Nevertheless, RV refrigerators are a special breed of cat: Unlike the refrigerator “back home,” they don’t use mechanical pumps to move coolant; it’s all handled by heat and gravity. When they don’t keep their cool, for many it becomes a major mystery. We’ll cover a few tips that will help you keep your RV reefer happy—and your favorite beverage (and all else that’s supposed to be cold) plenty cool.
Following a few simple tips can make life with RV coolers a lot better.
Always pre-cool your refrigerator before packing the food in. Turn it on 24 hours before you plan to head out on your journey. When you pack, always put COLD food in the unit—it won’t like warm food. That’s especially true for large items. Stuffing in a six-pack of room-temperature cola is sure to lead to disappointment.
Leave plenty of room around the food inside your refrigerator compartment. A good flow of air is critical. Some RVers have found an after-market device that really helps to keep the breeze blowing inside their RV refrigerator. For about $15 you can buy a FridgeCool unit. A little plastic brick, the FridgeCool is a portable, battery-operated fan unit that keeps the airflow in the reefer compartment moving. It really can make a difference.
Keep the cold air inside the refrigerator and the warm air outside. Here’s where the door gasket comes in. A worn door gasket can spell real problems—the reefer cooling unit will be working overtime, trying to keep up with an unnecessary load. George can help. George who? George Washington!
Open the reefer door and stick a dollar bill against the doorframe edge, with the bill partly hanging out of the cooler box. Close the door and pull on the bill. If George makes an escape without resistance, the door gasket isn’t up to snuff and should be replaced. Don’t worry, Abe can help if George is on vacation.
Food particles and other gunk stuck on the door gasket or the doorframe can give a false impression on the gasket check. Be sure to clean the gasket and doorframe with soapy water (and an ending rinse) before trying this trick. Be sure to make George work all the way around the doorframe to ensure 100 percent gasket cooperation.
Keep ‘er level, too: Unlike the home refrigerator driven by a motor and pump, the RV absorption style refrigerator is very much sensitive to gravity. An off-kilter refrigerator is not only inefficient, the effects of operating an RV refrigerator off-level will accumulate and eventually KILL your refrigerator’s cooling unit. Can you say “hundreds of dollars to replace”? Use a round level inside the refrigerator and keep at least a half a bubble inside the center of the bull’s eye.
You’ll have a little topside work to do, too. At roof level, check out the roof vent. RV reefers pump heat out. All that heat has to go somewhere, and that somewhere is up, through a roof vent directly above the reefer. Birds have been known to build nests in roof vents, and obstructions like that will really cut down on cooling efficiency.
As with real estate, “location, location, location” is an RV refrigerator mantra. Is the weather hot? Try to park with the wall area behind your reefer in the shade so your system will have to cope with much less “cooling load.”
Troubleshooting Your Cool
While RV refrigerator problems can go beyond what the average do-it-yourself-RVer can diagnose, there are some things you can check out when things don’t stay cool.
First, if the refrigerator cools on gas, but doesn’t work on electric, or vice versa, there’s usually nothing wrong with the cooling unit. That’s a good thing, because in the whole system, the cooling unit is the most expensive part.
If the system isn’t cooling well enough on gas or electric, check out a few things. Is the unit level? Remember, keep at least half the bubble in the ring. Is the thermostat set high enough? Is the door gasket tight?
How about a layer of ice on the fins inside the box? A layer of ice can raise Cain with keeping the box cool. Shut the refrigerator off, carefully melt the ice off. DON’T take a heat gun after it! We’ve found that directing a flow of air from a fan will often melt the ice quickly and safely.
No cooling on electric? Make sure you have sufficient electric power at your campsite. Blown fuse? Pulled plug? Open the back door (from the outside of the RV) and make sure the refrigerator’s electric plug is actually plugged in. Some don’t have a plug, but are hard-wired to a terminal block.
No cooling on gas? First make sure you have propane in your tanks. It sounds silly, but you’d be surprised how many RVers simply forget to check this out.
Got gas? It could be the burner unit is obstructed. You’ll need to open the back door on the outside of your RV. Take a good look at the gas burner (at the bottom of a vertical cylindrical stack). You’ll likely have to remove a cover plate to access this burner, and when it’s off, you’ll be looking to make sure crud from the chimney stack hasn’t fallen down onto the burner, obstructing it or even causing the burner to not light.
Crud on the burner? Blow the junk off the burner with a puff of air (a can of “computer dust off” works great) or carefully brush it off with a paintbrush. Be sure to SHUT OFF the reefer first!
Take a good whiff. If you smell an odor of ammonia, then you’ve got problems. Ammonia is a key ingredient in the solution that your RV refrigerator circulates to transfer heat and cold. If the cooling unit develops a leak—and the older your refrigerator is, the more likely it is to develop one—you’ll often smell ammonia. There’s no “home fix” for a leaking cooling unit. Either the cooling unit or the whole refrigerator will have to be replaced. Those kinds of decisions can be a tough call. However, if your RV reefer is several years old, the argument is often made it’s cheaper in the long haul to replace the whole fridge because you’ll have the advantage of a new refrigerator warranty. Crunch the numbers carefully, you might be better off with a cooling unit replacement, depending on how long you plan on keeping the RV.
In any case, take care of your RV reefer, and you’ll enjoy those refreshing beverages—and all else in the cool food arena—a lot longer.
Russ and Tiña De Maris are authors of RV Boondocking Basics—A Guide to Living Without Hookups, which covers a full range of dry camping topics. They also provide great resources in their book, Camp Hosting USA—Your Guide to State Park Volunteering. Visit www.icanrv.com for more information.