Should I leave my RV refrigerator on all the time?

In this blog post, we will answer the following question: Should I leave my RV refrigerator on all the time? We will discuss how much an RV fridge consumes, how it works and how to properly maintain one. 

Should I leave my RV refrigerator on all the time?

You don’t need to leave your RV fridge on all the time. This will not extend its life. However, before going on a camping trip, you must turn on your RV refrigerator within 24 hours. This will allow your refrigerator to cool down in time for your trip.

Here are a few steps to follow before unplugging the fridge:

  • You can completely empty both the fridge and the freezer, removing any product. We don’t want rotten food, right?
  • Take the opportunity to clean the drawers well. It is done super fast, it will only take you about fifteen minutes and a clean cloth and a bottle of vinegar are enough. Squirt vinegar inside the compartments and spread the liquid with the cloth, this will allow you to disinfect and eliminate bad odours. Repeat with the rubbers that the refrigerator brings attached to the doors.
  • Then, after unplugging, you should leave the doors open so that moisture does not accumulate inside the fridge.

The refrigerators found in RVs are usually Norcold or Dometic which have a few small differences in their controls and adjustments, but they remain similar. You should know that RV refrigerators are not like household refrigerators. 

Household refrigerators work by compression, while trailer refrigerators work by absorption. Basically, it is gassed, usually, ammonia and hydrogen, that is heated and circulated in the refrigerator to cool it.

What power source for an RV refrigerator?

“RV” refrigerators have absorption operations that differ from residential refrigerators which operate by compression. Refrigeration will not circulate heated gas. 

It is important to ensure that the trailer is level when the refrigerator is in use, otherwise, the gases could circulate poorly and then accumulate in the piping, affecting the performance of the refrigerator and possibly causing breakage. 

The refrigerator can remain in use on the road since the vibrations and constant movement prevent gas build-up.

The refrigerator can use two sources of energy to heat the gases; propane or electricity. Although the 12V current supplied by the battery is necessary at all times for the operation of the microprocessor of the refrigerator, it is not sufficient to heat the gases, it requires a 15, 30 or 50 amp electrical connection at the campsite or propane use.

  • 12V refrigerator: It is more and more common to see compression RV refrigerator models using only 12V current to power themselves. The current is used both to power the microprocessor as for other types of refrigerators, but also as a power source to cool it. 

12V refrigerators have the advantage of offering a larger volume while occupying the same location in the RV. Since the compressor mechanism is more compact than the absorption mechanism, these refrigerators are deeper, usually adding 2 more cubic feet of space compared to an absorption RV refrigerator.

  • RV refrigerator running on 120V and propane: Some RVs, especially small motorhomes, want to offer campers a lot of autonomy and versatility and will be equipped with 3-way refrigerators that can run on 120V current, 12V current only and propane gas. These refrigerators are generally more compact but will allow the use of any energy source for their cooling.

Changing the power source and adjusting the temperature of an RV fridge

The control panels of Domestic and Norcold refrigerators are similar, they are located either above the freezer door, between the freezer doors or between the two doors, but accessible only when the doors are open.

There are many models available with control panels that may differ somewhat, but the functionality remains the same. An ON / OFF button is used to start the refrigerator.

A button switches between power sources in three modes. Some refrigerators do not offer the electric-only mode of operation.

  • “AUTO”: an automatic mode where the selection of the power source is done automatically. Electricity is prioritized when a 120V power source is available, otherwise, the refrigerator operates on propane gas.
  • “GAS”: a mode where the refrigerator operates only with propane gas. Propane gas will be used even if a 120V current is detected and the refrigerator will shut down if the propane supply is empty.
  • “AC”: alternating current or 120V electricity mode where the refrigerator will only operate on electricity. The refrigerator will no longer operate if the power source is cut off.

A button allows you to select the desired temperature on a scale from 1 to 7 or 9, each press of the button changes the level. If the refrigerator does not have a temperature adjustment button on the control panel, the adjustment should be made through the tab located in the upper right corner of the interior of the refrigerator. 

Finally, it is possible to know if the microprocessor of the refrigerator has encountered a problem by means of a “CHECK” indicator light that lights up in the event of a problem. On some models, the “GAS” mode indicator light will flash to indicate the malfunction.

To find the owner’s manual for your model of Dometic refrigerator, follow this link and search the Dometic site. User manuals for Norcold refrigerator models are also available online. Follow this link to the Norcold website and search with your model number.

Tips for the maintenance and well-functioning of an RV fridge

In addition to the annual review, there are several “day-to-day” procedures that RVers can perform in order to keep their fridge functioning properly.

  • Periodically, and especially after a long period of storage, owners must inspect the vents (winds), the ventilation duct and the visible part of the gas combustion chamber of the refrigerator to ensure that they are free of debris or other obstructions caused by animals or insects. Spiders love propane gas and often set up their nests and webs around the firebox.
  • In order to ensure that an RV refrigerator has reached the correct internal operating temperature, a full-size model should be pre-cooled for at least 8 hours before placing food in it.
  • There are many tips to preserve food in the best possible way and thus prevent food spoilage, such as pre-cooling some of your food in your home refrigerator before placing it in your RV fridge. Placing hot food in your RV refrigerator can double its cooling time.
  • Most gas absorption refrigerators do not have internal fans, so their cooling efficiency depends on the air circulation inside the fridge. For best results, do not place the bottles and packets of food in such a way that they present a “wall” and above all, do not lay any carpet on the shelves as this will make it more difficult for air to circulate there!
  • To further facilitate the circulation of air in your fridge, buy and place a small battery-operated fridge fan and place it on one of the shelves, the fan blowing towards the top of the fridge: the air will circulate there much better and will reduce the cold drop process inside your fridge by up to 50%! 
  • Regularly check the end of the water evacuation tube/duct located behind the exterior “grid” to make sure that it is not blocked in any way.
  • For good ventilation, check the free space behind your refrigerator. Make sure that the upper and lower vents and the area between these openings are free of any obstructions such as a bird’s nest for example.

To make sure that your RV fridge lasts as long as possible, make sure you take proper care of it! If you have any other tips on fridge use and maintenance, don’t hesitate to share them with us.

FAQ on Should I leave my RV refrigerator on all the time?

How does a propane RV refrigerator work?

A gas or propane burner is connected underneath the generator. The burner heats the generator. In the generator, there is a combination of water and ammonia, which begins to boil. The boiling solution passes through a pipe until it reaches the separator, which by the force of the difference in the molecular weight of water and ammonia, separates the two materials. 

How dangerous is gas from an RV refrigerator?

The oils and gases of any RV refrigerator remain inside and in its tank, despite the fact that it is already an old fashioned one. These chemicals damage the ozone layer. Even keeping a useless refrigerator at home is dangerous, as a leak could trigger a tragedy, such as a fire or explosion.

How does the RV refrigerator work?

An RV propane refrigerator works with a propane gas flame to heat ammonia and distilled water using hydrogen gas to circulate vapour and liquid ammonia to cool it down. There are no power lines or inverters and generators to power the refrigerator.


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