To the avid camper with an RV, there’s nothing more frustrating than an RV refrigerator that’s not working, as it’s essential to have a good food supply when you’re off the grid. Both the home refrigerator and RV refrigerator are supposed to keep things cold, but they are also quite different, which means the troubleshooting process is different.
The RV fridges are sturdy and can withstand rough handling; however, they are prone to faults and issues. Some of the most common problems with an RV refrigerator are the fridge is failing to cool, the freezer is working when the fridge compartment is not, and ammonia leaking. This article will teach you how an RV refrigerator works, maintain them, and troubleshooting tips for the most reported RV fridge issues.
How do you reset an RV refrigerator?
There are a variety of camper fridge brands, and each model has a different reset procedure. Some RV refrigerators while others do not. The following are various ways you can reset a camper refrigerator.
Reset with the reset button
- Disconnect all electrical power from the RV.
- Locate the reset button on your refrigerator. The location of the reset button varies depending on the brand. Most brands have the reset button inside the fridge on the control panel.
- Push and hold the reset button for about 10 seconds.
- Wait about 10 seconds, and then press the reset button once.
- Wait for 5 seconds and then repeat steps 1-4.
- Then reconnect all the electrical power to your RV.
- Open the RV refrigerator door.
- Look for the control panel where the reset button is.
- Press and hold the reset button for about 3 seconds, and the refrigerator will turn off.
- Wait for 3-5 minutes, then press the reset button once to switch on the unit.
Reset with no reset button
- Locate the power outlet.
- Press the power button off for a few minutes and then back on to reset the RV refrigerator.
Reset with a magnet
- With the refrigerator on, locate the refrigerator compartment outside your RV.
- Look for a recall kit box that has a red LED light on it. The red indicator light should be on; this procedure will not work if it is flashing or off.
- If the kit box is not easily accessible, gently pull it out from the compartment.
- Use a flat-head screwdriver to remove the three clips that close the box’s lid and remove it.
- Check for a reed switch on the circuit board, slightly above the LED light.
- Touch the magnet on the right top of the reed switch for about 5 seconds or until you hear a click sound.
- Go inside your RV and confirm that your refrigerator is no longer beeping or showing an error message.
- Wait for about 15 to 20 minutes, go outside your RV, cover the box and screw it in place with the clips.
- Return the recall box to its position.
Why won’t my RV fridge get cold?
When your RV fridge is not cooling, it’s not likely to have the same issue as a home fridge because they both function differently. There are several differences, but the main one is a home refrigerator uses a compressor for cooling while an RV refrigerator uses gas absorption and gravity. There are more potential reasons why your RV refrigerator is staying warm. Follow the guide below for troubleshooting solutions to get your RV fridge cooling again.
- The RV is not level. The RV fridge draws heat out, and a chemical solution absorbs it. The chemical solution uses gravity to travel through the coils, so if the refrigerator is not level, the chemical solution can’t move through the coils to do its job, resulting in RV fridge problems. If you run the fridge when it isn’t level, it will stop cooling after some time. If the RV refrigerator has not been level for a significant amount of time, the unit will likely experience long-term problems. Check the level of the fridge and place a bubble level on a shelf in the freezer or refrigerator. Position the refrigerator such that half of the bubble is within the center circle to indicate a leveled fridge.
- Ensure there is a clear gas supply. Sometimes dirt can accumulate in the jet and prevent the proper flow of the gas to the burner. Clean the jet with a vacuum, open the gas valve and then check the quality of the flame.
- If the burner is running, but the fridge is still not cold, ensure the flame is stable. The flame should burn blue and continuous with minimal flickering or yellow or orange streaks. If the flame is wrong, turn the unit off, remove the burner and clean it. Dirt and debris can clog the burner can to produce a poor flame.
- If the refrigerator is not running, there could be a thermostat issue where it reads the fridge is cool, but it’s not. So first, ensure the temperature settings low enough; the temperature should be 35 degrees Fahrenheit. If they are, the fridge won’t click, and you have to replace the thermistor, a thermostat, and resistor combination inside the refrigerator.
- Inspect the seal around the door for gaps. RV fridges depend on proper insulation to prevent cold air from escaping. To test the seals, place a piece of paper in the door and close it. It should be hard to pull out the paper. However, if it pulls out quickly, the seal is damaged and needs replacing.
- Check for ammonia leaks. A pungent ammonia smell indicates a leak in the cooling coil, and you should not open the fridge to avoid inhaling the ammonia. Instead, turn off the unit, then call for professional assistance.
- You’re packing food incorrectly in the RV fridge. First, you should never put warm food in the refrigerator. The refrigerator will absorb the warmth out of the food to maintain the temperature in your fridge where it should be. Therefore your fridge will never stay warm if you do this repeatedly. Secondly, you should allow for proper airflow inside the RV fridge for it to function correctly. Pack food in the refrigerator such that there is sufficient space to let air get from top to bottom. Avoid stuffing containers around the fins that block cold air circulation.
- Another reason your RV refrigerator is not cooling is if you have not used it in a while. The chemical solution doesn’t flow when it is off, and sediment and dirt can build up and prevent operation. You have to empty the coolant, defrost the refrigerator, and refill the tank with clean coolant.
The RV fridge is running, but it’s not getting cold in hot weather
It’s important to note that RV fridges are susceptible to ambient temperature; therefore, they may fail to work when it’s hot outside. Follow the instructions below to get your RV working correctly in all seasons.
- First, ensure the fridge has proper ventilation by installing an RV fridge fan. The fan enables your fridge to reject heat during hot weather.
- A tip to avoid this problem is to park your RV with the fridge side in the shade during hot weather; otherwise, the direct sunlight will add extra heat and damage the fridge.
- Also, opening your fridge frequently and for extended periods makes it hard for the unit to cool down properly, especially in a hot climate. The refrigerator will have to work harder to try to get the heat out.
- If ventilation in your RV fridge is there, then the cooling unit has become entirely defective. The cooling units in RV fridges typically last about 15 to 20 years.
Why is my RV fridge not working on electricity?
RV fridges fall into two categories; two-way and three-way fridges. The two-way fridge will switch between LP gas and AC power depending on which of the two is available. The three-way fridge uses AC power, DC power, and LP gas. If your RV refrigerator is running on gas but not on the 110V AC, there could be an issue with the electric circuit or the electrical heating element.
- First, check that your RV refrigerator is receiving power. Next, check the circuit breaker and fuses, reset any tripped breakers and replace any short fuses.
- If your circuit breaker is fine, check the power outlet the fridge has plugged into. Use a multimeter to look for a reading between 110 and 120 volts. If a multimeter is unavailable, unplug the refrigerator and connect to another electrical appliance to test if the outlet has current.
- If the outlet has power, check the electrical heating element using a multimeter to determine if the control board is relaying power to the heating element. The heating element has very high voltages, so it is best to call in a professional if you do not have the skill or the right tools for this. To test the heating element without avoiding injury:
- First, disconnect the fridge.
- Then locate the cables powering the heating element coming out of the tin case below the cooling unit.
- Remove the shielding to access the cables easily.
- Position the multimeter around the heating element and then reconnect the fridge.
If you detect current in one cable and not the other, the heating element may be burned out and needs replacing.
- If the heating element is working fine, but the fridge is still not cooling, there may be a short on the control board’s relay fuse. You may have to either replace the burnt fuse or the entire control board with the help of a professional.
Check this too: Microwave How-To and Troubleshooting Guide
Why won’t my RV fridge work on propane?
Here is how to troubleshoot your RV fridge if it stops working on propane gas.
- First, you need to check the burner for a healthy flame. If the flame ignites and then goes out, the flame sensor(thermocouple) is probably defective. The flame sensor is attached to the main gas valve at the fridge’s back and connects to the gas burner with a tube. The flame sensor detects the heat from the pilot flame and controls the gas valve. Unfortunately, flame sensors go out quickly, so you will need to stock up on a number and replace it when necessary.
- If there is no flame entirely, check the gas tank for propane, then refill it if necessary. Next, check the valve position and make sure it is on so that it releases the gas.
- Try restarting the fridge, and then see if it ignites. If there is still no flame, but you can hear a valve click and smell gas, the igniter is bad or misaligned, or dirty. Try cleaning the igniter with a vacuum to remove dirt that could be preventing it from lighting up.
- RV fridges have electric igniters that make a clicking sound when they produce a spark.
- If there is a click sound and no flame, then the gas valve has a problem.
- If there is no click but the gas flows, the control board is probably not working.
- If there is no flame and no click sound, then the control board is faulty.
How do you know if an RV fuse is blown?
If your refrigerator goes out suddenly when using your camper, it’s probably due to a tripped breaker or a blown a fuse usually caused by using too much power at once. The RV has breakers or fuses to shut off power when there is a power surge to protect your appliances. Testing your camper for a blown is relatively easy. Use the guide below to help you troubleshoot and fix any fuse-related issues.
Things you need
- A few spare fuses
- Test light
- Pair of needle-nose pliers
- Locate the RV’s 12-volt fuse box in the electrical compartment. Open the electrical compartment and remove the panel that covers the fuses.
- Check for any tripped breakers and reset them to the On position. If the refrigerator starts working, you can close the circuit breaker. If the appliance doesn’t work, then a fuse is blown and needs replacing.
- Find a labeled diagram usually inside the fuse box panel and read the labels to determine the fuse that corresponds to the appliance in the RV that’s not working.
- Some new RVs have a check light that turns on when the fuse blows out. For the older campers, you will have to test for electrical current.
- You can tell a fuse has blown by simply looking at it. A blown fuse will have a dark, soot-looking smear or a visible break in the metal wire that you can see through the casing.
- However, the best way to be sure a fuse has blown is by testing it with a test light.
- Clamp the test light alligator clip onto any screw on the fuse box to ground the test light.
- Place the test light probe on the left and right terminals on the fuse without removing the fuse. Then look for the light to on in the handle.
- If the light turns on for both terminals, it indicates there is no problem with the fuse itself.
- If the light doesn’t turn on for one or both terminals, the fuse is blown and needs replacing.
To replace a blown fuse:
- Get a new fuse with the same voltage and amperage rating as the one you’re replacing. The ratings are visible on the fuse. It is good to have a few spare fuses in your RV for the road.
- Unplug the RV fridge from the power outlet.
- Use the needle-nose pliers to pull out the burnt fuse.
- Align the new fuse onto its slot with the amperage number right-side-up and facing you, and then gently push it in.
- Test the new fuse with the test light and plug the RV fridge back into the power outlet.
RV fridge not working, but freezer is
When troubleshooting your RV refrigerator, it’s essential first to understand how it works. In an RV refrigerant, the coolant first goes to the freezer before flowing to the fridge compartment. So anything that restricts this mechanism will prevent the fridge compartment from working. Also, the RV fridge can take up to 24 hours after turning it on before cooling. It also absorbs heat to provide cooling, and if there is no heating source, it becomes very warm. Below are several reasons that can cause your fridge not to work while your freezer maintains its coldness, and some possible solutions.
It’s pretty common to have insufficient air circulation in areas with scorching temperatures. Insufficient air in the burner can cause slower combustion of ammonia and hydrogen than the surrounding air heating up. So, the refrigerator won’t provide the sufficient cooling the freezer and fridge require.
You should install an auxiliary fan with a higher PRM behind the opening space of the RV refrigerator to increase air circulation in the fridge compartment. It creates a balance between the temperature of the RV fridge and the ambient temperature.
A faulty thermistor
A thermistor is an essential component responsible for sensing temperature changes in a refrigerator and then sends the signal to the control board to prompt a reaction. For instance, the control board will turn on the cooling cycles when the refrigerator temperature changes. So if the thermistor is defective, it will send incorrect temperature signals causing a faster flow of the heated mixture resulting in excessive cooling inside the freezer and less cooling in the refrigerator compartment. So you have to remove the thermistor and replace it with a new one.
The temperature sensor monitors the temperature inside the refrigerator and sends information to the electronic control. The vibration of the RV can cause the sensors to loosen, leading to incorrect temperature readings. Reattach the sensor to the fin correctly and securely, then adjust the temperature of the fridge.
Check this too: Norcold RV Fridge How to and Troubleshooting Guide
Clogged refrigerator exhaust
Ideally, the hot air inside your RV fridge should flow out through the exhaust. But if the exhaust has clogged with dust, it will block the way out for the hot air, and the fridge will stop cooling. And since the ventilator is at the back of the fridge compartment, the refrigerator will be warmer than the freezer as the refrigerator temperature loses equilibrium with the freezer temperature. To fix this issue, unplug the fridge, remove the vent panel on the RV’s roof, inspect it for blockages, and vacuum it to clear the dirt.
Like a home refrigerator, RV refrigerators use a coolant which is a mixture of ammonia. The coolant flows to the freezer first then goes to the fridge. That’s why the fridge compartment starts warming up first instead of the freezer if the unit has a problem. One common cause for this issue is the coolant drying up; the refrigerator will be running on an empty tank but can’t produce any cooling. You should unplug the unit, wait for the ice inside the fridge to defrost, then refill the coolant.
Since ammonia is denser than water, therefore, it flows much slower than water. For that reason, you have to ensure the ammonia gets to the chamber faster and without any hindrance, which can be very challenging when driving your RV on rough terrain. In addition, the bumpiness causes the disproportion of the burned mixture, resulting in poor performance of the refrigerator.
The best solution is to use gravity. The angle of the cooling unit’s location and that of the supply vent is the biggest obstacle to the flow of the ammonia mixture. You should keep the structure straight or under six degrees to maintain the equilibrium of both the freezer and the refrigerator.
Does my propane RV fridge need electricity to run?
The main advantage of a propane RV fridge is it does not require electricity to work; however, it will still need 12 V of battery power to turn it on. The battery power opens the gas valve, ignites the pilot flame, and powers the control panel. Otherwise, the fridge will not operate. Without the battery power, the gas valve will stay closed, and no spark to light the burner required to heat the coolant, which provides cooling in the refrigerator.
Although a propane-powered RV refrigerator does not use much power from the battery, it still requires a voltage of at least 10.5 to operate. So not only does it require a battery, but the battery also needs to have sufficient capacity.
How to make an RV fridge cool better
There’s more to keeping an RV fridge cool than just plugging it in. Follow out tips and tricks to ensure your refrigerator is running cool throughout your trip.
Level your RV
Always make sure your camper is relatively level for optimum fridge performance, particularly in hot weather. The other part of the fridge has metals with zigzag patterns, and these metals require gravity to circulate the coolant around the refrigerator. So if your RV is out of level, the gas floating by convection and coolant moving by gravity will struggle to flow to some areas in the fridge to cool them. Fortunately, your leveling doesn’t need to be perfect. Modern refrigerators can perform well within 3 degrees off level side-to-side and 6 degrees off level front-to-back.
Check the door seals.
Inspect the door seal and ensure it is tight and uniform with no gaps. Any air gaps will allow hot air to go into the fridge, and the fridge will lose cold air making it inefficient. If the seal has worn out or damaged, you need to disassemble it and replace it with a new one. Test the new seal by place a sheet of pair and pulling it should show resistance.
Maintain sufficient air circulation
After packing your refrigerator, ensure the upper vent outlet has clear airflow to allow hot air to escape from the top of the fridge. Look for a vent fan near the upper vent outlet and ensure it operates. If there is no fan, install one to improve airflow.
Turn on the refrigerator 24 hours before leaving.
If you’re planning on a long trip, turn on the fridge about 24 hours before your departure to allow the refrigerator to cool completely. You can also stock your fridge with cold items before. A stocked fridge holds cold temperatures better than an empty one.
Reduce the frequency of opening the fridge.
Avoid opening the fridge door for a long time or frequently because it wastes a lot of energy. Keeping your fridge well organized helps you know where everything is and limits the amount of time you spend looking for something with the fridge door open.
Defrost your RV fridge and freezer regularly
Check for frosting and ice formation, especially in the freezer, and defrost it. The ice can prevent the door from sealing properly, and it can also cover the fins and prevent air circulation. The fridge compartment has auto defrost fins, so it may not ice up as frequently as the freezer. Remove the food out of the fridge, and plug it from power. You can open the fridge door and wait for the ice to melt on its own or speed up the process with a hairdryer on medium heat.
Park the fridge side of your RV in the shade.
Naturally, the RV refrigerator works much harder during hot weather to maintain its cool cycle. It is because the direct sun heats the RV, which increases the demand on the cooling cycle. However, the heat prevents the refrigerator from releasing the heat properly, which reduces its efficiency. So, keeping the fridge side of your RV under a shade will ensure its efficiency.
Stock the RV fridge with cold products
Loading the fridge with items that are already cold will prevent the refrigerator from straining to lower the product’s warm temperatures. It will also help maintain the fridge’s desired temperature throughout.
Monitor the fridge temperature with a thermometer.
Install a remote temperature gauge on one of the shelves on the rear side of the fridge and then place the read-out monitor in the galley area. It helps you monitor your fridge’s performance without having to open the fridge door. Over time, you will learn your fridge’s baseline temperature, allowing you to take appropriate measures to fix an issue before it gets worse.
Can you use an RV fridge in an off-grid cabin?
Yes, RV fridges are convenient for off-grid applications because they can run without electricity or substantially low power. You can use either a propane-powered fridge or a 12-volt refrigerator, depending on the conditions of your stay. If you’re off-grid for a long while, you can install solar panels to run both AC and DC-powered solar refrigerators. If your off-grid stay is short, you can use a propane power fridge if you have a steady gas supply.
When choosing an RV fridge for your off-grid cabin, you should consider the available power or fuel. Each fuel option has its pros and cons. Propane is highly flammable, but it is convenient to use when electricity is limited or nonexistent. The 12V DC is safer but drains your RV batteries very quickly. 120V AC also provides consistent cooling but requires a connection to the power source: solar or generator.
How to check ammonia levels in an RV fridge
RV fridges use refrigerant grade ammonia to draw out heat and produce the cooling effect. If your refrigerator has a pungent smell like ammonia, there is a leak. Other ways you can detect leaking ammonia are yellowish stains in or around your RV fridge or a gurgling sound from the back of your fridge a few minutes after turning it on.
Low ammonia levels mean the fridge won’t function well as there won’t be sufficient coolant to draw out the heat and cool the entire fridge. So before you start your trip in your RV, always check the ammonia levels and signs of leaking using the steps below.
Use an ammonia detector.
If you notice the smell of ammonia coming out of your RV or the refrigerator itself, then it’s likely that your coolant is leaking. To confirm the leakage, you can use an ammonia detector to take readings of your fridge. The detector will tell how much of the ammonia has leaked out. For RV fridges, you should get a low concentration range detector that offers an ideal resolution and precision to detect even the slightest leaks. In addition, the ammonia detectors have visual, audible, or vibrating alarms that warn you when ammonia is leaking.
Place the ammonia detector near the ceiling because ammonia is lighter than air. Therefore, the area should be near the gas source for fast detection, away from ventilation and dead air spots above the fridge’s compressor. You can also install the ammonia detector around five feet above the floor and within 30 feet range of the possible leaks.
Use an ammonia leak detection cloth.
An inexpensive way is to test for ammonia leakage using an ammonia leak detection cloth. The ammonia leak detection cloth is a yellow cloth sensitive to 1% ammonia vapors and gases. Unlike an ammonia detector, it doesn’t show how much ammonia is leaking but only shows ammonia in the air. You should place the cloth near the suspected leak, and it changes from yellow to blue to indicate ammonia is leaking, then it reverses back to yellow after some time so you can use it again.
Use Phenolphthalein test strip.
The Phenolphthalein test strip is another inexpensive method that works like the ammonia leak detection cloth for qualitative leak detection of ammonia gas in the air. This paper contains Phenolphthalein, a weak acid that changes color from white to pink when it detects ammonia in the air because it has a pH level of 11.6. Wet the test strip with distilled water, then move it around your RV fridge, around the compressor, inside the box, and near the ceiling. The paper will turn pink to indicate an ammonia leak. If there is no color change, there is no leak.
Check if your RV refrigerator is overheating.
Another sign that indicators your fridge’s ammonia levels are low is when your unit starts overheating by simply touching the sides of the appliance by hand. If the heat has only concentrated in one area, you’re running low on coolant; if the heat has spread all over, you have entirely run out of the coolant. It’s dangerous running your fridge when it’s overheating as it may cause other components to break down. To fix this, disconnect your unit from power and refill the tank with coolant.
How long do RV fridges last?
RV refrigerators typically last between 10 to 18 years or more depending on the type of refrigerator, the quality of the brand, use and maintenance practices, and environmental factors.
- Quality of the unit: Compact and high-end RV refrigerators tend to last longer than the cheaper options.
- Maintenance: Regular maintenance and early repairs such as cleaning and defrosting will prolong its lifespan.
- Usage: Misusing the RV fridge will cause frequent damages that will lead to its total breakdown, such as overfilling, blocking the vents, and putting hot or warm food in the refrigerator.
- Environmental factors: Always keep the RV side with the refrigerator away from direct sunlight.
How to run an RV fridge when driving
The safest way to run your RV fridge while driving is to switch it to the 12V DC power source. If you have a two-way fridge, you should put it on a generator with enough power to keep it running when you’re driving. Alternatively, you can turn off your fridge while driving and power it up during stops and breaks. There are also a few additional tips that can help you maintain a cool fridge when it is off as your drive your RV.
- You can also load some ice packs to keep your fridge cool for longer during long drives.
- Avoid opening your fridge when you’re on the road to avoid losing cold air.
- Lower the fridge temperature to the lowest setting about 24 hours before turning it off. If your fridge freezes up your items, choose the lowest temperature setting that does not freeze your items.
Use a Generator
A last resort option can be using a generator to provide enough 120V AC power to run your RV fridge when using a generator. It’s essential to have your RV fueled up before your trip because generators that share your RV’s fuel supply will automatically shut off when the fuel drops below a quarter of the tank. Unfortunately, because a fridge draws so much power, the generator may not have the capacity to run it while driving, but you can use it during stop-overs.
Check this too: Dometic RV Fridge How to & Troubleshooting Guide
If your generator runs on propane gas, the same laws will apply to using a propane tank. One downside to using a generator is that they are pretty loud, disturbing other people, and alert the police.
Using 12V DC power
If you have a three-way RV fridge, the third 12V DC power option will come in handy when you want to run your fridge while driving. Since your RV engine recharges the batteries as it runs, the battery won’t drain as fast as if you were running the fridge on 12V DC while parked. Unfortunately, three-way RV fridges are not very common nowadays because modern RVs are larger, and so are their refrigerators. A 12V DC connection is not strong enough to run modern RV refrigerators.
Can I run my propane-powered RV fridge while driving?
The biggest debate among RV owners is whether you can run your RV fridge on propane while driving.
We do not recommend turning on your propane gas tank while driving, as you can still maintain a cool fridge using the tips explained above. Driving on rough terrain with the propane gas on can loosen or disconnect the gas lines and cause a gas leak. Since propane is highly flammable, it can cause an explosion in case of a spark. Also, inhaling propane gas can cause dizziness, headaches, breathing issues, and even unconsciousness. However, some RV owners believe that you can drive with the propane gas on if you take a few extra precautions to stay safe.
Although there is no law against driving with the propane on, by law, you need to turn the propane off while at fuel stations and in tunnels. In addition, some roads and bridges also have propane restrictions, so look out for road signage.
RV refrigerators use absorption systems with fewer moving parts, making them generally easier to fix. The article will help you understand how your RV fridge works, the power options, and how to identify the source of the problem when an issue arises. With a few tools and knowledge here, you can get your RV fridge cooling again. If you have been using your RV fridge for over ten years and it keeps breaking down, it’s probably time to get a new one.