How Does An RV Refrigerator Work?

One of the best features of an RV is the number of appliances you can use on your camping trips. Refrigerators for campers are more than a luxury and are more of a necessity.

On any trip, you need to keep fold cold, or it will go off in a short space of time. While you can do the same with a cooler or ice chest to a certain degree, these are only good for an afternoon and not suited to keep food cold for a week at a time.

Unfortunately, you’ll find no appliance can last forever, and at times, you could come across issues that mean they begin to warm up and don’t chill your food as you expected.

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Before you look at replacing your RV refrigerator, you can learn how does an RV fridge work, and then you will know what way you need to go. (Learn How to Unclog a RV Toilet Holding Tank)

By the end of this guide, you can learn how do RV refrigerators work and what you can do to fix your RV refrigerator’s problem if it’s something easy. At the least, there’s a good chance you can keep your fridge running for a bit longer to keep everything frozen as it should be.

How Does an RV Fridge Work on Propane?

RV refrigerators can be powered by either 120-volt electricity or running on propane gas (LPG) LP gas. If you don’t have an electrical hookup available, an RV propane refrigerator can suffice for keeping food and drinks cool.

When a fridge will run on propane, a tube comes from the tank to connect to the manual shut-off valve and automatic valve opener. Make sure these are in good working order and free of debris.

The flame is ignited to heat the boil assembly, which dictates you have an absorption refrigerator. The open flame will be a blue color and should not sway. Unless the refrigerator is set to work automatically, it can run on LP gas. (Read Our Full Time RV Living Tips)

A propane fridge uses sealed tubes and chambers holding water, ammonia, and hydrogen gas. A propane flame will heat the chamber that holds water and ammonia. As it boils, the ammonia gas rises to the condenser chamber, where it cools back to liquid. From here, it flows to the evaporator, where it mixes with hydrogen gas.

As the ammonia encounters hydrogen gas, the chemical reaction absorbs heat. So, the cooling process pulls heat from the refrigerator interior into the ammonia-hydrogen mix.

As it absorbs heat, the ammonia changes back to gas, where the ammonia and hydrogen combine with water. The ammonia and water from the solution and which release hydrogen back to the evaporator.

Does a RV Propane Fridge Need Electricity?

A camper fridge works by using power to heat the fridge. You’ll find a combination of water, liquid ammonia, and hydrogen gas, so there are no moving parts in the compressor to carry out the cooling process. You also find cold air travels from the freezer into the refrigerator to keep the temperature cold.

The combination cools the absorption refrigerator. Most camper RV refrigerator works from propane or electricity.

Once your RV can be hooked up, you can turn off the propane and run the fridge off shore power. (Find the Best RV Surge Protector)

Typically, this all happens automatically. The RV refrigerator runs off electricity while connected and automatically switches to propane once electricity is disconnected.

You can find some camper refrigerators that won’t use propane and only use electric.

Such camper refrigerators are for campers using solar power to run their fridge. Many you find will be Norcold or Dometic 12-volt fridges that fit in a small kitchen. Using these, means there is no need to carry propane, and you can use a house battery that you charge as you drive or from a small solar setup.

Camper Fridge Options

  • Propane/Electric Combination 2-way
  • 12-volt/Electric Combination (some can run from a 110-volt AC outlet)
  • Mini-Fridge

When choosing a camper fridge, you have three options.

All have advantages and disadvantages, so find a fridge that works best for your lifestyle. Note that many refrigerators often break down quickly when you don’t use them. If you use your camper a few times a year, you may wish to skip buying a new camper refrigerator.

Propane & Electric Combination Refrigerators

The first the traditional camper fridge that runs off propane and electricity. If unlevel for too long, it can get hot and break down.

Old propane/electric combination refrigerators can cause fires if left in an unlevel position while running.

12-Volt Refrigerators

A 12-volt/electric combination runs from 12-volt DC power and 120-volt AC power; thus, they can run from a 12-volt battery and a standard house outlet. They cost more yet can withstand the rigors of traveling. (Learn How To Paint An RV)

Mini Fridges

Some campers choose a mini fridge for their camper. It is a cheaper solution, but they tend not to have a durable compressor to withstand movement from a camper.

A mini-fridge also only runs from 120-volt AC power, so they are not great for boondocking or camping where there are no electric hookups.


Will RV Fridge Run-Off Battery While Driving?

When you set off in your RV, you need to decide whether you need to leave your RV fridge on or if you can turn it off. You will have a few things to consider, such as the duration of your trip and available power sources.

Here you can find a few options you have to keep things cool in your RV fridge during the long trips. You can leave your RV fridge on while driving, and using the battery is the preferred method.

Using propane comes with safety issues, and many states forbid you to use propane in certain scenarios.

Most manufacturers advise you to turn off the fridge when driving as hitting a large bump or pothole could cause your propane refrigerator RV tank to move and cause a leak. Propane is flammable, and any tiny spark can cause it to ignite.

Besides this, if there happens to be a leak, you can get a headache, feel dizzy, or suffer seizures when inhaling large amounts of propane. That is why it is important to keep your RV’s propane system in good condition and check if everything is connected properly.

More to this, you are required by law to turn off the propane when you encounter any tunnels or when stopping at a gas station. Using a propane RV fridge while driving comes with a lot of responsibility because of what can happen.

If you wish to avoid the risk, you can use other power sources to keep your fridge running while driving.

Nowadays, built-in, or external generators can power a 120 AC fridge. You will need to make sure your gas tank is full before you begin your journey. Many generators use fuel from your RV’s fuel tank and shut down once the fuel falls under certain levels of the tank’s capacity.

Generators produce less power in motion to reduce fuel consumption and prevent accidents. Since RV fridges need lots of power to run, you could find some generators not capable of producing enough power to keep the fridge running when driving.

Three-way fridges are rarer since RVs, and RV fridges are larger. 12 Volt DC only produces a certain amount of power, which is insufficient power for an RV fridge running over extended periods. The RV’s engine recharges batteries as you drive so that the 12V DC won’t use the battery power too quickly.  (Find the Best RV Portable Air Conditioners)

Does RV Refrigerator Work Better on Gas or Electric?

New RV refrigerators typically perform better on electric than when running on gas. Electric RV refrigerators are now more common for other reasons besides performance.

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