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How Much Propane Does an RV Refrigerator Use and How to Reduce The Amount You Use

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When you’re preparing for a long trip, especially to more remote areas, the last thing you want to worry about is whether you’ll run out of fuel. But this is an important question to ask, especially if you’ll depend on a refrigerator to keep your perishables from going bad while you’re traveling.

Thankfully, it’s pretty simple to figure out how much propane an RV fridge uses — even if you’re not that great at math. All you need to know is how much energy your fridge uses every hour and how the size of your propane tank.

Keep reading to learn more about how propane fridges work and how to figure out how much propane RV refrigerators use. Understanding this important information will ensure that you’ll enjoy a safe, comfortable trip with your must-have food items cold and ready to go.

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Understanding How RV Propane Fridges Work

Propane fridges don’t work like traditional refrigerators you’d find in a house or apartment. Those operate by circulating a cold refrigerant through the unit, cooling down the space.

By contrast, RV propane fridges are known as absorption refrigerators because they use condensation to trap heat and move it away.

RV fridges use a combination of water, ammonia, and hydrogen to cool. A blend of water and ammonia is heated using propane or electricity until it turns into a vapor (or gas). As the vapor moves through the system, the water and ammonia are separated.

The ammonia continues to move to a condenser to cool down, and then on to the evaporator. At this stage, the ammonia mixes with hydrogen, rapidly cooling down and evaporating into a frosty vapor. This vapor then travels through the coils in your fridge, cooling the interior. 

At the end of the process, the ammonia and water meet again, starting the process all over again.

How Much Propane Does an RV Refrigerator Use?

To determine how much propane a fridge uses, it’s important to first familiarize yourself with some basic figures.

First, you need to know how much energy your RV fridge uses. This can vary greatly, especially when comparing older and newer units, as newer units are generally more energy-efficient. 

For our example, we’ll work with an RV fridge that uses 1,400 BTUs per hour — this is standard for a new unit with 8 to 10 cubic feet of space.

There are 91,000 BTUs of energy in a gallon of propane. Assuming you have a 20 lb tank that holds 4.7 gallons of propane, you have 427,700 BTUs of energy.

Now it’s time to do some math:

Assuming your RV fridge runs 24 hours per day, it uses 33,600 BTUs each day (1,400 BTUs per hour x 24 hours).

If there are 427,700 BTUs in a 20 lb propane tank, this means the tank can power your fridge for just over 12 days (427,700 BTUs in the tank / 33,600 BTUs daily use).

However, it’s important to note that most RV fridges do not run constantly. Depending on the efficiency of your unit, it may only run 8 hours per day. Assuming this, your RV fridge could run up to 38 days on a 20 lb tank.

Do you have a much smaller unit? Let’s consider a propane mini-fridge that uses 600 BTUs per hour. This is a good size for storing drinks and only the most essential of food items. 

If the refrigerator runs constantly, it uses 14,400 BTUs per day. Assuming you have a 20 lb propane tank, the fridge will exhaust all its fuel in about 30 days.

But if your small refrigerator only operates 8 hours per day, it only uses 4,800 BTUs each day. This means you can keep your food cool for nearly 90 days with a 20 lb propane tank.

Propane Refrigerator Efficiency: Tips and Tricks to Reduce How Much Propane Your RV Fridge Uses

As you can see, your propane refrigerator’s efficiency plays a huge role in how much propane it uses. Thankfully, even if you have an older unit, there are some ways you can increase its performance to reduce its energy usage.

Propane Tank

Perform Routine Maintenance

To keep your RV fridge running in tip-top condition, you have to stay on top of small issues before they become big ones.

On a regular basis, inspect your fridge for signs of damage or deterioration. Look for broken or loose seals that could be allowing cool air to escape, rust spots that could lead to air or propane leaks, and dust buildup that makes your unit work harder.

Keep Your Fridge Level

Absorption refrigerators, like the ones most commonly found in RVs, rely on gravity to operate. This means that they require level ground for maximum efficiency.

This can sometimes be difficult to achieve if you often park on unlevel ground. Thankfully, there’s an easy solution: Pack a level and shims

Once you’ve reached your destination, use the level to check the condition of your fridge. If it’s not exactly parallel to the ground, first adjust the fridge’s feet. If it’s still not level, use shims to make the correction.

Start the Fridge Before Your Trip

RV fridges don’t cool down as quickly as those you typically find in a house. To ensure that your refrigerator is ready to go when you are, be sure to turn it on several hours before your trip. If you’re leaving in the morning, start the refrigerator the night before.

Pack Colder Items First

You can help your RV fridge maintain lower temperatures by being mindful about how you pack your food items. Whenever possible, pack the coldest items first. This will bring the internal temperature down so items that are warmer (like bottled water or condiments) don’t cause a huge fluctuation.

Pack Smart

Do you tend to stand in front of an open fridge, “cooling down the whole neighborhood!” as someone’s dad probably likes to yell?

This could be the result of you being a picky eater, or it might be because your fridge was packed a little haphazardly.

To limit the time your refrigerator door stays open, pack intuitively. Those items you’re saving for the big BBQ in a few days should go in the back, while the iced tea jug you drink from several times a day should stay near the front.

Pack everyday needs like ketchup and water on the door of the fridge or right in the front, while keeping salad dressings and other less-frequently used items in the back or on a bottom shelf.

Supplement with a Cooler

Speaking of water, condiments, and other items that you’re likely to use on a more frequent basis: Remember that every time you open your fridge, you allow cold air to escape. This means that the refrigerator needs to power on to restore the right temperature.

Rather than put your fridge through the extra stress, consider investing in a standalone cooler filled with ice. Buying ice is easier and cheaper than buying propane, and it can last a long time, especially if you purchase a large block rather than cubes.

Don’t Block Your Vents

As refrigerators cool down, they expel heat through vents located at the back of the unit. If you sit your fridge too far back against a wall, put something behind the fridge, or otherwise block its vent, it won’t be able to get rid of hot air. This means it will take longer to cool and will use more energy in trying to do so.

Make sure your fridge has plenty of space to vent. Also be sure to regularly clean and dust behind the fridge to keep dirt from building up.

Don’t Overfill Your Fridge

In order for your food items to cool down, there has to be adequate space for cool air to circulate within the closed fridge. If you pack your refrigerator densely, air can’t move as easily. This means your fridge will continue to run in an attempt to cool the space, but it won’t do a very good job of it — this is a waste of energy.

To keep your fridge running efficiently, make sure to leave gaps between items. If you only have a few items, spread them out throughout the fridge rather than crowding them on a single shelf.

Use Fans to Help with Circulation

Do you know what helps air move around more quickly? Fans. And you’ll notice that your RV fridge probably doesn’t have them. If you want to give your fridge a hand when it comes to cooling, consider investing in small, battery-operated fans. Even one fan placed at the back of the fridge will help cold air circulate better, which means you’ll enjoy cooler, more consistent temps more quickly.

RV fridges can be incredibly energy efficient, but they can do more if you properly maintain them and follow some simple usage tips. Now that you know how to figure out how much propane an RV refrigerator uses, you’ll never have to worry about running out while on the road.

Looking for more RV appliances that run on propane? Check out our campervan ovens buying guide for help with making the right pick.

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