Why Does My RV Refrigerator Smell Like Ammonia?

Ammonia never smells nice. It is especially jarring to smell it however if the odor is coming from your RV refrigerator. It can also be very perplexing. If the fridge seems to be working, and the food inside is all fresh, what could be going on? Obviously, you’ll be asking yourself, why does my RV refrigerator smell like ammonia?

The answer to this question is actually very straightforward. The cooling component in your RV is leaking if there is a distinct smell of ammonia when you open the door. Your cooling component’s evaporator, in particular, needs to be replaced. Early detection of a leak like this can protect you and your family while also extending the life of your refrigerator.

This answer does lead to more questions though. How did this happen? How hard – and how expensive – is this fix going to be? And what the heck is ammonia doing in an RV refrigerator in the first place? These, and other questions, are what we are going to answer here.

How Long Will An RV Fridge Stay Cold Without Power?

How Does an RV Refrigerator Work?

A standard RV refrigerator – even the vast majority of the very fancy ones – is what is known as an absorption refrigerator.

Absorption and a chemical process involving ammonia, water, and hydrogen power an RV refrigerator. The ammonia is heated, then evaporation and condensation occur, resulting in the refrigerator’s cooling effect. A propane flame or an electric element is used to heat the ammonia.

When everything is working as it should, this relatively simple process works very well. An RV fridge is rarely as cool as the sleek little number you have in the kitchen at home, but they do a good job of keeping basic supplies cool and fresh.

So, Why Does My RV Fridge Smell Like Ammonia?

As we mentioned earlier, actually being able to smell the ammonia that should be cooling your fridge means that there is a leak somewhere. This is not only a problem because it stinks and all your food will start to go bad, but if you or anyone else in the RV inhales too much of it, it can be harmful to your health.

Inhaling ammonia can lead to coughing, wheezing, chest pain, fainting, and in rare instances, shock. It’s for this reason that the use of ammonia in standard household refrigerators was outlawed a long time ago. RV refrigerators, however, have yet to catch up.

How Do I Know if My RV Fridge is Leaking Ammonia?

If you smell ammonia when you open your RV refrigerator door, then it is a pretty safe bet that you have an ammonia leak.

If the smell is very faint, or you are not even sure that’s what you are smelling, an ammonia detector will be able to confirm your suspicions. You can buy them relatively easily and cheaply online, especially as ammonia detection is so important in other circumstances, like monitoring the water in a fish tank.

Speaking of fish tanks, inexpensive stick on ammonia monitors are sold for use in them, but they can just as easily be affixed to the inside of your RV refrigerator, so that you will know right away if there’s a problem.

Seachem Ammonia Alert 1 Year Monitor (3 Pack)

Click here to view this ammonia alert on Amazon

How Do I Check the Ammonia Level in my RV Refrigerator?

The aforementioned monitors are very helpful.

If you choose the stick on type, you’ll have a color coded system you can read at a glance.

If you do a lot of RVing – and keep a lot of food in the fridge, or if your RV fridge is an older model, then the very small investment in these monitors is really worth making.

How To Fix Ammonia Smell From an RV Refrigerator?

How a Dometic and Norcold RV Fridge Works

The ammonia smell is an indication, as we mentioned, that the cooling component’s evaporator has a leak and is failing. As ammonia inhalation can be so dangerous to your health – and to that of anyone else in the RV, pets included, ignoring the problem, delaying having it repaired or trying a DIY fix is never a good idea.

Some RV fridges are more common than others, and while there are lots of YouTube videos that will show someone who is very handy how they can make an attempt to fit a new evaporator themselves it’s a risky idea.

The best thing to do is to have a professional check the problem out.

Sometimes an RV fridge with an ammonia leak can be fixed relatively inexpensively, but on other occasions, especially if yours is an older unit, a replacement might be a better idea, both from a safety and a financial standpoint.

3 Best Ways To Remove Ammonia Odor From an RV Refrigerator

If you do choose to repair your RV fridge rather than replace it, you may still be left with a lingering ammonia smell once the repair has been made. If the leak was a bad one, the odor may be lingering in your vehicle in general too.

There are a number of different ways you can try to combat the smell, but the following are often the best options:

Clean First

A good clean with a neutral smelling gentle cleanser should be your first choice. Better Life All Purpose Cleaner is a great choice, as it cleans well but does not leave behind residue or leave smears on any glass shelving in your fridge.

Better Life All Purpose Cleaner - Multipurpose Home and Kitchen Cleaning Spray for Glass, Countertops, Appliances, Upholstery & More - Multi-surface Spray Cleaner - 32oz (Pack of 2) Unscented

Click here to view this all-purpose cleaner on Amazon

Baking Soda

Cleaning can only do so much against an odor as pungent as ammonia. Baking soda has long been used to absorb refrigerator odors, and it does so very well, even when the smell is as strong as that ammonia creates. Buy a new box, open it up and leave it in the fridge and within about 48 hours the smell should be gone completely. 

Arm & Hammer Baking Soda Value Size 4 Lb (Pack of 2)

Click here to buy this great Baking soda product on Amazon

Coffee Grounds

If you don’t have baking soda, or want to remove odor from several spots in your RV, coffee grounds are excellent odor absorbers too. After brewing your favorite coffee, let the grounds cool and then set them out on saucers or small plates and place these in the areas where the small is the worst. Unlike baking soda, coffee has a strong odor of its own though, so only choose this option if you really like the smell!

The one thing you should not do is fill the air in your motor home full of chemical air fresheners. Aside from the fact that most are not very effective on a strong odor like ammonia, they too will fill the air with chemicals you really don’t want there. 

Can I Swap Out an RV Refrigerator for a Standard One?

If all this discussion about dangerous ammonia has made you nervous, you may be wondering if it is a better idea to replace an RV refrigerator with a small household model.

You can indeed do this, and lots of people who spend a considerable amount of time in their RV recommend doing so. Aside from the safety aspect, a standard refrigerator will keep your food cooler, and fresher, and often offers you more function, including in the form of handy bells and whistles like ice makers.

There are some important things you’ll need to know, and take into consideration, though. To power any standard refrigerator, even a small dorm sized model, you’ll need a 120 volt outlet, which some RVs do not have, and ample space around it to ensure airflow.

You will also need to be fine with the idea that you will only be able to make use of your refrigerator on generator power or shore power, which means that for those who like to go ‘off-grid’ on a regular basis this kind of swap is unlikely to be a good idea. On the other hand, if you mainly stick to campsites when RVing and spend lots of time on shore power, choosing a standard refrigerator might enhance your overall experience, including not having to worry about ammonia leaks!


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