RV Fridges: A Perspective from a Full Time RV’er – and it ain’t pretty…

I’m a traveler, nearing my 10 year mark on the road and if there’s one appliance I’ve grown to HATE in my camper, its the refrigerator. And… if you knew me personally, you’d figure I’d really LIKE the refrigerator!

Allow me to begin by stating I’m NOT an expert tech on refrigerators, but I think after years of major issues off and on with them, I’ve gained some sense of these beasts and as a fellow RV’er or RV traveler, my views might just be worth hearing. That said, (and here’s the “company line” – do not attempt to work on your RV fridge on your own.) With that said… read on –

There are two (well now, THREE) RV Refrigerator Manufacturers

These are companies who specialize in making refrigerators for RV campers and I hold precisely NONE of them in high esteem! In fact, if I may be so bold, I’d say in a moment of candid honesty – they all suck. For the record, I’m talking about Norcold, Dometic, and Furrion. Furrion is a division of Lippert (LCI).

What do RV’ers REALLY want AND expect from their refrigerator?

A refrigerator section that RELIABLY stays below 40F and a freezer section that stays cold enough to keep the ice cream firm – is that really too DARN much to ask? Now I’ll admit, RV refrigerators have a few additional unique requirements:

  • Function over a wide range of temperatures (from well below freezing to over 100F) and variable humidity
  • Function reliably in a vehicle that travels at 60+ mph over roads that at times can be pot-holed and wash-boarded gravel
  • Function safely so they don’t act to set the rest of the camper ON FIRE!
  • Draw limited power (the ultimate resource in a camper – especially when “boondocking”) so you don’t wake up to DEAD batteries!

Hey RV fridge manufacturers… ARE WE REALLY ASKING TOO DARN MUCH?!

What prompted this HIGHLY WARRANTED ATTACK on ALL the RV fridge manufacturers?

I have a gas absorption fridge, primarily the domain of Norcold (mine) and Dometic. AND… it is riddled with problems. See below for a general overview of this type of fridge. But first, here’s my story (and this all occurred over the course of SEVERAL weeks) and some lost frozen food…

The (most recent) problems with my Norcold started in early June with my freezer “losing its cool.” I discovered this when I awoke to thawed food in my freezer and unsafely warm food in my fridge. Temperatures in the freezer rose to the 30’s to near 40; the fridge was 50+.

My first attempt at a solution was to turn it off for 3 days, fully defrosting it*, at the same time, I applied petroleum jelly to all seals (gaskets) to ensure an airtight fit when the doors closed. When I fired it back up and in mere hours, the freezer was down to about 10F and the fridge was in the 30’s. All good, right? NOPE!! It was not to last.

I was staying in Edgemont, SD, and the weather was admittedly hot (near 100F on SOME afternoons, and strong sun on the back of the fridge from 1pm to late afternoon due to the alignment of my camper in the rv site. After a couple of days of NORMAL performance, I awoke to the freezer temperature having risen back up to the high 30’s (in the interest of brevity, I will limit my comments to just the FREEZER temperatures.)

*Defrosting your fridge: 1) do NOT use a hair dryer as it can damage the delicate walls of the fridge 2) when ice melts on the back wall, it may NOT be all done melting – ice can accumulate BEHIND the wall. You need to allow time for that ice to melt. You’ll know when the drip tray (outside back of fridge – see image below) stops collecting water.

So… with some outside guidance and help, I replaced the control board. Result? No change, a couple of days of normal performance, then boom – back to a warm freezer; I again reset the fridge (turned off for several hours then restarted) and installed a new thermistor – started it up, again – back to cold, then after a day or two – warm again. After another day or so hiatus, I restarted the fridge after placing a shop fan outside the fridge, with the outside cover removed and with strong air blowing across everything, the fridge resumed and HELD normal behavior.

Tech visit #1: He firmed up the upper baffle; verified the fans above the cooling unit were functional (they’re designed to come on when a thermostat reads heat); and added a fan on a switch down low to increase air movement. Turns out the fan he installed was simply not enough air flow – so… initially cold after restarting and then back to warm. AND despite the fans above the cooling unit testing ok, they were still not coming on when they were (apparently) needed.

Tech visit #2: No more reliance upon the thermostat! Wired the upper fans to the switch added by tech #1. Update: about 10 days later – the issue appears to be solved! The fans running continuously are keeping temperatures at reasonable levels inside the fridge & freezer.

This is now my constant companion inside my camper – simply because I don’t trust my rv fridge…

As you read on, you’ll learn who “tech #2” is (HIGHLY recommend) and why my next move may be to succumb to getting a new cooling unit (cost $1500 or so) IF the fridge acts up again.

At any point did I call Norcold? Nope! Why? I KNEW I’d get the COLD SHOULDER since they STRONGLY discourage rv’ers from doing ANYTHING on their own and to ONLY contact a Norcold trained specialist – the nearest one from me was about 100 miles… so, a “house call” (mobile service) would be prohibitively expensive.

Some (hopefully helpful) info on RV refrigerators…

Gas Absorption Refrigerators

These beasts have been in use for many years – and you’d think by now Norcold and Dometic could get it right!! Frankly, as an RV’er, at this time gas absorption refrigerators are your best choice AND the worst choice.

Huh?

At this time, they’re your BEST option if you plan to do any dry camping (boondocking) as they use power sparingly when working off the 12v/propane system. When connected to “shore power” (120v), they run off electric. BUT they do NOT function like a residential fridge.

A complex ammonia mixture produces the cooling effect in these fridges. An expensive, delicate and UNRELIABLE cooling unit is mounted on the back of the refrigerator box (the part you see inside your camper.) These cooling units don’t like extreme cold or heat and require ventilation (on the back) so all RV’s equipped with them, have a lower and an upper vent to let air flow through the cooling unit.

Full details on how a gas absorption fridge works can be found here.

The inner workings of a gas absorption fridge. Source: https://www.rvrepairclub.com/article/how-absorption-refrigeration-works/# Note: The “cooling unit” is pretty much everything from the absorber vessel and above (the coils.)

In a previous camper, I had my Norcold’s cooling unit fail and I may be experiencing the same problem again as I’ve struggled through WEEKS of troubleshooting in my current camper. Incidentally, this is why I’m a fan of extended service contracts as the prior cooling unit failure cost over $3000. to fix and this one may be over $1500.

That said, I’ve invested over $700. in my current Norcold attempting to trouble-shoot its behavior. There are really only four major components in a gas absorption fridge – the cooling unit, the heating element, the control board and the thermistor. Again, I’m NOT an expert and I know far more than I ever WANTED to know about these things!

In my case, I purchased and replaced the control unit (about $150.) and thermistor (about $27.) – neither fixed the issue (not staying cold consistently.) The heating element is apparently working, and its hard to believe the cooling unit has failed (or is failing) as the fridge CAN get to 10F and hold it for a few days (especially when I maintain consistent air flow to the back of the fridge using a shopfan to blow air on it – a real elegant solution, eh?)

To be honest, I didn’t mind purchasing a control unit & thermistor as I figured as a full timer, I’d need them eventually if not now!

As noted earlier, as part of my attempts to solve the problem were to have a fan added. There are two additional fans above the cooling unit that are SUPPOSED to come on (they’re controlled by a thermostat) when it gets hot – they DO work, but they seem to not be coming on soon enough. So… if all goes according to plan, later today, I’m having a tech named Jere in Sundance, Wy. add a manual override to the thermostat so I can turn on the upper fans when I decide its needed. Update: Jere added a jumper wire from the thermostat to a manual switch – so it now controls 3 fans – time will tell if this is “just what the doctor ordered.” Update 2: several days later – it appears that having the upper fans running all the time did the trick. The freezer is typically remaining at or below 20F. The fridge has held 40F or just under. Of course, an ongoing question is WHY this summer? Its NO hotter than prior summers and this is the 1st (as my camper nears 4 yrs. old) to require this approach to keeping the fridge cold.

*DEFROSTING Gas Absorption fridges: Ice tends to collect and grow on the back wall of the freezer (and BEHIND the back wall.) To defrost, turn off the fridge, leave doors open and BE PATIENT. Use of a hair dryer to speed the melting process is NOT recommended as the walls of the freezer are EASILY damaged. There’s a drip tray in back (outside) of the fridge, when water STOPS collecting in that tray, all the ice is then melted.

A VERY SOLID Mobile RV Repair guy I can recommend…

Jere of Meadowlark Trailer (307 281 2336) in Sundance, Wy. (Crook County) just opened his doors a couple of months ago and I’m glad I met him. He just finished adding a manual override to the upper fans in the back of my fridge. As a repair guy, he possesses several characteristics I truly appreciate – he’s honest, his pricing is fair, he’ll come to you to do the repairs, AND he’s humble – that is – he knows what he knows and knows what he doesn’t know – and he’ll be open with you as to whether he can do the work you need or not. I definitely encourage you to call upon him, he’s located just down the road from the Mountainview RV Park (very nice park) in Sundance, Wy.

I’ll keep you posted on my fridge saga, but in the meantime, lets talk alternatives…

Residential Refrigerators

A few years ago, RV manufacturers started slapping residential fridges into RV campers. I always questioned the wisdom of this. To my (limited) knowledge, these fridges have NOT been engineered to function trouble free for years in the “rolling earthquake” that represents a RV camper on the move. Further, they require 120v to function. Since RV’s are not always connected to “shore power” or are running their generator (if they even have one), all RV’s equipped with a residential fridge also have an inverter.

The inverter’s job is to convert 12v to 120v to run the fridge. This means (on paper) the fridge can run off your 12v battery system. The catch? They draw enough power to suck the batteries dry fairly quickly unless you’re recharging the batteries with solar panels (or a generator.) Solar panels charge the batteries directly, the generator (or shore power) charge them through a converter (which takes 120v and converts it to 12v and sends it to the batteries to recharge them.)

I have yet to see a residential fridge manufacturer find a way to reduce the power demand to a point where the batteries can power the fridge for any reasonable length of time. So… to my Concierge RV Buying clients, I only recommend residential fridges if they plan to camp in campgrounds with accessible shore power the vast majority of the time. Otherwise, my recommendation has been and for the moment (read on) continues to be to live with the gas absorption beast.

The best arguments in favor of a residential fridge include: they’re spacious (typically several more cu. ft. than a traditional RV fridge), they’re cheap (so if they fail, its not a big expense to replace them), and they’re NOT outside temperature sensitive. So… they shouldn’t freeze up in extreme cold (as gas absorbers can and do) or freak out in extreme heat. Of course, even though they’re cheap to replace, it does NOT necessarily mean they’re easy to get in/out of your camper!!

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A possible NEW and VIABLE alternative RV refrigerator design

The three RV manufacturer “specialists” – Norcold, Dometic and Furrion have all recently (in the past two years) released 12v Compressor Refrigerators. They’re NOT subject to venting requirements as with the gas absorption units and they’re NOT sensitive to outside temperature variations – BUT – they’re in their early stages of use and STILL have issues (in my view) that require resolutions before I’ll buy one.

From what I understand – these refrigerators have two issues at this time:

  • they tend to frost up and make a mess when defrosting
  • they go through a cycle periodically that creates an unacceptable power demand so RV’ers with these fridges COULD wake up with deeply depleted (or dead) batteries.

I’m no engineer, but it would seem to me that BOTH of these issues ARE able to be overcome IF their manufacturers are serious about manufacturing a trouble free product. AND… once they are – I’ll be the first in line to DUMP my gas absorption beast! Just hazarding a guess, I’d bet we’re within a year or two of overcoming these issues. If you, the reader, know more than I on this issue (and that’s ENTIRELY possible!), please use the comments below to enlighten me and other readers.

Since the three stooges (Norcold, Dometic, Furrion) are all working on developing their version of these fridges, I’d hope the end product is solid as they (at least in theory) know where the fridges are going to be installed – and what the RV environment is like that they’ll need to function within. But for now, we are where we are.

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