As far as RV appliances go, your refrigerator is probably one of the most essential. Sure, you can live without your stove or oven, thanks to portable options, and they even make portable air conditioners, but your RV fridge, that’s another story.
If your RV fridge stops working you’ve got a big pain to deal with. Sure, you can use a cooler, or switch to using only propane, but that’s never the ideal situation.
So, what do you do if your RV fridge isn’t working on electricity? This is a practical question to ask, if you’re an RV owner, because whether it’s happened to you before or not, eventually you will have to troubleshoot problems with your RV fridge.
How do refrigerators work in RVs?
Before we start talking about what you do if your RV fridge isn’t working on electricity, it is helpful to understand how RV refrigerators work, compared to the version you have at home.
The refrigerator in your home uses a particular type of gas within the cooling elements to make your refrigerator cold. Once upon a time, the gas was Freon. This gas is very good at cooling, but also very good at damaging the Earth’s ozone layer. So, to protect our planet, appliance manufacturers changed from Freon to Puron. This gas works the same as Freon, but is much better for the planet.
Your RV refrigerator uses a combination of water, hydrogen gas and liquid ammonia. This combination is what makes it possible to run your refrigerator on both electricity and propane.
The simple explanation to how this works is this:
The mixture of water hydrogen and ammonia are held in a small boiler in the back of your RV fridge. Either by propane or electricity, the tank and chemical mixture is heated. When the solution is heated, the chemicals separate. The water stays in the boiler while the ammonia and hydrogen travel through the cooling coils in the back of the refrigerator.
The combination of ammonia and hydrogen combine in a manner that creates a cold as part of the chemical reaction. Once the reaction is complete, the ammonia and hydrogen condense out of the coils into the condenser chamber, where they are mixed with water again, and passed back to the boiler, where the process starts all over again.
This process usually starts in the freezer part of your RV fridge. Because the reaction creates the most cooling at the beginning, it makes sense that to have the boiler send the ammonia and hydrogen to the freezer first, and then as the reaction slows, it travels down to the refrigerator, where things don’t need to be quite as cold.
For this process to get your RV fridge and freezer to the optimal temperatures you’ll be waiting a while. In the typical RV fridge it can take 8 to 12 hours to achieve the best cooling.
Today, most RV refrigerators work on two to three different power sources. Some RVs have two-way refrigerators. These work on AC electricity and propane (or LP). Most newer RVs have three-way refrigerators that can operate on AC electricity, DC electricity or propane. Neither option is better or worse, you just need to know what you’ve got so you can ensure that it is operating properly.
What to do if your RV fridge isn’t working on electricity
If you’re out on the road and you’ve been using AC power or your RV’s 12-volt battery to operate your RV’s appliances, and your fridge isn’t cooling, there can be a few different causes. Some are easy to resolve, some aren’t as easy.
Here are some of the most common reasons your RV fridge might not be working on electricity, and how to fix the problem.
- Check to see if your RV refrigerator works in both electric and LP mode. – In most cases, your RV will use electric power first when you’re parked and plugged into a power source. Or, it can use the 12-volt battery. If those options aren’t available or if you’re traveling, many RV refrigerators will switch automatically from electric to LP.
If your RV fridge isn’t working, you need to determine if there is an issue with the electric service or if your propane tank is empty.
Oftentimes the problem is really this basic.
To determine if the electrical service is the problem:
- Check to make sure that the RV is plugged in, and that the connector is fully inserted into the electrical outlet.
- Make sure that you’ve not tripped a breaker or burned up a fuse.
- Switch the fridge to LP and see if that resolves the problem.
Before you jump into trying to fix your fridge, you should also check the propane system for your RV fridge:
- Make sure that the valve on the propane tank is on.
- Make sure the excess flow valve is functioning.
- Make sure that the pressure regulator is operating correctly.
- Check the interior propane switch is set to “on”.
- Is your propane tank full?
If you’ve checked your LP system and your electric system, and your RV fridge is still not working on electricity or LP, then you should move on to the next possible problem.
- Check for leaks in the cooling unit. – Over time, and with wear and tear, your RV’s fridge can spring leaks in the cooling system. This will most likely be the case if your RV fridge is old. While most RV fridges can last 15 to 20 years, the wear and tear of travel, and bumping around can cause pin holes to develop in the cooling units or older RV refrigerators.
To determine if your RV fridge has a leak, you’ll want to access the cooling unit from the access door at the back of the fridge. You’ll know you have a leak if you notice the following:
- A strong ammonia odor
- Yellow stains on the cooling coils
- Residue on the cooling coils
If you notice a strong ammonia smell, you’ll want to immediately turn off the refrigerator and vent out the fridge and your RV. While you can try and fix the leak, the best option is really to replace the cooling unit, or the entire refrigerator.
- There’s a build-up of ammonia sediment. – Older refrigerators or those that have been sitting in storage for a long time are prone to ammonia sediment. The ammonia in your RV fridge is normally in gas form. Over time the ammonia can turn from gas to liquid. As a liquid the ammonia can leak from the cooling system or pool in the coils where it can potentially dry out and crystalize.
If you’ve determined that ammonia sediment is your problem, there’s not much you can do for your refrigerator besides replace it. Some RV owners swear that you can remove the fridge, turn it upside down, and this will allow the sediment to come out of the coils. This might work, but it will only prolong the inevitable.
- Your RV fridge has frozen solid. – This doesn’t happen often. But it can be a problem, especially if your RV fridge doesn’t have enough air flow around it or you’re in a really cold environment. The ironic thing about your RV fridge freezing solid, is that it won’t cool down the inside of your fridge until it thaws.
To solve this problem, you’ll need patience, and a space heater. The safest way to thaw your RV fridge cooling unit when it’s frozen is to slowly warm it with a space heater or even a high watt light bulb.
- The fridge burner has failed. – This happens a lot if you’re traveling to high altitudes, especially if your home base is at sea level. The burner for your RV fridge needs oxygen to fuel the flame. At higher elevations there’s less oxygen and burners will struggle. This means that your RV fridge won’t cool as efficiently or will stop working all together.
This is generally a problem related to the LP system for your RV fridge. The best solution for this problem is to make sure that when you’re camping at higher elevations you plug in your RV to AC power or use a DC battery when traveling.
- I’ve tried all of that, and still, nothing. – It sounds strange but where you park your RV and how level it is, does matter for more than just your comfort. If your RV is on an incline, the cooling solution in your RV fridge might pool in the condenser and not be able to move back to the boiler.
If you’ve tried everything else, and your RV fridge still isn’t working on electricity, you may just need to adjust how it’s parked or make sure that it is properly leveled.
Also read: How Many Amps Does a Refrigerator Use?
How to prevent RV fridge issues in the future
It really isn’t hard to keep your RV fridge working well, for many years. The key here is simple – good, routine maintenance. To keep your fridge in tip-top shape, do the following things on a regular basis:
- Start cooling your fridge before you are traveling. This way you know if it’s working or if you need to make repairs.
- Don’t over fill your fridge. Too much food in your fridge reduces the efficiency of your cooling unit.
- When possible, avoid putting hot foods into the fridge.
- When you’ve parked your RV, make sure food items are still in place.
- Check the fridge vent on the top of your RV for debris. Clean out the vent regularly.
- If possible, park your RV in the shade.
- At the end of the season, remove all food items and clean out your fridge well with soap and warm water.
- Don’t let the fridge sit inactive for too long. Even if you’re not traveling, run the fridge to avoid ammonia sediment.
- Finally, check all the parts of the cooling system at least once per year. A good time to do this is before you hit the road for the first trip of the season.
If you find that your RV refrigerator still isn’t working correctly on electricity it may be time to have a professional look it over. While we’ve covered some of the most common issues with your RV fridge that may cause it to not run on electricity, there may be other issues occurring.
An RV maintenance professional can help you troubleshoot and repair more unusual problems, or help you find the proper replacement fridge for your RV.