How does an RV refrigerator work?

How Does An RV Refrigerator Work?

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No doubt you, like your fellow RVers, consider your RV something of a home from home.

And why not?

You can eat in, cook in it, shower in in it and, thanks to technology, you can stay connected to the world via the Internet. Not to mention the fact that your RV refrigerator means you can always have a cold drink on hand, even miles off the beaten track.

It’s your RV refrigerator that we will discuss here. An RV refrigerator is very different to the one you have at home. Having a better understanding of how it works, how it should be maintained, and what you should look for if you ever need to buy a new one will help you get the most out of having one on board.

How a Dometic and Norcold RV Fridge Works

As we mentioned, your RV refrigerator is very different to the one in your kitchen at home. A domestic fridge uses a compressor to function. The fridge in an RV does not have one of those. It is what we call an absorption refrigerator, and the way it operates and cools food is worth understanding if you are going to use one.

Absorption cooling makes use of heat, which sounds rather counterproductive for cooling, and a mixture of various gases.

Absorption cooling is an old technology. It was first introduced by a French scientist in the mid-nineteenth century and make then a combination of water and sulphuric acid was used. These days the far safer combination of water, hydrogen gas and ammonia is used instead.

In both types of fridge, domestic and RV, the refrigerant is exposed to heat so that it boils and as it condenses, it takes that heat away with it, creating a cooling effect. In an absorption RV refrigerator however the gas returns to a liquid state and the cycle repeats. Unlike a standard fridge the cooling system in an RV fridge has no moving parts, and it’s the gas that does all the work, cycling its way around a series of tubes.

And this video might help you understand the concept better as well:

The heat that is needed to kick start this fascinating, but effective cooling process is provided in one of two different ways. If you are parked up and on shore power at a campsite, an electrical element provides the heat and draws its power from your RV battery. When you hit the road, the fridge makes use of LP propane to keep things cool.

Most modern RV refrigerators can be set to make that switch on their own, as they have an auto setting that allows them to do that. On older models you may have to make that switch by hand.

Note: Absorption refrigerators maintain a somewhat level terrain in order to function on LP.

Do all RV refrigerators run on propane?

There are two types of RV refrigerators that are most commonly available, the 2 way and the 3 way.

By far the most popular is the 2 way RV refrigerator. These work in the way we just described (propane and 110volt AC). When you are on AC shore power, they make use of that, and the rest of the time they use propane. 

A 3 way fridge operates on operate on LP gas, 12 volt DC and 110 volt AC but as these are more expensive, and potentially hog a lot of your RV’s power they aren’t as widely used.

Related Reading: RV Water Pump Buyer’s Guide

How well do RV propane refrigerators work?

If you are used to having a big, powerful fridge freezer at home, the kind that will freeze ice cubes in a matter of hours, then the performance of an RV refrigerator will probably disappoint you, unless you opt for a top-of-the-line model, which will often cost more than installing a similar model at home.

That having been said, the average RV fridge does a more than passable job of keeping the things you need to keep cool, cool. How much you can store will depend, of course, on the size of the fridge you opt for and we will discuss that in more detail in a minute.

Are RV refrigerators dangerous?

RV refrigerators have been around for many years, and they in themselves are considered very safe. Where there is concern and debate in the RV community is the issue of the safety of the propane used to power them.

Some people feel that if you are driving your rig with the propane turned on to keep your fridge running it is a risk, as in the case of an accident a propane line may burst and cause an explosion.

For this reason some people do elect to turn the propane off and trust that the fridge will keep things cool for the time that they will be moving. It should be noted that even if you do choose to keep your fridge running on propane as you drive you will need to turn it off before entering a fuel stop, as it is illegal – and very unsafe – to have a flame near a fuel pump.

You can help ensure that your unit is safe by keeping it well maintained. After each trip check that there are no loose connection or debris and have your propane system professionally leak and pressure tested at least once a year.

Why Can't I Just Use a Regular Fridge?

This is a question that almost everyone new to the RV world asks. The answer is that technically you can. You could head to a big box store like Walmart, or to Amazon, and purchase a dorm style fridge and you could use it in your RV running off shore or battery power. But it’s rarely a good idea.

There are a number of reasons for this. The biggest is that even the most expensive domestic fridges are not built for the road. They were not designed to withstand all the bumping and shifting an RV refrigerator gets on the road. The chances are that their lifespan will be very short and by the time you’ve completed just a few trips a domestic fridge won’t be good for much more than putting in the garbage.

There is also the issue of power. If you are on shore power, then it’s not a problem that a domestic fridge only runs on electricity. Once you’re on the move however a standard fridge eats up a lot of power, so the chances that it will drain your battery are high. And who wants to end up in the dark? This means that for those of us who love boondocking an RV refrigerator that can run on LP propane is almost a must.

Who Sells RV refrigerators?

The two biggest players in the RV fridge market are Dometic (not be confused with domestic) and Norcold.

Both companies offer very high quality options that are especially designed to endure their ‘life on the road’ admirably. They are also both well-established and offer good customer service and backing for the products they sell.

As RVing regains popularity other manufacturers are entering the RV fridge market but it’s Norcold and Dometic that most experienced RVer’s recommend.

What Should You Look for When Buying an RV Refrigerator?

A camper van refrigerator

An RV fridge is not an inexpensive purchase, so before you buy one you should take the time to make sure that the model you eventually choose is the right one for both your RV and your on the road cooling needs. 

Here are some things that you should keep in mind as you shop:

Size

Every RV only has a finite space in which to house an RV refrigerator, and you need to be sure of how big that space is in your rig before you make your purchasing decision. This means measuring the area carefully, and do it twice so that you are really sure, and then reading and comparing the size specs for each of the models you’re considering.

If you are replacing an older Norcold freezer the company offers some help here. On their website they offer a series of conversion charts that let you see just which upgraded model will be the right fit.

Capacity

It stands to reason that a boondocking couple will usually not need the same RV refrigerator capacity as an RVing family. But that may not always be the case. If you can’t bear the thought of being without a decent supply of cold drinks then even solo RVers may want to go for a larger model, and the same is true if you consider yourself something of an RV gourmet and love to cook when you’re on the road.

Features

As RV refrigerators have become more sophisticated, they have gained a wider range of features. Some, for example, now offer a removable freezer compartment, so that you can keep a small amount of frozen food on hand, or have plenty of ice cubes to go in those cold drinks! Do keep in mind that the more features you choose, the higher the price is likely to be.

One thing some seasoned campers do to avoid taking on the expense of a larger RV refrigerator is keep an extra portable fridge in the rig for occasional use on longer trips. If you will only be using it occasionally it should not be too much of a drain on your battery but you do need to ensure that it’s safely and securely stored when it’s not in use.

Price

RV refrigerators are not cheap and usually they are one of the pricier items people buy for their camper. Models can range in price from several hundred dollars to several thousand for the top-of-the-range models.  

Why do RV refrigerators cost so much? 

The reason being is that RV fridges are more ruggedly built using stainless steel in their manufacturing process to withstand the wear and tear generated by a travelling vehicle.

Sometimes you can save money if you opt for a refurbished model.

What happens to RV refrigerators if camper not level?

What happens to RV refrigerators if camper not level?

Some RV’ers like to have their camper tilted a degree or two to help aid with draining rain water. 

A degree or two won’t be a problem for some of the more modern RV fridges. 

However, if your RV refrigerators runs while tilted for 30 minutes +, you’ll run the risk of damaging the fridge’s cooling unit.

The cooling process of the refrigerator relies on gravity.  Without it, it the ammonia liquid will not properly flow to the evaporator coils to cool the refrigerator. If your RV is not level ammonia crystals will start to accumulate inside the refrigerator’s tubing and over time, these build up of crystals will restrict the flow leading to some catastrophic results.

So, with RV refrigerators how unlevel can they be? As we mentioned, today’s modern RV fridges have greater tolerances. Norcold for example, recommends that their refrigerators operate within 3 degrees off level side-to-side and 6 degrees off level front-to-back.

If you’re going to park on an un-level surface,  half a bubble on your RV level should be good enough for an overnight stay.  If you’re boondocking for a few days to a week then you should have your rig as leveled as you can with a good set of leveling blocks being the quickest and easiest way to level your rig. 

How to use a bubble level? 

To ensure that the fridge is level place the bubble level on the freezer plate inside the freezer, and check the level once you park and stabilize your rig. Try to keep half of the bubble in the center circle at all times.

How Do I Install an RV Refrigerator?

Installing a new fridge in your RV is not an easy task, and it is certainly not simply a matter of plugging it in’, as might be the case for a household model.

Because you will be dealing with gas and electricity this is often a job best left to professionals, but if you want an idea of just how hard it might be to install your new RV fridge yourself, this video may help:

One thing you do have to make sure of is that your refrigerator is completely level at all times. If it’s not the cooling process won’t work properly, the appliance will have to work too hard and you will shorten its useful life considerably, not something you want to do, since, as we previously mentioned, these are not inexpensive appliances.

Extra Tips For Using Your Camper Fridge

If used properly a good RV refrigerator should serve you for years. Here are some extra tips for getting the most out of your camper fridge and helping ensure it lasts as long as possible.

1. Turn Your Fridge On the Night Before a Trip

Absorption refrigerators take longer to cool than those with a condenser, so if you want to make sure that yours is ready to be filled and start cooling turn it on the night before without anything in it. This will allow plenty of time for it to get to the right temperature.

2. Pack Your Fridge With Cold Foods

As far as possible when filling your refrigerator add foods and drinks that are already cold or frozen as it will have to work twice as hard to cool off warm foods.

3. Don’t Overload!

It’s crucial that air can pass all around the food in your refrigerator to cool it properly so make sure that you don’t overload it.

4. Invest in an RV Refrigerator Fan

RV refrigerator fans are inexpensive, battery operated devices that can be added to any RV fridge. As simple as these little gadgets seem they actually make a huge difference, reducing cooling times by up to 50% and helping make sure that the temperature remains consistent.

5. Try to Keep Your Fridge Running

While it is in use on the road you should limit the time a full refrigerator is not running. If you don’t floating particles in the liquid components in your fridge may sink and form sediment that will clog up the tube system and stop the fridge from working at all. When your RV is not in use make sure your fridge is clean and empty before you turn it off.

6. Keep an Eye on the Weather

The weather outside will affect your RV refrigerator. If you’re camping out in cooler weather you can lower your refrigerator’s settings a little to avoid accidental freezing and conversely, in very high temps you will probably need to raise them a little to keep things as cool as you’d like.

You've Found a great Fridge for Your RV

We hope that this look at RV refrigerators and how the work has been useful – and maybe even enlightening – and that you now have a better idea about how an RV refrigerator works and how to use one most efficiently. All that remains now is for us to wish you happy trails, and that you enjoy all those nice cool drinks on your next trip!

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