Refrigerators are one of the backbone amenities for living the RV life. They’re a hearty machine that stands the test of time. When they do end up with problems, it can feel like the whole world is crashing down on you. Before you give up the RV lifestyle, here are some troubleshooting fixes for camper refrigerators to keep you on the road.
How Does Refrigerators Work in RVs
Modern home refrigerators use Puron as a substitute for Freon as a refrigerant. RV refrigerators use a cooling solution out of water, liquid ammonia, and hydrogen gas.
The solution is heated in a boiler to separate the chemicals. The ammonia and hydrogen gasses flow through evaporator coils to draw heat out of the inside of the refrigerator. They come back together with the water in a condenser chamber. Once they’re in liquid form, they flow back to the boiler to start the process over again.
The boiler is heated either by electricity or a propane burner. Two-way refrigerators use either AC current or propane. Three-way (which are more common) versions use AC, DC, or propane. RV refrigerators last, on average, between 15-20 years. It usually comes down to how long the electric wiring keeps up.
Most of the cooling starts in the freezer part of the unit. The main refrigerator cools as the air flows through the rest of the interior. When you first start up the fridge, it can take around 8-12 hours to get it to the optimal temperature of 43° Fahrenheit in the main section, and 34°F in the freezer.
To learn more about your refrigerator, it’s always a good idea to read through the owner’s manual. The two biggest names for RV fridges are Dometic and Norcold. If you need a copy of your manual, you can download a copy from their websites.
What’s Behind the RV Refrigerator Vent Cover
On the exterior of your RV, you’ll see a removable panel with three-wide slits running horizontally. This panel is your refrigerator vent cover. Behind this panel are the inner workings of your fridge.
The lower panel allows fresh air to come in to cool the hot components. The upper side panel lets warm air escape. The second vent is either a rectangular roof piece or a higher side vent. Some install a fan behind the vent cover to increase the airflow.
Behind the vent cover, you’ll find the following:
- The boiler behind a metal plate that shields it
- Evaporator tubes that zig-zag downward
- The condensation cylinder
- The 110v outlet the refrigerator is plugged into
- Various wiring and the gas line that leads into the fridge
- The electronic control board that maintains the functions of the unit
It’s always a good idea to run a wet/dry vacuum through the vent cover bi-annually through this space to clean out any debris, bugs, or anything else. A good visual inspection will let you know if any critters have been squatting in there by knawed wiring or nests.
Troubleshooting Easy Problems
Now that you have a proper perspective of how your RV refrigerator works and what’s behind that mystery vent cover, here are some great troubleshooting tips for answering why is my camper refrigerator not working.
We’ll start with simple solutions that solve most problems. If you’re the panicky type (like us), grab your “chill pills” and close that internet window of new refrigerators for RVs. These solutions won’t hurt your vacation budget.
RV refrigerators have a light with the word “check” over it. The pilot light in the boiler is the cause of the light turning on. If it’s on or blinks, that means the pilot light isn’t staying lit. There is a simple solution for Dometic refrigerator troubleshooting check light issues.
Follow the instructions in your owner’s manual to reset your unit. It may be a simple push of the Dometic or Norcold RV refrigerator reset button or turning the fridge off and on. Older refrigerators may have to be manually reset. The manual should have a step-by-step guide to walk you through it.
Have you ever had to deal with living in your RV when it wasn’t level? Pretty annoying, right? Your RV’s refrigerator doesn’t like imbalance either. Specifically, the evaporator coils have a shallow downward angle. If your RV isn’t level, the cooling mixture can’t flow through correctly.
Double-check your RV’s balance. If you have an auto-leveler, pull your stabilizer jacks up, and try it again. You may need to add blocks under the jacks to firm them up. Use a carpenter’s level or bubble level stickers at strategic points in your coach. If you’re staying in one place for weeks at a time, check your level every few days as your RV settles.
Freezer Becomes a Block of Ice
Is your RV freezer freezing up or building a thick layer of frost? The Thermistor (temperature sensor) that monitors your freezer may be misaligned or not working. Your owner’s manual will tell you where this sensor is located. The other problem could be the rubber seal that traps the cold air isn’t properly sealing.
To fix this problem, you have to turn your refrigerator off. Take a disposable aluminum foil pan and place it under the freezer. Leave the freezer door open and let nature take its course. To speed it along, you can use a hairdryer, but don’t use anything like a chisel, screwdriver, or anything else that could damage the interior.
Once it’s fully defrosted, you’ll want to open up the exterior vent cover to check the drain tube. This tube channels excess moisture out of the refrigerator. It can freeze up, clog up, or become damaged.
Getting to it may require unscrewing your refrigerator from the cabinetry inside and the anchor points within the vent cover area so you can give yourself some room to get to it.
Get a length of tubing that’s similar or bigger in diameter. The old tube is held on by an adjustable pinch fitting ring. Attach the new tubing with the pinch fitting and feed it through the vent cover. Put the vent cover back in place and cut the new tube, so it’s barely sticking out.
Cooling Unit is Frozen Solid
If your Norcold or Dometic refrigerator is not working at all after you pulled it out of winter storage, check the cooling components behind the vent cover. If your RV sat in negative temperatures over the winter, the cooling liquid might be frozen.
Use a space heater or 60-watt incandescent bulb to warm it up slowly. The process may take half to a full day, so be patient. The heat has to radiate throughout the entire system.
Troubleshooting Intermediate Problems
Fridge Burner Fails
If you find your fridge not working on gas if you’re camping in the mountains of California, Colorado, or Kentucky. You’ve already determined that your propane tank is full, and the valves are open. With the apparent things checked, it must be the altitude.
Propane won’t burn at over 5,500 feet above sea level. The air is too thin to create the proper fuel-to-air mixture. To test this, try to turn on your RV’s propane heater or gas stove. If you have problems with these appliances, that’s your issue. The only alternative is to switch your refrigerator to electric only. If you have your fridge on auto, it should do this on its own.
When you get to a lower elevation, you’ll need to purge the gas lines of excess air. The propane may have a weak flow and allow air to backflow into the lines.
If that isn’t the problem, it could be the ceramic housing is cracked or dirty. RV refrigerators don’t use thermocouples to detect the heat. Instead, there’s a sensor with a ceramic piece on the end of it. If there is a buildup of carbon or the piece is cracked, the sensor won’t detect the flame correctly and will shut off the gas. It’s cheap and easy to replace.
If your RV fridge isn’t working on electric, a visual inspection of the wiring and a multimeter are your best tools. Visually look for damaged wiring from corrosion or small animal chewing. Use the multimeter to test the refrigerator’s power outlet. Plug the fridge into another power source like an extension cord that’s connected to shore power.
If the power outlet is cold, replacing it is simple if you know what you’re doing. The wiring can be replaced as well by someone that knows what they’re doing. If the refrigerator has electrical problems, a certified professional needs to look at it.
Troubleshooting Difficult Problems
The only way to fix an RV refrigerator cooling leak is to replace the cooling unit system. Only a certified professional can let you know if it’s cheaper to replace the parts or buy a new refrigerator. In most cases, RV refrigerator customer reviews have pointed to total replacement as the better option.
There are a number of indicators to help you determine if you have a coolant leak:
- Look for yellow sediment build up
- You’ll detect a significant ammonia smell
- The boiler will be warm, but the absorber will be hot
- The cooling unit will stall when it turns on
- The refrigerator no longer cools
To test this, place a glass of water in your refrigerator and freezer with a non-electric thermometer. After 12 hours, the fridge should read around 43° Fahrenheit, and the freezer should sit somewhere around 34°F.
If the reading is nowhere near these readings, and you see those indicators behind the vent cover, more than likely you have a cooling leak. The yellow sediment is the ammonia turning into its solid-state. This sediment is blocking the cooling liquid from flowing and what liquid there is may be escaping.`
While it’s not ideal, there is a short-term fix that will give you some time if you’re away from civilization. If it’s possible, you can pull your refrigerator out, turn it upside down for a few minutes. Doing this will draw the sediment away from the blocked area. Hopefully, you’ll have enough cooling time to get back home deal with the problem without losing all of your food.
Residential Versus RV Refrigerators
One last thing we wanted to point out is the issues people are finding with their residential refrigerators in their RVs. This type of fridge doesn’t travel well. They require a lot of power from house batteries, big inverters, and road conditions can affect their performance during travel.
Their increased storage capacity and additional features make them a luxury item worth having. Residential refrigerators are better suited for those RVers that travel seasonally. In other words, those that stay in one spot for months at a time, and then move to a secondary location. Snowbirds that full-time are an excellent example.
Others that move around every few weeks will find few problems with an RV refrigerator. They handle the road, and their use of propane while traveling is more efficient for power needs. RV fridges now come as large as 18 cubic feet.
Whichever version of refrigerator you choose, make sure you keep up with the maintenance. Keep the interior and the exterior vent cover space clean. Do a visual inspection of the moisture drain, wiring, and gas components during your regular preventive maintenance check. Happy Trails.
Charles Joseph is one of the original authors of Camper Smarts from when it first started.