Last updated on July 25th, 2023 at 08:16 am
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One of the most important components of any RV has got to be the refrigerator. It’s a game-changer during summer months and is perfect for prolonging the life of food while you’re adventuring in your home on wheels.
If you’re new to RVing and mobile camping, you may be asking yourself how these machines work while you’re on the road.
So, how does an RV refrigerator work?
Depending on the type, an RV refrigerator can work just like a normal household fridge, running on either 110V or 12V electricity. However, an RV refrigerator can also work through an absorption process, cooling the inside of the fridge via evaporation.
But what are the different types of RV fridges, and how might they work best in your RV setup? Are there any other tips and tricks worth knowing about these special appliances before hitting the road? Let’s learn about them now!
How Do RV Refrigerators Work?: Types Of RV Refrigerators
Depending on the rig you have and its capabilities, there are a few different types of RV refrigerators, and they each work a little differently. You may have a preferred type, but only after having experience with one type or another. Let’s take a look at those types now.
One of the most unique and common types of RV refrigeration systems is the propane fridge. Campers and RVs often have this style of fridge available because it’s designed to work without power or electricity- all you need is a propane supply!
Equipped with an ignitor and pilot light, propane fridges are capable of cooling down your food and refrigerated goods anywhere your RV is parked. So long as your propane regulator is up to date, you should have no trouble cooling things off.
Propane-exclusive RV fridges can struggle with turning on and running properly if your RV isn’t level- this can lead to some confusion for first-time RVers and is important to keep in mind while you are traveling. Propane camper fridges can also be more expensive than other options, given their truly off-grid capabilities. However, they are easy to set up and use, and can be invaluable if you are an RVer planning on boondocking frequently.
Another popular RV fridge style? The 12V or battery-operated refrigerator. These styles of appliance are valuable for their ability to be used off-grid and disconnected from shore power, just like their propane counterparts.12V refrigerators often use very little amperage as well, making them the preferred style of fridge for solar power usage.
These styles of fridges can also plug into your car’s cigarette lighter, so more often than not, they are a great portable option. The main issue with 12V fridges is the fear of draining your batteries. This can happen much faster than you think, which is why it is important to always have an RV battery that is made especially for boondocking.
The most traditional fridge, and the style you might find in your residential home, a 110V refrigerator, has a plug and runs on shore power. You can also run these fridges off battery power, but only if you have an inverter, and not all RVs have these.
However, 110V fridges are easy to procure, and they simply plug in and get to work, so long as your RV is hooked up to shore power. Given these fridges are standard for home usage, you should always check the required amperage needed to run them before committing.
110V camper fridges also cost significantly less than other fridge options, given the range of sizes and availability. If you have the precise measurements of your rig, you can buy a standard mini fridge and use it in your RV, no problem!
Two Or Three Way Refrigerators
RVers always love options, and why should you choose just one of these types of fridges? A common appliance found in RVs is the two or three-way refrigerator, capable of running on multiple power or fuel sources.
These fridges are exactly what they sound like; a combination of the above fuel types. You can change between the types with a simple dial or flip of a switch. Some RV fridges are even all three options in one, though this is becoming less popular nowadays.
Most RVers only need shore power and one off-grid option, but you can get lucky and have 3 choices. No matter what, having a fridge in your RV is a step above an ice chest or cooler, especially to go alongside grilling on a new RV propane grill!
It’s important for me to mention, RV refrigerators will only work optimally if they are looked after properly and maintained well. It’s completely normal to experience hiccups along the way in your RVing journey, and a common problem with RV refrigerators is freezing!
This is explained in detail in the video below:
Keeping an eye on your RV fridge, along with winterizing effectively and cleaning the fridge regularly will all help it run better for longer. Having a full-functioning RV refrigerator is a key part of comfortable RV living, and I promise, once you’ve experienced life on the road with a fridge, you won’t want to be without one!
How Does An Absorption RV Refrigerator Work?
Absorption fridges work in a very specific way, different from a traditional 110V fridge; if you have this style in your RV, it’s a simple freon and compression system that may use up more amps than you expect it to or want it to. Absorption fridges work by heating up certain elements and chemicals in your fridge.
Once activated, these chemicals cool the inside of your fridge by evaporating whatever heat remains inside. Sounds like magic, but it’s actually science! If these fridges have an ice box inside, the elements cool down this section of the fridge faster than the rest of it. The propane or battery power works to heat up these elements, and the rest is cool air for the duration of your trip.
It may sound complicated, but these fridges are unique in their off-grid capabilities. They run on far fewer amps than other appliances, which can be extremely useful for dry camping. Just make sure you have a reliable converter for when you hook your RV up to shore power!
How Does A Propane RV Refrigerator Work?
A propane fridge is often an absorption style of camper fridge, meaning it heats up chemicals and base elements capable of absorbing heat. Propane is a useful fuel source for heating up these chemicals- namely water, liquid ammonia, and hydrogen gas.
A propane fridge will require you to light the pilot light, though it will often have an included igniter so it’s easy to do this. Once the pilot light is on, you simply set your desired fridge temperature and let the cooling happen! But, propane fridges have one very specific need many RVers may be surprised by: these appliances need your rig to be completely level in order to function properly.
Popular RV Refrigerator Brands
Whether you’re purchasing a brand new RV for the first time or installing your desired fridge into an older RV model, choosing an RV fridge with a brand name to back it up is always a good idea. Installing a fridge into your new travel trailer for solo adventures or perhaps replacing your vintage and broken RV fridge is possible, but what brands might be best so you know you’re making an informed purchase?
There are many popular names in the RV game, both for fridges and other appliances. If you’re keeping an eye out for RV-specific fridges (rather than more traditional compression options able to be used in homes), you may have more limited options.
Dometic is known by almost any RVer, new and old. It’s a company that’s been around since 1922 and took off once they fully understood how to utilize absorption cooling. This makes them the best of the best in terms of RV appliances, and this doesn’t just apply to refrigerators. Dometic makes many RV devices, and you’ll be remiss if you don’t purchase a Dometic air conditioner for your RV!
If you’re looking for an RV-specific brand of fridge, Norcold is another option worth thinking about. They make a wide variety of fridges in all sorts of shapes and sizes, from residential-sized freezer-fridge combos to portable fridges capable of being wheeled around. This brand is a division of Thetford, another name in the RV game you can’t help but learn about the longer you RV!
You may not have heard of the brand SMETA for RV refrigerators, however, they have fridges able to run on either propane gas or 110V power, sized perfectly for a wide range of RV types, and they’ve been in the game since the year 2000. I’m always on the lookout for new brands and innovative technology for RV appliances and devices, so I’ll be keeping my eye on SMETA from now on!
There are many other brands of fridges that can work in your RV, from portable fridges to 110V options. I recommend searching on Amazon for some options and reading reviews. Many RV-branded or motorhome-specific products can get expensive quickly. You may be able to find certain less expensive or budget-friendly options elsewhere, though these three brands are recognized for their reliability.
RV Refrigerator FAQs
Do you still have questions about how your RV or camper fridge works, or want some insider tips and tricks? Let’s take a look at some important facts now before you go start surfing the web for your next refrigerator!
Does An RV Fridge Have To Be Level In Order To Work?
An RV or camper fridge doesn’t necessarily need to be level in order to work unless it’s an absorption fridge. If you’re using a more traditional compressor fridge, this isn’t something you need to worry about. However, absorption fridges can struggle with cooling food properly if you’re parked on an unlevel surface- this is why updating your jack stand or stabilizers could be a good idea before you hit the road in your new RV.
If you get all set up at camp and find your fridge isn’t cooling properly, you may need to adjust your rig to get level. You usually don’t need to be perfectly level in order to get your fridge to work, but it certainly helps. There are portable or 12V fridge options that advertise their ability to run on an angle- sometimes up to 40 degrees!
These types of fridges can be valuable if you know you’re installing them in a tricky spot or aren’t worried about your rig being level. However, running or attempting to run your absorption fridge on an angle or unlevel surface can even damage the cooling elements and delicate machinery found within your appliance. Take the extra time to get level- your fridge will thank you!
Can I Power My RV Fridge With Solar Panels?
Yes, it’s possible to power your RV fridge with solar panels! Energy harnessed from the sun, otherwise known as solar power, looks promising for the future and is a great investment for your RV. While owning a 12V RV fridge makes this process smoother, owning a 110V fridge with a reliable inverter and multiple batteries can work as well. You cannot run a propane-exclusive fridge on solar power, however.
Fridges can range in the number of amps they need to both start up and stay cool. You should always budget your amps for the amount needed upon start-up because this number is usually much higher than the running amount. Figuring out just how many solar panels you need to run your RV fridge can be tricky.
It will take some math, especially if you think you are getting close to the maximum amount of amps that your solar panels can handle. I recommend purchasing a multimeter and testing it out on your RV fridge while it’s running. This way, you can be certain of the exact number of amps you need to keep your food cold without overloading your solar system!
How Much Does An RV Refrigerator Cost?
The cost of a new RV fridge will depend on many things: the brand, the size, and the various power sources you want it to use. If you want a large three-way fridge made by Norcold, you are potentially looking at spending over $2000.
However, the average cost for many RVers shopping for a new camper fridge ranges from $400-1000, again, depending on size and capabilities. Many portable fridge options are budget-friendly, closer to $200, and can be taken anywhere. Keep in mind that the size of your fridge matters, especially if you are traveling with a large group or a family of five.
You may want to get a larger fridge if you expect to travel with many guests or for a longer trip and don’t want to restock. Many RVs only have a certain amount of space dedicated to the fridge. While having a large two-door fridge and freezer combo may sound like a dream, it won’t matter that you have the budget for it if you can’t fit it inside your rig!
Can I Purchase RV Freezers?
Some RV fridges have freezer capabilities, including portable or 12V fridges. These freezers can be found as small ice boxes within the fridge, or larger freezer sections with their own door on the outside of the fridge. These freezers will be small, but they can be invaluable to many RVers, especially those of you that plan on living full-time in one.
The freezers get cold the same way as the rest of the fridge, but they will be set at a cooler temperature and often have better insulation. Looking for an entirely separate freezer unit to keep inside your RV can be tricky. These freezers are often large, unyielding, and expensive- plus they can use up a lot of amps, making them tricky for RV living.
However, when in doubt about your amperage and battery power usage, you can always purchase a reliable RV generator. These tools are perfect for any RVer who might be concerned about having enough power- they are perfect for emergencies too!
Knowing how your RV or camper fridge works is important for any RVer to learn. Not only will you better understand the different types available, but you can also learn how to troubleshoot and even repair these appliances for yourself!
Do you have a preferred fridge type or brand that works well in your RV? Have you experienced the woes of an unlevel trailer damaging your fridge? Let us know in the comments!