In the heat of the summer, there’s almost nothing in your RV that works harder than your RV refrigerator, and you hardly notice it. At least, until it stops working properly! In honor of the modern RV “icebox,” this month’s column is dedicated to RV refrigerators. Have fun on the road, and please send your RVing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
We've been on the road a little over four years and intend to continue some years more. Our coach is a '98 CC Magna with a Dometic refrigerator. In the next few years, we'll likely need to replace it, and we're considering going to a house-style compressor-type. I've done some research into the issues involved but would welcome any suggestions or cautionary notes you might offer. Thanks, Steve
There's no doubt that replacement RV refrigerators are insanely expensive! This leads some folks to consider a residential-style refrigerator as a replacement. In fact, there are some new coaches that come from the factory with residential refrigerators. I think the key is how much dry-camping do you do? If you always stay in RV parks or other places where you can plug into a reliable source of AC power, then the residential fridge may be a good choice for you. However, if you like to dry-camp, or boondock, it becomes more problematic. Most folks who boondock with a residential fridge have extra house batteries and a good-size inverter to help support the power needs of the fridge. It is also necessary to have a reliable generator, as the batteries will only support the fridge for a limited amount of time. I have some friends who have a factory residential fridge in their coach, and their power control center is designed to automatically fire up the generator whenever their batteries start to get low. They also have some solar panels on the roof. This works pretty well for them, but when doing extended stays without hookups, they burn a lot of generator fuel. There are some really good 12V compressor-based refrigerators available from alternative-energy home suppliers. These refrigerators are super-efficient and don't require a huge amount of power to operate. Unfortunately, they cost as much, or more than, the RV gas/electric refrigerators. If you do decide to go with a residential fridge, it needs to be installed with a great deal of care. It must be secured to the coach, and adequate ventilation and clearances must be maintained. I don't know of any drop-in replacements, so the installation will be a custom job and has to be done right. Other than that, it is definitely do-able!
Mark, I own an ‘03 Cedar Creek TT that sees little use (7-8 times a year). Recently I took it out after being in storage for three months and I noticed that, even after plugging into AC power, the spark igniter on my Dometic Americana refrigerator continues to fire off. The refrigerator is working fine, but it seems to be running on gas vs. electricity, which, according to the manual, is supposed to automatically switch to electric when the unit is plugged into AC power. All lights and indicators are normal. Any suggestions? Thank you in advance for your time, Glenn
If the fridge doesn’t sense the availability of AC power, it will normally switch to propane mode. Check to make sure that it is plugged in. The AC outlet is usually in the refrigerator compartment behind the refrigerator. Use an outlet tester or meter to verify that the outlet is hot as well. If everything looks good back there, check to be sure that the refrigerator is in “auto” mode on the control panel. Most units have two settings: “auto,” which allows it to select propane mode when AC power is not available, and “gas,” which forces the fridge to go into propane mode even if AC power is available. If everything is set up right and AC power is available, then the problem is likely to be either the refrigerator electronic control board or a wiring problem. Might be time to have a service tech take a look at it.
We have a 24-foot travel trailer that is only four years old. Last year my husband and I traveled to the Yosemite area, where it was over 100 degrees every day for the five days we spent there. Our refrigerator was full of food, since it was the beginning of our trip. The freezer worked fine, but the refrigerator did not seem to keep the food very cold. Is there anything we can do to improve the performance of the refrigerator in very hot weather? Thanks, Helen
Anytime the outside temperature approaches 100 degrees, it really puts a load on your fridge. Some RV refrigerators will cool a little better on propane, so you can try that. Parking your RV with the refrigerator side facing north can also help. Try to minimize the opening of the door during the day, and set the temperature so that the fridge gets as cold as possible overnight. That will give it a bit of an advantage, starting off as cold as possible. A small, battery-powered fan inside the refrigerator will help by circulating the air around the food. Finally, you can install a 12V refrigerator fan in the outside compartment to help move the air from the vented compartment door up and out the vent on the roof. Here’s an example of the fans I’m referring to: www.valterra.com/rv/refrigerator_fans.htm. There is even a solar-powered version available for boondockers.
We have been told that it is better to keep the fridge running in our motor home rather that leaving it off while parked idle at home. In other words, run the fridge all the time. Does this extend the life or is it not a good idea? Thanks for your reply. Linda
Well, full-timers run their RV refrigerators 24/7/365, so running them really doesn’t seem to hurt them. I’m not sure that it has any net-positive effect on lifespan, though. There are almost no moving parts in an RV refrigerator cooling system, just the gas valve and maybe a relay, so there’s not anything that will wear out. Most refrigerators fail either due to the loss of the ammonia refrigerant due to a crack or corrosion in the piping or because of a clog in the cooling system. You can avoid the latter by never operating your refrigerator when it is significantly off level (See the next answer for more on that). For RVers who use their RV intermittently, I think it is better to turn off the refrigerator, clean and dry it, and leave the door propped open when the RV is not in use. Doing so won’t impact the life of the refrigerator and will save you some $$ on electric or propane.
I recently purchased a class-C motor home with a Dometic refrigerator. I was told that it should be level to work properly when parked. How level does it need to be (how much out of level can it be to work properly)? Also, where should the refrigerator level be checked? I put a small bullet level in the center of the bottom plate of the freezer and use this as my reference. Thank you, Tom.
Most modern RV refrigerators are somewhat tolerant of off-level conditions. For the most part, if you are able to walk around comfortably in the RV, the refrigerator should work. That is commonly referred to as “half a bubble off” or less. However, the refrigerator will last a lot longer if you operate it as level as possible. An absorption refrigerator works by using a heat source (propane flame or electric element) to boil a liquid refrigerant (ammonia and additional chemicals) in a small boiler. The steam then circulates through the cooling system and condenses back into a liquid. That condensation process is endothermic, so the refrigerant absorbs heat as it condenses (this is a really simplified explanation, by the way). If the refrigerator is operated in a significantly off-level condition, that liquid can all wind up on one side of the boiler, and the heated part of the boiler can actually overheat because there’s no refrigerant there. The excessive heat can create crystals that later will break off and float around in the system and which can eventually plug something up. Once a cooling system gets plugged, it is pretty much a dead duck. This damage builds up over time: The more time the refrigerator runs off-level, the more damage accumulates. That’s why you should always turn off your refrigerator anytime you are parked on a slant, like in a parking lot or rest area, even if you’ll only be there for a short time. The best way to level the refrigerator is with a small level placed either inside the freezer compartment, or on the floor of the refrigerator compartment. If you wish, you can use a level in the refrigerator to get the RV set up perfectly level on a site, and then you can attach small stick-on level indicators to handy spots on the inside or outside of the RV. That makes it much easier to level-up the next time you park.
Have been reading about turning off the propane refrigerator when on the road due to safety concerns. I have a 5th-wheel, and I'm told mine is no different from most, if not all, newer 5th-wheels, and the refrigerator has only two fuel options: propane & 120 VAC. Since 120 VAC is not an option when on the road, how do you suggest keeping the refrigerator at temperature without propane on? Previously I had a '93 Great West van, which was 3-way and the 12volt worked well when on the road, but supposedly 12 volt is no longer an option. Thanks very much, Carm.
The old 3-way refrigerator is pretty much a thing of the past, but with a little modern technology, you can still run one on electric while traveling. All you need is a suitable inverter! An inverter converts 12-volt DC into 120-volt AC and will allow you to run the refrigerator safely while rolling down the road. There are a few gotchas, though: Most RV refrigerators will require between 200 and 500 watts when operating, so you will need an inverter with enough capacity to run it. On a hot day, the refrigerator will run almost constantly, and that will draw anywhere from 20 to 50 amps of DC when running. In motor homes, most of that current draw will be supplied by the vehicle alternator when the engine is running, so this is a great option for motor home owners. I run the refrigerator in my class-C RV on the inverter all the time when I’m on the road. With a setup like this, you need to only have the refrigerator on while the engine is running, or it may run your batteries down. Unfortunately, with a 5th-wheel or travel trailer, while there is a battery charge line going to the trailer from the vehicle alternator, the combination of distance and small wire size tends to limit the charge rate to 10 - 15 amps. If you have adequate house batteries in the trailer or have a good-sixed solar system to help charge the house batteries, running the refrigerator on an inverter is a definite possibility. You will need to be careful not to run the batteries down, though, especially if you have a larger refrigerator that draws more power. Some folks bypass all that and simply keep some blue ice packs in the freezer overnight, and then use those in the refrigerator compartment to help keep things cold while traveling with the propane and refrigerator off.
Mark Nemeth has been involved with all things RV for more than ten years, including almost 5 years on the road as a fulltimer. Nowadays, Mark is parked for a while and works on staff for the Escapees RV club as technical advisor, consumer affairs director, and instructor in the Escapees RVer's Boot Camp program.
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Some content previously printed in Escapees magazine, published by the Escapees RV Club. All material provided by Mark Nemeth, Escapees Magazine Technical Advisor and Boot Camp Instructor. For more information about the Escapees RV Club, please visit www.escapees.com or call 888–757–2582.
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