How Does An RV or Camper Refrigerator Work? Questions & Answers 3 Different Types

An RV refrigerator can be a thing of convenience or even a  downright necessity. On paper, they operate a little differently than the standard refrigerator in your home kitchen.

Knowing how one works can help you choose the right RV refrigerator to meet your needs.

So, How Does An RV/Camper Refrigerator Work?

An absorption RV refrigerator uses either electricity or propane to essentially heat up components. Inside the components, there is a combination of water, ammonia, and hydrogen gas. As they heat up they produce an evaporation effect which essentially pulls the heat energy out of the interior of the device. As the evaporation effect continues to progress the interior of the camper refrigerator becomes increasingly cold.

Sometimes you can help speed this process by putting an ice block from the cooler in a zip-top bag and placing it on the top shelf of the refrigerator. This will help speed the cool down process before you load it with perishable food items.

In this article, we’ll look into How does the fridge work in an RV as well as key features you may want to prioritize when shopping for your first camper refrigerator.

Then we’ll look at all the ways you might use it, to ensure that you find a unit that will serve you well for a long time to come.

How Is An RV Refrigerator Different From A Home Refrigerator?

The refrigerator in your home uses 110 Volt electricity to pressurize the freon cooling agent. However, this isn’t necessarily the case with a motorhome or camper refrigerator.

A typical camper or motorhome fridge is technically known as an “Absorption Refrigerator.” They don’t use a compressor and freon.

Can RV Refrigerators Run On Propane Or Electricity?

This sort of “Dual Fuel” option can be very convenient for RV campers. It essentially means that you can use the refrigerator while you travel and may not have access to electricity.

When the RV is parked and power is more readily available, the electricity can take over to ensure seamless cooling.

Most RVs and campers with an absorption refrigerator handle the switch between the two energy types automatically.

Still, if you are new to this one, it might be best to double-check for any switches or buttons.

Are There Green Ways To Offset The Power Draw?

One “Green Alternative” to consider with a 12 Volt system is to use portable solar panels or a small windmill. These units are often inexpensive and can help maintain battery charge. At the very least it can take a little bit of strain off the generator.

Can I Run The RV Refrigerator While Driving?

It’s also worth considering that with most RVs, running RV fridge is typically not a good idea to drive with the generator running. A solar panel or two positioned in a sunny window on a long drive can help reduce the refrigerator’s drain on the batteries.

These 12 Volt models have a bit of a reputation for not being as effective at cooling, especially when they are overloaded with food.

Keeping an ice pack or two in the top of the refrigerator may help offset any thermal inefficiency.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that these purely electric 12 Volt RV refrigerators tend to be a little smaller than their dual fuel siblings.

This makes them a little more popular with RV manufacturers who design small kitchenettes into modest size trailers.

RV Power Converter And Generator Care Helps Maintain An Absorption Refrigerator

A purely 12 Volt electric refrigerator or one that primarily tends to run on onboard electricity typically relies on a generator or a secondary electric source.

This often relies on the onboard RV power converter to help maintain battery charge, as well as many of the other electric components.

If you have a problem with your generator or the power converter, it could turn your electric refrigerator into an overly complicated cooler!

Keeping a spare battery with you on a long trip might be helpful in a pinch.

Taking A Closer Look At Your RV Refrigerator Options

There are a few different RV refrigerator options to consider.

If you are planning to install a new one or replace an old one in your RV, you might want to take your time exploring the options to find the one that’s right for you.

1: Propane/Electric Combination

This is the most popular type of absorption refrigerator that you will find in larger RVs and fifth wheel campers.

They do require you to hook it up to the onboard electric and onboard propane systems. If you are going to handle the install yourself, I would recommend taking your time with the fittings.

In my experience, these connections have a knack for developing a small leak as time goes on. Yet it’s really hard to get to once the refrigerator is fully installed.

You end up riding around with the faint, yet annoying waft of propane in your RV. Of course, sleeping with the window open counters the air conditioning.

What is the best Popular Propane-Electric RV Refrigerators?

Norcold offers a 5.5 cubic foot 2-Way Refrigerator without Ice Maker. This unit automatically changes between gas and electric. It automatically ignites the propane flame as needed. It ranges in prices between $900.00 – $1,000.00

The Dometic “New Generation” RM3762 is a large 2-Way refrigerator with double doors. It offers a large 7 cubic foot capacity.

There are several interior shelves as well as two in the freezer. It was also designed to hold a one-gallon jug inside with space for half-gallon jugs in the door. The New Generation typically sells for around $1,500.00.

2: 12 Volt Electric Combination

Designed to run on the 12 Volt power system, these fridges tend to be more popular in smaller RVs and campers where space is at a premium.

They also tend to struggle when overloaded. As I mentioned earlier putting cold packs on the top shelf will help keep the electric refrigerator cold.

Adding a wind or solar panel to your RV will also help keep the system charged up.

What is the Best 12 Volt Portable Refrigerator For RV?

It’s also worth noting that there are some RV refrigerators that do not run on propane at all.

They typically operate off of the electricity provided by the onboard 12 Volt batteries.

This usually requires a generator, which produces current and directs it to the RV power converter.

The Dometic CoolFreeze CFX Portable RV Refrigerator is shaped to look just like a cooler.

The lid even opens from the top. It’s designed to run off of 12 volt DC power as well as 24-volt DC power, and 120 Volt AC. The interior was designed to hold as many as 117 12-oz cans. It typically sells for a little over $1,300.00.

The Whynter 65 Quart Portable Fridge also opens from the top like a high-capacity cooler. It can be run from a 110 Volt AC outlet for times when you are staying in an RV park.

When you are traveling you can switch it over to run off of a 12-volt DC power source. As the name implies Whytner 65 has a 65-quart internal capacity which can hold up to 107 12-oz cans. It sells for a little under $600.00.

3: Mini-Fridge

If you primarily use your RV as a home base where 110 Volt electric is readily available, you might be able to get away with the kind of standard mini fridge you find in a lot of college dorm rooms.

Depending on the space and budget you have available, this might be your most inexpensive option.

Just keep in mind that you need to keep a mini-fridge level when it’s not in use. If it ends up being stored at strange angles it could lead to complications in the freon system, which has a knack for killing the mini-fridge.

Are There RV Freezers?

The short answer is yes, there are freezers designed to fit in an RV. Most of the units that are worth your money run on the same type of propane/electric combination power. This allows you to keep frozen things like hamburger patties frozen.

Of course, they do tend to consume a lot more energy than an RV refrigerator. Larger units do have enough cooling power to make ice cubes in a reasonable amount of time.

If you have a smaller RV freezer or you don’t want to spend the money to get a high end one, you can always get by using a cooler with bags of store-bought ice, it took ice cubes on hand.

Then the freezer itself can be used to keep frozen food items cold. This is a much better alternative than the classic foible of leaving your hamburger patties in the cooler while you are away for the day, only to come back and find the cardboard packaging has disintegrated in the melted water inside the cooler.

How Long Do RV Refrigerators Last?

RV refrigerators don’t have as many complexes moving parts as their compressor drove cousins in your kitchen. This typically gives them a lifespan of around 15 to 20 years. Units that only run on electricity tend to have a little bit shorter of a lifespan, due to the constant draw on the electric wiring.

Still, if you don’t abuse it, you should be able to get it to last 12 to 15 years. The bigger concern with a propane-electric RV refrigerator is the life of the gas hoses and fittings.

These can sometimes crack or leak long before the refrigerator itself shows any signs of decreased life.

If you smell a faint whiff of gas near the refrigerator, don’t immediately assume that it’s dying. Double-check the propane lines. Sometimes replacing them will give the refrigerator a new life!

Does It Help To Augment You RV Fridge or Freezer With A Cooler?

One of the classic problems you run into on an RV vacation is keeping your food cold the whole time. Many people will start out with a lot of food, condiments, and other items that need to be kept cold.

This is usually too much for a simple RV refrigerator to handle. Worse still, if you overload it, the RV fridge or freezer might not have the air circulation it needs to keep perishable food items at a safe temperature.

Believe me, I’ve had more than once where I opened up a fridge or a cheap cooler only to find that what I planned to cook for supper had transformed into a soggy mess.

As time goes on, food items kept in large, high-quality coolers can be transferred into the RV refrigerator to be kept on hand.

The key phrase here is “High-Quality.” Cheap coolers tend to have less insulative quality in their walls, they also tend to have leaky seals around the lid.

The amount of food cost you will save by ponying up for that more expensive cooler will help it pay for itself.

This will allow you to use the cooler for more long-term storage, the smaller RV refrigerator for food items that you plan to use that day.

How Can I Get The Most Out Of My Cooler?

There are a few things you can do to help a high-quality cooler keep food cold for long term storage. One of the best is to use ice blocks instead of ice cubes

I will freeze blocks overnight for a week or so before I go on a trip. Then I put the blocks inside gallon-size zip-top bags.

When I pack the cooler I put the ice blocks on top to help keep things cold for longer.

What About Electric Coolers?

There are some high-end cooler manufacturers who sell electric coolers. Most are set up to run on 110 Volt AC power as well as 12 Volt DC.

They don’t work quite as well as a high-quality RV absorption refrigerator, but they can still get the job done.

This can be a very convenient option if you don’t want to go through the cost and hassle of installing an absorption refrigerator, or your small RV simply doesn’t have room.

Augmenting the electric cooler with ice blocks in zip-top bags will further help keep things cool.

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