It’s great that your RV comes with a fridge that also has that handy little freezer section, isn’t it? A cool drink is always on hand and keeping a few ready to cook frozen meals stocked means you and the family can still enjoy a decent meal at the end of even the busiest of days. But what if you come to make that meal and discover that while the freezer is working fine, the refrigerator seems to be having problems staying cold? What should you do if you find the RV refrigerator not working but the freezer is?
There could be all kinds of reasons for this kind of fairly common issue to crop up. It could be something as simple as, having driven over a bump you have dislodged something, that the fridge is overfilled, that there is an obstruction preventing proper cooling, or there is an issue with the temperature sensor.
In fact, the reasons that an RV freezer still works when the fridge seems to have malfunctioned are numerous, but they are issues we are going to explore in greater detail here.
Understanding Your RV Refrigerator
Before you can troubleshoot it, it helps to understand how your RV refrigerator works. Even if it looks very similar, an RV refrigerator does not work in the same way as the one in your kitchen at home.
The inside of an RV fridge is cooled via absorption. The RV fridge does not have any moving parts (such as a compressor, like a standard fridge has). It cools the fridge with heat and a mixture of ammonia, hydrogen and water traveling through tubes. There is no refrigerant involved.
What is the Correct Temperature for an RV Refrigerator?
Join any online group for RVing and you’ll hear lots of folk complaining about the difficulty of keeping their food cold or frozen inside their fridge/freezer.
Because evaporative cooling involves no refrigerant, our RV fridge is never going to be as ice cool as your fridge at home.
Ideally, an RV fridge should run at less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and the closer it stays to 35 the better in most cases. Different makes and models do vary by a few degrees in terms of recommended temperature, so for the best results, you should find out the recommended temperature for your specific RV fridge.
Generally, the US Food and Drugs Administration suggest that you keep your refrigerator at or below 4 degree Celsius or 40 degrees Fahrenheit anything higher than this, will cause your food to spoil quickly.
To gauge the real temperature in your RV fridge, you may need to use a separate thermometer. Although you can buy electric fridge thermometers, a simple manual one can be ideal for RVs, as you can make use of it not only to check the temperature of your fridge but also leave it in place so you can keep an eye on the temperature at all times.
Use these internal wireless temperature sensors available on Amazon for both your fridge and freezer to make sure you’ve got the right temp at all times.
Can The Freezer Work and Not The Refrigerator?
Unlike a standard fridge, an RV only has one mechanism for cooling both sections of your RV refrigerator, and will prioritize the freezer in many cases if it is struggling to operate, especially on a hot day. In addition, components that are included in the fridge can break, or be impaired, and affect the function of the fridge but not the freezer. And by the way, the light being on in your RV fridge is NOT an indicator that it is working properly, only that the bulb is still working!
What is the First Thing to Check When a Refrigerator Stops Working?
There are a number of troubleshooting steps you can take to determine what might be wrong with your RV fridge, but the very first thing you should do, before you start taking things apart, is to ensure that the unit itself is level.
If an RV fridge is not level, it simply won’t work properly. A rough stretch of road can unseat it if it has not been secured properly, or it may even tilt over time. You can make use of a simple spirit level to check, and given that lots of smartphones offer a spirit level app these days that should not be too hard to do.
It should also be noted, before we go further, that once the temperature outside hits 90 degrees Fahrenheit, even the best RV fridge will struggle to work properly. In this case, taking extra steps to keep both the fridge and your RV itself cool are called for (more on that in a moment).
How To Check the Ammonia Level in an RV Fridge?
RV fridges make use of ammonia to help them stay cool, and if the levels are incorrect, it may stop working properly, even if the freezer is still working just fine. The easiest way to do this is by making use of an ammonia level detector – a small gadget that we suggest you keep in your ‘RV toolbox’.
Uneven hot spots in the fridge, along with the very distinctive smell of ammonia, are also indications that your fridge’s ammonia levels are probably low. This isn’t something to be ignored, as not only will it diminish your fridge’s cooling capacity, but breathing in ammonia fumes in an enclosed space – like an RV – is not good for anyone’s health, especially kids and pets.
What To Do If My RV Fridge is Not Cooling?
If your RV fridge is level, and its ammonia levels seem to be good, but it still isn’t doing its job properly, you’ll need to do a little more detective work to figure out what might be going on. Here are some of the checks you can make.
1. Check the Thermistor
The thermistor is the component that regulates the temperature of the thermostat in your refrigerator. If it’s not in the right place, or is malfunctioning, your RV fridge won’t work properly. To check it, leave a cup of water in the fridge, on the center shelf, for 24 hours. If the temperature of the water after this time is not the temperature the fridge’s settings are at, then you may have a thermistor problem.
2. Check for Icing
Occasionally, ice can build up around the fans that help cool your RV fridge. Check to make sure that is not the case. If there is ice present, try defrosting the fridge to see if that helps solve the problem.
3. Check the Gasket Seal
If the gasket seal that keeps your RV fridge door shut tight is compromised in any way your fridge is likely to stop cooling properly. Ensure that the seals are gunk free and then to test the seal itself you can perform the dollar bill test.
Insert a dollar bill in the left-hand corner of the fridge and close the door. If it does not offer resistance when you try to pull it out, then the gasket seals are no longer doing their job and will need to be replaced.
6 Ways To Keep Your RV Fridge Cool
There are some things you can do to help keep your fridge as cool as possible and avoid a situation where it stops working altogether. Some of the following tips are especially important if you will be taking a trip to very hot areas, like Arizona or Florida.
1. Don’t Overload Your RV Fridge
The harder you ask your fridge to work, the more it’s likely to struggle, especially in very hot weather. Don’t stuff it so full that the airflow that’s needed to keep the fridge cool is impeded. Knowing where the cold spots in your refrigerator will help keep food from going bad due to excessive cold or not being cold enough.
Here are some great fridge tips shared by fellow RV’ers Anne & Brian @ontheroadofadventure on Instagram to help you pack your fridge correctly.
- Condiments stored in the refrigerator doors.
- Raw meat/fish stored in the back of the bottom shelf.
- Produce stores in the middle of your fridge or toward the front.
- Dairy kept just below the ice maker, next to the ice maker or in the back near the fan/condenser.
- Seeded fruit and veggies (e.g. avocado, citrus, cucumbers, peppers) in one drawer and unseeded veggies (e.g. lettuce, carrots, celery, broccoli, beans) in the other).
Remember though, any refrigerator needs to space for air to circulate behind and around all items. If you overpack it, then you’re preventing the airflow causing your refrigerator to work harder.
2. Do Some RV Fridge Organization
One way to get the most out of your fridge without overstuffing it is to take time to organize it better. Making use of fridge bars, plastic containers and other organizational tools can help you store all the food you need to more efficiently and help keep that all important airflow going. It will also make preparing food easier, and cut down on food waste, as you’ll know just what you have on hand at a quick glance.
3. Don’t Keep Opening the Door
Yes, your mother was right. If you keep opening the fridge door, or leave it open too long, your RV fridge won’t cool properly. Your RV fridge requires 1 hour of recovery time for every 1 minute that the door is being left open. We recommend not to open your fridge for more than 3 times a day and no longer than 2 minutes.
4. Keep Your RV as Cool as Possible
In very hot weather, the cooler your RV is, the better your RV fridge will work. Avoid cooking indoors where possible – especially near the fridge, keep doors and windows closed to keep the hot air from outside at bay and consider keeping an extra fan running near your fridge, whether or not you are making use of air conditioning to keep the rest of the RV – and its occupants – cool. Finally, avoid putting warm food in your RV refrigerator.
5. Use an Auxiliary Fan
Another way to get more airflow within your refrigerator is to get a small fanand then place it inside the fridge. The fan will evenly distribute the cold air inside the fridge.
6. Check Your Fridge After Every Trip
At the end of every trip, check your RV fridge before defrosting it. Ensure that it is level, that there are no nasty ammonia smells and that the gaskets are all gunk free.