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. Of these, one of the most useful appliances in an RV is the refrigerator. After all, we all need a way to keep our food cold, and while it is possible to do this with an ice chest, keeping an ice chest stocked with fresh ice is a huge hassle that takes away from the fun of camping.

Of course, no appliance lasts forever, and your RV refrigerator is sure to be in need of repair or replacement at some point. For this reason, it’s a good idea to learn as much as you can about your camper fridge. Knowing things like, “How does an RV fridge work?” as well as the differences between models, and how to properly maintain them, will help you when it comes time to repair or replace the unit in your RV.

How Does an RV Refrigerator Work?

The answer is to this question is not what many people would expect.

You see, these RV-specific units don’t work in the same way a household unit does. Your everyday residential fridge uses a compressor to keep things cool. Meanwhile, an RV fridge has zero moving parts and uses ammonia, hydrogen gas, and water to maintain the cold temperatures needed to keep food fresh. This type of fridge is called an absorption refrigerator.

In the simplest terms, an absorption fridge works by using heat to send the fluids mentioned above through various tubes, creating chemical reactions. The evaporation and condensation created by these reactions keep things nice and cool.

When a camper is connected to shore power or a generator, the heat needed to run the camper refrigerator is created by a heating element. Otherwise, an open flame produced by propane keeps the fridge up and running.

RV Refrigerator Types

Most RVs feature one of two types of refrigerators — two-way or three-way:

  • 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.
  • Meanwhile, a 3-way RV refrigerator can use the power sources mentioned above, or DC power from the house batteries.

In addition to the two-way and three-way fridges, we are now seeing more and more electric-only residential-type fridges installed in RVs. In some cases, these refrigerators are installed in the factory. Other times, they are installed by the user.

In both cases, it is important for the user to understand that compressors and other internal components of residential refrigerators can be damaged by travel over time. That said, these fridges tend to offer more storage capacity and better cooling, and come with a much smaller price tag than their RV-specific counterparts.

Finally, there is the super modern and versatile hybrid camper fridge. These units are exactly what you might imagine: a hybrid between an absorption refrigerator and a fridge run by a compressor, giving the user the best of both worlds.

What Size is an RV Refrigerator?

If you will be replacing your RV fridge, it is important to keep size in mind. While most household refrigerators measure between 18 and 21 cubic feet, a typical RV refrigerator will be between only 4 and 12 cubic feet.

In addition to the cubic foot measurement (which is the measurement of the inside of your fridge), you’ll also want to know how big the exterior of your new unit can be. This requires carefully measuring the space the appliance should fit into. We recommend measuring a few times just to be sure your measurement is accurate, and you’ll have the best fit possible.

How Long do RV Refrigerators Last?

The average RV refrigerator will last between 15 and 20 years. Of course, the lifespan of your fridge will depend on a couple of things.

First, if you purchase a used RV fridge, you can expect to get fewer years of use out of it. A refurbished RV refrigerator might give you more life than one taken straight out of another camper but still won’t last as long as a brand new one. You’ll want to choose based on how long you need the unit to last, as well as how much you’re able and willing to spend.

Another factor is how well you take care of the fridge. RV refrigerators are fairly simple to maintain. However, failing to keep up with simple care instructions can result in the premature death of your appliance.

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.

What is the Best RV Refrigerator?

If you’re in the market for a new RV fridge, you may be wondering which one is best. Honestly, there’s no straightforward answer to this question. The best RV refrigerator for you is the one that suits your needs, meaning the answer varies for different people.

There are two main companies that specialize in RV fridges – you can get a Norcold or a Dometic RV fridge. Most RV forums agree that both are similar and you can find a quality fridge from either company. If you find a Dometic RV refrigerator for sale, or go with the Norcold RV fridge, you’ll be in good hands. 

Things you’ll want to consider when buying include…

  • Whether you’ll be dry camping and in need of a propane or DC power function
  • How much space you require in your fridge — A large family that likes to cook on their own is going to have very different needs than a party of one or two that like to eat out a lot. 
  • The size of the space the fridge will need to fit (as we mentioned earlier) — Measure the spot where you want your fridge carefully so you know what size to purchase.

All that said, there are a few different RV refrigerator models we recommend checking out.

Best rated Dometic RV Fridges:

If you’re looking for a Dometic RV refrigerator, here are some that get great reviews.

  1. Dometic NewGen Refrigerator Series – reviewers like that these fridges are compact but allow for plenty of refrigerator space. They also feature adjustable shelves and self-locking handles.
  2. The Dometic RM2193 gets high marks as a mini compact 3-way refrigerator with a reliable, quiet cooling system, a sturdy frame, and adjustable shelves. 
  3. Dometic RM/ RMD 2-way Double Door RV Refrigerators also topped lists for their dual hinges, automatic energy source selector, and versatile interior.
  4. One reviewer called the Dometic CFX-28US Portable RV fridge “the Michael Jordan of RV refrigeration.” The CFX series comes in six different sizes and at various price points, from 26 to 94.5 liter capacities. 

Other units to try for size:

Where to find 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. Finally, you can look for a used RV refrigerator online or get advice in RV forums. 

Used RV Refrigerators

There are tons of places where you can find used RV fridges for sale. An easy place to start is through online garage sale sites such as Craigslist. Take a peek at what is immediately available in your area to begin to gauge what prices are common and what prices are fair. 

If you’re lucky, you live in an area with an RV dealership in town or nearby. Many dealerships will specialize in both new and used RV parts and appliances. If you figure that most of these companies will tack something onto the price that they buy a used appliance for, you can begin to see how much these companies are paying for used appliances themselves. 

If it’s worth it to you to get something that has been vetted or refurbished, buying used from a dealership may be the way to go. Of course, with any kind of online site where you buy directly from a seller, you’ll have to either trust their assessment of the appliance or be able to determine its functionality yourself. 

Tips for Buying Used

When buying used, check for a few key things to make sure the fridge operates. First, check how old the fridge is. Unlike your home fridge, these appliances are not likely operating 24/7. It’s good then to ask how often the fridge was used or how often the owners traveled by RV and for what length of time. 

You should ask to see the fridge when it is running. Use a thermometer to gauge the interior temperature. The fridge should run between 34 and 36 degrees easily. Anything higher and your food will spoil. Freezers should be able to sit in the 0 to 10-degree range comfortably. If the fridge does not maintain or reach these temperatures, you can assume there is a problem that needs to be addressed, and while it might be a simple fix, you might also want to move on and look for a different unit. 

You should also check to make sure that the fridge doors are sealed well. Is air escaping when the fridge is turned on? Ask the owner if there are any known problems and whether they are the original owner. And if you smell something foul, reconsider. A fridge smell can sometimes be impossible to fix! 

RV Refrigerator Maintenance and Usage Tips

  • 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. Leveling isn’t as important when traveling because the movement will keep the liquid ammonia from accumulating in one area. The absorption design has no mechanical pumps or compressors to circulate the refrigerant in the system, so proper leveling is what maintains the circulation of the refrigerant.
  • 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.
  • Prepare for storage — Long-term storage can sometimes cause issues with the operation of your RV refrigerator. Always make sure the fridge is completely turned off before putting your coach in storage. Close off and disconnect the propane tank valves. It’s also a good idea to prop open your refrigerator doors and remove any food or ice to prevent moisture from being trapped. No one wants to start their next road trip cleaning a stinky fridge — or fixing one for that matter!

Routine maintenance should be followed to keep the RV refrigerator in good running condition.

It’s a simple process:

  • Shut refrigerator off.
  • Remove the outside lower vent that allows for back access.
  • Check the connections. 
  • 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. 
  • Continue to use the air compressor to remove dust and debris that has built up around the compartment.

Troubleshooting Techniques

Problem: Pilot Light Won’t Stay Lit

If you own a propane-powered RV fridge, check to see if the pilot light is operational. Check the flame. Is it good? Does it go out right away?

Many times the light won’t stay lit, which may mean you have a bad gas-flow.  The flow of propane to the refrigerator is controlled by the thermocouple.  First, make sure to clean the flue, burner tube, and the orifice inside the flame area. On the outside of the coach, there is a fridge access.  Remove that, along with the tin cover.  You may see a rusty build-up or dirt and debris that needs to be cleaned off.  Residue can often confuse the sensor, and turn the flame off.

How about now? Then this could be a thermocouple problem. The thermocouple is attached to the main gas valve. You may need to replace it.

Problem: It runs on propane, but not 110v

Check all the circuit breakers and fuses. Check the outlet on the back of the refrigerator. Use a multi-meter to check for power voltage. If the voltage checks out okay and all lights work, then check the electric heating element. Beware this has dangerous voltage….

Problem: Check lights are on

Low voltage could be the cause of this. Coach batteries could be low or dead. The refrigerator has to have 12 volts of power to run on propane, or 120-volt power to run without propane. The coach batteries must be fully charged. Also, try resetting the check-on lights. Do this by powering off, counting to 10, then turning back on again.

Problem: No Cooling Fuel Source

This RV troubleshooting requires several steps.  First, remember that most of the components under a fridge are HOT.  Be careful, and use gloves when possible.  Feel the cooling unit, and make sure that the heat is even in the boiler, absorber and the middle portion of the unit.  If it’s not, there may be a blockage, and one area will be much hotter than the others.  A blockage means that the cooling liquid is not flowing through the entire unit. 

But before you call a professional or spend a lot of money on potential repairs, you may want to move your RV! Believe it or not, if your RV fridge is not cooling, it could be because of how you are parked. For the refrigerator to work properly, your RV must be level.

When your RV refrigerator is not getting cold, it’s likely not the same type of issue you would find in your fridge at home. Instead of creating cold air like a compressor refrigerator would, in an RV fridge, the heat is drawn out and absorbed by a chemical solution. This solution depends on gravity to travel through the coils, but if the fridge isn’t level, the chemical coolant can’t travel through the coils and cannot do its job, resulting in RV refrigerator problems!

In general, most of the newer RV refrigerators will still be able to function even if they aren’t level, but only for a short period of time. Typically, if a fridge has been not level for over 30 minutes, that is when the RV refrigerator cooling unit can become irreparably damaged. Unfortunately, if the refrigerator has not been level for a significant amount of time, you will likely experience long-term problems and will either need to rebuild the cooling unit or purchase a new appliance.

Problem: Leaking Cooling Unit

Let’s say that the boiler is pretty warm and the absorber is very hot.  This means there is a leak somewhere.  The unit is still working, but the gas is escaping.  If you smell ammonia, this confirms the problem.  

Also look for yellow residue on the back of the refrigerator.  Sodium Chromate is to blame and this means you have a leak. This probably requires a service tech call, which could mean a repair bill or a new RV refrigerator.  However, more and more RV owners are choosing to replace the cooling versus replacing the entire fridge. It is up to the individual and what he/she is comfortable with.

Replacing Your RV Refrigerator

Many RV owners are embracing the use of residential refrigerators within their trailers, 5th wheels, and motorhomes. There are some pros to installing a standard fridge in your RV including increased interior space, modern features, and more precise temperature and cooling. Replacing your RV refrigerator with a standard fridge is possible, however you may find it difficult to fit it in the existing space. You’ll also need consistent 120 volt electricity — meaning if you’re dry camping, your generator will need to stay running.

Whether you’re installing a new RV fridge or a residential unit, always be sure to measure the space where your current fridge is. You’ll also want to measure your RV door to be sure the new unit will fit through the entryway. Take these measurements twice to ensure accuracy — spending money on a brand new fridge for your rig, only to find out it doesn’t fit can cause a major headache.

To remove an RV fridge, start by turning off the propane, electric controls, and battery. Unplug the main power, then turn off your generator and house battery. Next, locate the access panel on the outside of your RV to access the back of your fridge.

Use a wrench to disconnect the supply line and 12V wires. You’ll then need to go back inside to unscrew the fridge and remove any caulk holding it in place. After these steps are finished, you can go ahead and gently pull the fridge out.

To install your new unit, just follow the above steps in reverse. You can usually replace a fridge in less than one hour, whereas rebuilding an old unit could take days.  Whatever you decide, be sure to work with an RV technician that is certified in refrigeration repair.

The Bottom Line

Regardless of whether you need a small fridge for infrequent weekend trips in your motor home, or a larger one to hold food while you’re living in your RV, there’s one out there to suit you! We hope this guide made you an RV fridge expert — next time your fridge decides to act up or you decide to upgrade, you’ll know exactly what to do.

Want more information on your RV appliances? Browse our blog for all the RV info you’ll ever need.

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