hot item.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.