How Does An RV Or Camper Refrigerator Work
Last Updated: May 17, 2021

How Does An RV Or Camper Refrigerator Work?

Wondering how exactly an RV refrigerator works? Well, that depends on the type of fridge but don’t worry – we’ve covered everything about RV and camper fridges in this detailed guide.

From the differences between household and camper refrigerators to all the different types of RV fridges – you will find all the info you need right here! We’ve also covered the good and the bad about each fridge type, including pricing, power consumption, and cooling efficiency.

Whether you’re just curious or you’re looking to install a brand new fridge in your RV/campervan, everything you need to know is just a scroll away!

Household Vs. RV/Camper Refrigerator

Household Fridge

A standard household fridge uses a compressor to keep the items inside cold. They operate efficiently but tend to be really loud, which is one of the reasons why they are not very popular in RVs.

An RV fridge, on the other hand, doesn’t have any moving parts. Instead, it uses hydrogen gas, ammonia, and water to keep the temperature low. It’s called an absorption fridge, and it works in a way that uses heat to create chemical reactions with those fluids. They then evaporate and condense, which is exactly how the food in the fridge stays cool.

That also explains why RV fridges get so hot, and why it’s a bit harder to keep them cool in the summer. The main difference between absorption RV fridges is whether they’re powered by electricity or propane gas. Propane fridges are more popular with campers who are off the grid, while campers with electricity in their RVs usually opt for AC/DC fridges.

Type Of Fridge

There are a few different types of fridges that are used in campervans and RVs and how they exactly work will depend on their type.

Two-Way Fridges

Two-Way Fridge

Two-way refrigerators are very common in RVs and campervans. They can run on either AC power or propane gas, so they are suitable for most vehicles. This type of fridge is very affordable, and usually a lot cheaper than a three-way refrigerator.

However, there are certain risks associated with propane fridges. It’s not smart to leave them running all the time, especially when driving.

For one, there’s no need to always keep them on, since you only lose about 4 degrees Fahrenheit for every eight hours the fridge is not running. Also, propane is a type of gas that can emit carbon monoxide when it burns, and you need to be really careful about that.

If you’re going to put a propane fridge on your RV and you plan to leave it running most of the time, you will need a CO detector in the RV.

Carbon monoxide is an odorless and colorless gas that is lethal in high doses. If you have any appliances running on gas in the vehicle, you need to make sure that there is enough ventilation inside. If the CO detector starts beeping, turn off the fridge immediately, open all the windows, and get out of the vehicle until you’re sure that it’s safe inside.

Carbon monoxide is incredibly dangerous because in most cases you can’t even tell that you’re getting poisoned by it. It usually starts with a mild headache, followed by dizziness, sleepiness, and a loss of consciousness.

Another downside of propane fridges is poor temperature regulation, especially in warm weather. It gets worse on higher altitudes, and if the fridge is so packed with food that air can’t circulate properly, you’re going to be drinking some rather lukewarm sodas.

That being said, propane fridges have a rather obvious advantage, which is they can be used when you’re camping off the grip. They require no electricity to work, so you can set them up pretty much anywhere. You can technically make this fridge work outdoors, but only if it’s not too hot outside.

Norcold AC DC Fridge

One more thing worth noting that is some brands have recently developed a newer take on two-way fridges, most notably Norcold. They’ve started manufacturing two-way fridges that work on AC and DC, without the option of propane.

This is great for campers who have solar panels or generators in their RVs, and want to avoid using propane appliances. These fridges operate on compressors that are much quieter than the ones in household fridges, they’re reliable and efficient, but they’re also more expensive than standard two-way refrigerators.

Three-Way Fridges

Three-Way Fridge

Because of the risks of propane, a lot of people opt for three-way fridges. They can run on propane, AC, and DC, so you have a lot more options when it comes to powering them. If you have a generator or solar panels on your RV, you can plug the fridge into an outlet and you’re good.

You can also power them with the vehicle’s battery, but that’s not ideal. It’s fine while you’re driving, but you should never leave the fridge plugged into the vehicle battery when you’re parked. Refrigerators have a fairly high power consumption rating, and a camper fridge could drain your motorhome battery in some 3-4 hours.

These fridges are also affected by ambient temperature, so you’re not going to get optimum performance when the temperatures outside are really high. But that’s an issue with all absorption fridges and the only way around it is to go with a compressor fridge instead.

Three-way fridges are very similar to two-way fridges, with one extra option for a power source. They’re usually a similar size with a similar layout inside, so if you’re mostly worried about how much food you can fit in the fridge, either one of these can be a good option for you.

They are also more expensive than two-way fridges, so they might not be the best option out of the bunch if you’re on a tighter budget.

Both two-way and three-way fridges are absorption fridges that operate almost silently. They are very common in converted campervans because the silent operation makes it easy to sleep in the same room as the fridge.

Residential RV Fridges

Some people opt to put a residential fridge in their RV and they never look back. These are big fridges that are the size of household fridges, and which require special modifications to the interior of the RV. They are big, bulky, and use a lot of power.

But they offer a lot more space for food, they are more efficient, and they’re usually the better option for people who are living in their RV full-time.

Residential fridges consistently offer lower temperatures, and their performance is not affected by the temperatures outside the RV, which is not the case with traditional camper fridges. On top of that, they’re actually the cheaper option, if we don’t consider the cost of modifying the RV interior to create room for a residential fridge.

The downside of this type of fridge is that it’s not really built for life on the road and the doors will pop open if you don’ secure them while you’re driving.

Also, residential fridges consume quite a lot of power, so you will need either an additional RV battery or one more solar panel, to ensure you have enough electricity for everything in your vehicle.

Then there’s the issue of weight – residential fridges are a lot heavier than compact RV fridges. That’s another reason why most people opt for the more compact absorption fridges – cutting down on weight wherever possible is always smart with an RV. Overweight motorhomes are more susceptible to gradual wear and tear, tire problems, and even critical failures.

Keep in mind that residential fridges use compressors to cool the food. They can be quite loud and they’re really not a great option if your bed is close to the fridge. If you have a big motorhome with a separate bedroom, this won’t be such a big issue.

Portable RV Fridges/Coolers

Portable Camper Fridge

Portable RV fridges work in a similar way as two-way fridges, but they’re slightly more versatile. Options like the Iceco fridge have a compressor, so they’re actually more similar to household fridges than propane fridges. The compressor has max and eco functions, which let you choose between an eco-friendlier operation or a really quick cooldown of the food inside the fridge.

However, keep in mind that the compresses use quite a lot of electricity, so don’t even consider this type of fridge if you don’t have solar panels in your RV.

The upside of this type of fridge is that they offer better temperature regulation and more consistent performance regardless of ambient temperature. The Iceco dual-zone fridge is awesome because it has two separate compartments, allowing you to use one side as a fridge and the other one as a freezer if you want.

You’re the one determining the temperature inside the fridge and the possibilities are endless.

This type of fridge is also more reliable than a standard absorption fridge, making it the better option for campers who spend a lot of time on the road. On the other hand, it’s also heavier, pricier, bulkier, and louder than a classic two-way fridge. Whether the pros outweigh the cons is entirely a matter of personal preference.

About the Author Roger Timbrook

Roger is a little obsessed with travel. He has been to over 40 countries, broken 3 suitcases and owned over 10 backpacks in 12 months. What he doesn't know about travel, ain't worth knowing!

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