The Ultimate RV Refrigerator Guide

RV Owners

One of the best things about an RV is the fact that it gives campers access to key household appliances during their camping adventures. One of the most useful appliances? The RV refrigerator!

Of course, you will need to know how to use and take care of your RV fridge and may even find yourself needing to replace it at some point. This guide addresses all of these things and more. 

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Buying an RV Refrigerator

In some cases, all the maintenance and DIY troubleshooting in the world won’t fix your RV fridge. In this case, you’ll need to look into buying a new RV refrigerator. Here’s what you need to know about shopping for a new RV fridge. 

What to Look for in an RV Refrigerator

First, be sure to consider your personal wants and needs. Preferences will vary from one RVer to the next and will depend a lot on your camping style.

  • Will you be dry camping? If so, you need a propane and/or DC power function.
  • How much space do you require in your fridge? A large family that likes to cook might want a roomy residential fridge.
  • How big is the space where the fridge will live? Make sure you get accurate measurements before you buy anything!

How to Measure for an RV Refrigerator

Okay, so knowing how big your RV fridge space is is definitely important, but how do you determine that? The best way is to remove the current fridge and measure the space it is living in. 

  1. First, turn off the propane, electric controls, and battery. 
  2. Unplug the main power, then turn off your generator and house battery. 
  3. Locate the access panel on the outside of your RV to access the back of your fridge. 
  4. Disconnect the supply line and 12V wires.
  5. Go back inside to unscrew the fridge. Remove any caulk holding it in place and gently pull it out.
  6. Once the fridge is pulled out, use a measuring tape to determine the height, depth, and width of the refrigerator space. 

Absorption fridges should fit fairly snug in the space. Residential refrigerators will need a couple of inches in the back for air circulation. Some also require circulation space on the sides.

In some cases, it may be possible to search for the dimensions of your current RV refrigerator in order to determine how much space you have without removing the old unit. 

What is the Best RV Refrigerator?

The best RV refrigerator for you is the one that suits your needs, meaning the answer varies for different people.

There are three main companies that specialize in RV fridges – you can get a RecPro, Norcold, or a Dometic RV fridge. Most RV forums agree that both are similar and you can find a quality fridge from any of these companies. 

Best Rated RV Refrigerators

The following RV refrigerators get awesome reviews. If you aren’t sure where to begin, we recommend taking a look at these top picks. 

Where to Buy RV Refrigerators

You can, of course, talk to your RV dealer and get a refrigerator that way. You can also purchase them directly from the manufacturer via their website. Some RV refrigerators can even be purchased from Amazon and other online retailers like Camping World. 

Another option? You can buy used through Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, or even a local RV dealership. Buying used can save you a ton of money, so it might be worth looking around. 

Tips for Buying Used

When buying used, check for a few key things to make sure the fridge operates properly.

  • First, make sure the fridge has been turned of for at least 6 hours when you go to check it out. 
  • Take a thermometer and make sure the fridge is 36 degrees or cooler. The freezer should be 10 degrees or cooler. 
  • Check the seals to make sure they keep cold air inside the unit. 
  • Also, check for smells. It can be impossible to get rid of bad fridge smells. 

RV Refrigerator Usage and Maintenance

The average RV refrigerator will last between 15 and 20 years. That said, in order to get that many years out of your fridge, you will have to put forth some effort. This means knowing what type of fridge you have, understanding how it works, and learning how to use and maintain the unit properly. 

Read on to learn all of these things, so your fridge keeps going for as long as possible. 

RV Refrigerator Types

Not all RV fridges are the same. Make sure you know which type you have, so you can get the most out of it. Most RVs feature one of four types of refrigerators:

  • A 2-way RV refrigerator gives the user the option of running the fridge using either AC power (shore power or generator) or LP gas.
  • A 3-way RV refrigerator can use the power sources mentioned above, or DC power from the house batteries.
  • A residential fridge is nearly identical to the fridge in your house, only differing in size. The benefits of a residential fridge are that it offers more storage space and better cooling. The drawback? It cannot run on propane, meaning you either have to have a great battery bank or access to electricity at all times. 
  • Finally, a hybrid fridge offers the best of both worlds: functioning as a residential fridge when electrical hookups are available and as a propane absorption camper fridge when they aren’t. 

Tips for Using Your RV Fridge

  • Turn it on early — Your fridge will need at least 6 hours to fully cool down. Turn it on the night before you plan to use it.
  • Start with cold stuff — Loading the RV refrigerator with cold items will help it cool down faster.
  • Don’t overload it — It’s important to leave space for cool air to move between items. For this reason, you’ll need to make sure you don’t overpack your camper fridge.
  • Install a fan — If you plan on camping in very hot weather, you will want to purchase and install a small refrigerator fan to help keep your unit cool.
  • Keep it shut — Opening the fridge and freezer doors often will make the unit work harder to stay cool, so keeping the doors shut as much as you can is the way to go.
  • Check the seals — Loose or dirty seals can also let cool air escape. Check your seals regularly and clean and replace them as needed.
  • Take time to thaw — Trailer and motorhome refrigerators and freezers are not frost-free. If you’ll be using yours for an extended period of time, make sure to take time to thaw them out from time to time.
  • Stay level — RV refrigerators can be ruined if run while unleveled, so be sure you’re always level while parked. Check for obstructions — Your refrigerator needs adequate ventilation to cool properly. Regularly check the back and front vents for obstructions (such as leaves, dirt, and debris) and remove anything you find there.
  • Change the settings — You may find that you need to change the settings based on the weather. For instance, hotter weather may call for a cooler setting. Meanwhile, cooler weather will not require the fridge to work as hard, meaning a lower setting should be fine.

Storing an RV Fridge

Long-term RV storage can sometimes cause issues with the operation of your RV refrigerator, but you can avoid these problems by properly prepping the fridge. 

  1. Always make sure the fridge is completely turned off before putting your coach in storage. 
  2. Close off and disconnect the propane tank valves. 
  3. Remove any food and ice.
  4. Thaw the fridge and freezer fins, catching any excess water with a towel and making sure to dry the inside of the unit well. 
  5. Prop open your refrigerator doors while storing. 

Before heading out on your first trip after storing the rig for a while, be sure to follow the steps below to get your RV fridge ready to go. 

  1. With the fridge off, remove the outside vent cover that allows for back access.
  2. Check the connections. 
  3. Now locate the burner, the flue is directly above. The baffle is inside the flue. Use an air compressor to blow air into the flue. 
  4. Continue to use the air compressor to remove dust and debris that has built up around the compartment.
  5. Turn the fridge on at least 6 hours before you head out. 

How Much Propane Does an RV Refrigerator Use?

Many people—especially those who plan to do a lot of dry camping—wonder how much LP gas their RV refrigerator will consume.

Obviously, the answer to this depends on the refrigerator in question and the temperature while the fridge is in use, among other things. However, one can typically expect to use an average of 1.5 lbs of propane per day when running their RV refrigerator.

Troubleshooting Techniques

Sometimes RV refrigerator issues will come up, even if you use your unit correctly. Below, we will cover some of the more common issues and their solutions. 

How Does an RV Refrigerator Work?

Before you dive into attempting to fix your RV fridge, you might want to have a basic understanding of how it works. If you have a residential fridge, it will work just like the one at home. However, traditional RV refrigerators (known as absorption refrigerators) work very differently. 

In the simplest terms, an absorption fridge works by using heat created by electricity or an open flame to send ammonia, hydrogen gas, and water through various tubes, creating chemical reactions. The evaporation and condensation created by these reactions keep things nice and cool.

Pilot Light Won’t Stay Lit

If your fridge pilot light won’t stay lit when the unit is in propane mode, you may have a bad gas-flow. First, remove the outside fridge vent cover and clean the flue, burner tube, and the orifice inside the flame area using compressed air.

If this doesn’t fix the issue, you could have a thermocouple problem. The thermocouple is attached to the main gas valve and may need to be replaced. 

Fridge Runs on Propane, But Not Electric

If the propane side of your fridge works, but the electric side won’t, check all the circuit breakers and fuses. You can also check the outlet on the back of the refrigerator by using a multimeter to check for power voltage. 

If the voltage checks out okay and all lights work, then you may have a problem with the heating element. This is a dangerous part to work with and should be replaced by a professional.

Check Lights Are On

Most RV refrigerators have little lights that indicate something is wrong. If these come on, low voltage from low or dead coach batteries could be the cause. Not enough propane will also cause this issue. 

Fridge Not Cooling in Any Mode

If your fridge simply won’t cool no matter the mode, you could be looking at clog that is blocking the cooling chemicals from moving properly. You can find out if this is the problem yourself. 

  1. Turn the fridge on and allow it to run for a few minutes.
  2. Put on a pair of heat-resistant work gloves.
  3. Access the backside of the refrigerator and feel the cooling unit. Make sure that the heat is even in the boiler, absorber and the middle portion of the unit.  

If the heat is even, this is not your problem. If it’s not, there may be a blockage. You may be able to solve the issue by moving the RV to more level ground, but in many cases, a blockage means calling in a professional or even replacing the fridge entirely. 

Ammonia Smell

If you smell ammonia when near the fridge, you are almost certainly dealing with a leaking cooling unit. You can look for yellow residue on the back of the unit to help confirm this. In this case, you will either need to pay a professional to replace the cooling unit or replace the fridge itself. 

Obviously, your RV refrigerator is an important piece of equipment that you definitely don’t want to travel without. Hopefully, this guide helps you navigate using and maintaining your fridge and even replacing it when the time comes. 

Once you have a good idea of how your RV refrigerator and other appliances work, why not help others discover the magic of taking your kitchen with you wherever you roam? By renting your RV you can do just that!