RV refrigerators are necessary for serious road trippers, RVers and campers. It keeps food fresh, drinks cold, and makes life on the road a whole lot more pleasant.
But with so many different types and models on the market, it can be hard to know which one is right for you. This guide will cover everything you need to know about RV refrigerators, from the different types available to whether you really need one.
We’ll also provide a complete buyer’s guide to help you choose the right model for your needs. And we’ve even thrown in a few tips for powering your fridge and keeping it in good working condition.
So whether you’re a first-time RV owner or a seasoned pro, this guide will give you all the information you need to make the best decision for your next road trip.
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Do I Need A Refrigerator In My RV?
Do you really need a refrigerator in your RV? Unfortunately, that’s a question that doesn’t have a straightforward answer.
On the one hand, refrigerators are incredibly convenient for keeping food fresh and for extended periods. This is especially helpful when living off-grid or boondocking. It can be challenging to keep food from spoiling without a fridge.
On the other hand, refrigerators require a lot of power to run. Therefore, they can significantly drain your battery if you’re not hooked up to an electrical source.
Many people think that a fridge is essential for living or traveling in an RV. Still, the truth is that many foods don’t need to be refrigerated.
For example, most fruits and vegetables can be stored at room temperature. And if you buy food that needs to be stored cold on the day you want to consume it, that can work just as well.
So, what’s the verdict? Ultimately, it depends on your individual needs and preferences. A fridge is probably a good investment if you enjoy having fresh food.
However, if you’re looking to save power or cut down on weight, you may want to forego the fridge and stick to less perishable food items.
If you’re thinking about living or traveling in an RV, don’t let the lack of a fridge stop you. There are plenty of other ways to keep your food fresh.
Alternatives To Using An RV Refrigerator
Even if you decide you need a way to keep your food chilled, that still doesn’t mean an expensive RV refrigerator is essential. Instead, insulated freezer bags, cool boxes, and portable electric coolers are alternative accessories to help keep your food chilled.
These may not suit every RVer, but they have their uses. Each option has its own advantages and disadvantages, so it’s essential to choose the one that best suits your needs.
Cool boxes with ice blocks are a great option if you only need to keep food cold for a short period. They’re also very affordable and easy to find. However, they’re not as effective as other options in hot weather, and you’ll need to replenish the ice regularly.
Portable 12v electric coolers are more expensive than cool boxes. Still, they’re much more effective in hot weather and can run off your RV’s battery. They’re also much more versatile, as they can be used as both a fridge and a freezer.
You can even find coolers that run off small camping gas canisters and need no electricity.
Whichever option you choose, make sure it’s a good fit for your lifestyle and what and how you plan to cook in your RV.
Read more: A Complete Guide To RV Cooking
Types of RV Refrigerators
Traditional RV refrigerators used to be absorption ones that would work either on propane or shore power. However, RV refrigerator technology has evolved, and we now have different types, each with its own pros and cons.
Today, there are three main types of RV refrigerators:
- Absorption refrigerators
- Compressor refrigerators
- Residential refrigerators
Another way to classify RV refrigerators is by their power source. Considering that there can be three types of power sources: LPG/Propane, 12/24V DC, and 110/240V AC current, most RV refrigerators are either:
- 120V AC (or 240V)
- 12v DC
- 2-way refrigerators (propane/LPG and 120V AC)
- 3-way refrigerators (propane/LPG, 12/24V DC, and 120V AC)
To help you figure out which type is best for you, the following sections explain how each type of RV refrigerator works and their advantages and disadvantages.
Absorption RV Refrigerators
How Does an Absorption Refrigerator Work?
You might be surprised to know that an absorption refrigerator cools things by burning fuel! So if you’re wondering how burning something can help drop temperatures, here’s how that magic happens.
- Step 1: Liquid ammonia is heated by either propane, solar cells, a generator, or an AC input. Ammonia has a low boiling point, making it evaporate quickly, turning into gas. It also absorbs heat from inside the fridge as it evaporates, cooling it down.
- Step 2: The refrigerant gas is absorbed by a salt solution which is then heated to cause the ammonia gas to again separate out.
- Step 3: The hot ammonia vapor is passed through a heat exchanger, which lets out heat to the external environment, cooling down and returning to a liquid form.
Since this entire process does not require any form of motor, there are no moving parts inside an absorption refrigerator.
The cooling process takes time (because you need several cycles to cool the fridge), so you should ideally precool it before heading out for a trip.
Since an absorption fridge cools by exchanging heat with the surrounding environment, how cool the refrigerator gets depends a lot on the ambient temperature. The science of gasses changing state is at play, so the temperature of an absorption fridge is directly related to the ambient temperature.
So to be blunt, it won’t get as cold when the weather is really hot. You know? Just at that moment, you’d love a cold beer, complete with condensation running down the side of the bottle.
Finally, an absorption refrigerator needs to be level for the most efficient cooling. If the refrigerator is tilted even a little bit, the cooling process will not work as smoothly and may even be damaging over a prolonged period.
Moreover, absorption refrigerators can suffer ammonia leakages, which need a replacement part to fix.
You can buy a good absorption refrigerator for anywhere between $200 to $3500, depending on the brand, size, and model that you need.
- Many older RVs and campers have built-in absorption refrigerators explicitly designed for that camper and RVing. They have features suited for running a refrigerator in an RV, such as a door lock for when you are on the road.
- Absorption refrigerators can work on many power sources, including propane/LPG, 12V DC, and shore power, making them perfect for boondocking.
- Since their cooling process is rather primitive, the ability to cool is not as great as a compressor refrigerator. So if you are going on a trip where it’s going to be hot and sunny, your absorption refrigerator may not be the best option. You can try some tricks to cool them down (parking in the shade, using air circulation fans, etc.), but it still won’t make up for the difference in cooling power.
- You need to have a perfectly level trailer using an absorption refrigerator, as we mentioned earlier. Otherwise, you risk your refrigerator coolant leaking or your fridge not cooling properly.
Absorption refrigerators used to be the most common type of RV fridges, primarily because they were cheaper on both the pocket and the energy consumption. Both of these points remain true.
However, because battery technology has advanced, the latter isn’t as relevant. Plus, the more significant benefits of compressor refrigerators far outweigh those of the absorption fridge, making them a better value option for many.
Compressor RV Refrigerator
How Does a Compressor Refrigerator Work?
A compressor refrigerator uses a chemical known as a refrigerant – either HFC or HCFC. Refrigerants have a particular property – they become liquid when they’re cooled down.
The cold refrigerant liquid is made to pass through coils in the refrigerator. But, first, it’s forced through a tiny hole – a thermal expansion valve – that converts it into a mist. This mist absorbs heat from the fridge, cooling everything down in turn.
This cold mist then travels to the compressor, which pressurizes and heats it up, causing it to liquify. The liquid is then passed through external coils, where it dissipates its heat and cools again.
This cooling and heating process continues until the inside of the fridge reaches the desired temperature. At this point, the compressor stops pumping the refrigerant.
Most compressor refrigerators for RVs fall between the $500 to $2000 price range.
- Compressor refrigerators aren’t as directly affected by ambient temperature as an absorption fridge. The compressor will continue to run until it reaches the set temperature.
- You can regulate a compressor fridge’s temperature to use it as a fridge, freezer, or both.
- They have more internal space than an absorption refrigerator for the space they use.
- Because they don’t run on propane, compressor fridges don’t present an inherent fire hazard.
- They can work well on AC or even 12V DC power, and they don’t need propane or LPG. They don’t need an exhaust either.
- Compressor refrigerators are more expensive than absorption fridges.
- They need electricity to run and cannot run on propane.
Compressor fridges are the modern-day option for RV refrigerators. Advances in battery technology mean that running on even when boondocking is achievable.
Read more: Best Batteries for Boondocking & RV Camping
How Does a Residential Refrigerator Work In An RV
Residential refrigerators are compressor fridges designed for the home. They need a constant 110V or 240V electrical supply. They are literally the exact same fridges you would consider for your home.
They tend to be much larger than absorption and 12V compressor refrigerators designed for RVs.
Historically, residential fridges were used in RVs and campers by those who typically use their RVs only when hooked up to shore power. Campground pedestals offer a (usually) uninterrupted power supply, so there was little worry about spoiling a fridge full of fresh produce.
Inverters convert the battery’s DC power to AC, but it’s a less than efficient conversion.
Read more: What Does An Inverter Do In An RV
Again, battery technology has changed the playing field. While there is some energy loss in using an inverter, residential fridges are much cheaper than 12v fridges. Moreover, because we can all carry significantly more battery bank capacity, they are now genuine contenders, even for boondocking.
Some residential fridges are so much more efficient than the RV models that they can be energy-saving, especially when coupled with a smaller, dedicated inverter.
If you intend to use a residential fridge while boondocking or dry camping, aim for a low-powered, highly efficient model as they’ll use less energy.
Even modern large models, like those you may typically see in a home, could run off a battery bank or generator. However, if you enjoy boondocking, you probably already have your solar power system set up, so you may not need to invest further.
Depending on size and brand, a typical residential refrigerator might cost you anywhere from $120 to $2500.
Read more: RV Refrigerator vs. Residential Fridge: Which Is Best For You?
- Residential refrigerators usually have much more space
- They are typically cheaper than the ones specifically designed for RVs
- They are often more energy-efficient than RV models
- Small, efficient models can run on an RV battery bank
- Large residential fridges most likely need shore power for continued use
- Since they are not explicitly designed for RVs, they don’t stand up so well to life on the road. Often they have glass shelves, and you need a creative way to lock the door while traveling.
Read more: Problems With A Residential Fridge In An RV
RV Refrigerators Have Multiple Power Options
If residential refrigerators are cheaper, better at cooling, and more spacious than absorption refrigerators, why doesn’t everyone use them in RVs? The answer lies in the flexibility of power options.
RV refrigerators are designed to run on multiple power sources. In contrast, residential refrigerators need either shore power or a battery bank and inverter set up to run.
Here are the different types of RV refrigerators, as defined by the power options.
Propane RV Refrigerators
Traditional RV absorption refrigerators are designed to run on propane or LPG. Therefore, these refrigerators could work anywhere on your propane cylinders. Still, their master circuitry requires a constant 12V DC power option, which you can supply through your RV battery.
All propane fridges are compressor-type fridges. Burning propane generates fumes and possibly carbon monoxide, so excellent ventilation is essential. Ensure your propane fridge has an exhaust directing the fumes outside of the RV for safe use.
The use of propane for heating the fridge is always fraught with risk. Although they’re proven to be safe to use, we can’t help but feel anxious at the thought of a lighted flame in our camper.
Plus, you should never run a propane refrigerator while driving. Instead, you should disconnect the propane and switch to the electric mode.
12V RV Refrigerators
12V RV refrigerators are mostly compressor refrigerators that can use the 12V DC power from the RV itself. They also do not need 120V AC power to run, so they are great for boondocking.
These refrigerators have several advantages for RVs and campers:
- They are very compact and lightweight
- They are not propane-based, so they don’t have a lighted flame
- They can work well even if the RV is not perfectly leveled
- They are better at cooling than propane refrigerators.
110V RV Refrigerators
110V RV refrigerators are residential refrigerators that require connectivity to either a power pedestal or a battery bank and inverter to get the power they need to run.
Two-Way RV Refrigerators
Two-way RV refrigerators are a hybrid option that can run on either:
- both 110V AC supply and propane gas tanks, or
- both 110V AC supply and 12v DC supply.
The all-electric version (AC & DC) tends to be compressor fridges, while those that use propane are absorption fridges.
Three-Way RV Refrigerators
Three-way RV refrigerators are also hybrid fridges and run on propane, 110V AC and 12v DC. That makes a 3-way fridge ultra-versatile, although they’re all absorption fridges because they run on propane.
How Many Solar Panels Do I Need To Power A Refrigerator In My RV?
It’s a common question. Many RVs don’t have robust 12v electrical systems, so it’s a vital point if you’re considering boondocking for the first time.
Without a means of storing your food and keeping it fresh, your time off-grid is likely to be cut short.
Solar panels are an excellent option for powering an RV refrigerator because they’re environmentally friendly and easy to use. But how many solar panels do you need to power a refrigerator in your RV?
The answer depends on a few factors, including the size of your refrigerator and the amount of sunlight you get. In addition, some refrigerators switch themselves on and off throughout the day to regulate their temperature. So even if it’s connected all day, it’s not necessarily drawing energy all day.
But let’s be honest, that’s not an answer to your question. In these circumstances, “it depends” just doesn’t cut it.
To get a more specific answer, you need to know a few details about your situation. What is the wattage of your fridge? Is your fridge running on AC (110v) or DC (12v)?
Unless the manufacturer indicates how much power the fridge is likely to use each day, you’ll need to assume how many hours it will actually be running.
A good quality fridge will probably not need any more than around 18 hours each day in the height of summer. To be super safe, you could assume it will run all the time.
How much sunlight you get also affects how many solar panels you need. The answer isn’t as simple as how many hours the sun is above the horizon. We’ve assumed you’ll get 5 hours of peak sun in this simple calculator to indicate how many panels you need to run your fridge.
So armed with your info, fill in this handy calculator. It will tell you the minimum amount of solar panels you need to run your fridge. We’ve assumed your fridge will run for 18 hours, and you’ll get 5 hours of peak sun. For more accuracy, use our RV solar calculator.
Calculate Solar Panels Needed To Run Your RV Fridge
What Components Do You Need For An RV Solar System?
Remember, you need more than just solar panels. At an absolute minimum, you need a battery to store the energy and a solar charge controller to convert the power from the panels into a form the battery can use to recharge.
Suppose you want to use the battery to run a residential refrigerator. In that case, you’ll need an inverter to convert the battery’s 12v energy to 110v. Then you need to install it.
So if you’re looking for how to power an RV refrigerator when off-grid, going solar is probably the way to go.
What To Look For When Buying An RV Refrigerator
If you’re in the market for a new RV refrigerator, there are a few things to consider when making your purchase. But, of course, it’s not quite the same as buying a fridge for your home. In this section, we’ll look at each factor to consider when choosing the best model for your RV.
Choosing a reliable brand is an important factor when buying an RV refrigerator.
Some RVers use their fridge while boondocking and need it to be able to run without hookups for extended periods. Others use their RV fridge when hooked up to shore power on a campground and need it to keep food cold in hot weather.
Many RVers sit in both camps (excuse the lame pun) and use their RV fridge in both scenarios. Therefore, they need their fridge to be versatile and dependable.
Many RV refrigerator brands are on the market, but not all are created equal. Some brands are more reliable than others and have a proven track record of standing up to the rigors of RV life.
Some of the best-known RV fridge brands include:
A renowned brand among RV owners for their reliable and durable Dometic appliances. Dometic offers up to a 3-year warranty on selected refrigerators, making them a go-to option for adventurers worldwide.
Dometic refrigerators are built with high-quality materials and advanced technology, so they’re a solid brand.
A trusted name in RV refrigerators for years. Norcold refrigerators use a compressor and evaporator to keep items cool or frozen, even in hot or cold weather.
Most Norcold fridges have a hermetically sealed compressor with built-in low voltage protection. This means you can prevent your fridge from draining your battery bank – essential when boondocking.
Norcold refrigerators are also known for their quiet operation, so you won’t have to worry about the noise disrupting your campsite experience. With ample space and reliable cooling power, Norcold fridges are an excellent choice for any RV owner.
An Australian company that produces a range of rugged accessories, including a line of portable refrigerators.
All ARB products are designed to stand up to off-road tracks and trails, making them ideal for those who like to explore beyond the beaten path.
ARB’s RV fridges are available in various sizes and configurations, so you can find the perfect model for your needs. Plus, their standard 3-year warranty provides a certain peace of mind.
A Chinese manufacturer of portable vehicle fridges with a robust and sustainable research and development program.
They have 5 warehouses across the US, so you can usually find the model you’re looking for available. ICECO has been manufacturing high-quality vehicle refrigerators since 2005, so they have a solid track record. Their price point isn’t super high but reassuring, not ultra-cheap either.
Type of Refrigerator
When choosing a fridge for your RV, you need to think about what type of fridge you want. Absorption fridges can be powered by propane or gas, ideal for boondocking when electricity is scarce.
However, they’re not as effective at cooling as compressor fridges, so you might consider a compressor fridge if you’re planning to use your RV in hot weather. In addition, you may need to add solar panels to your setup, but they’ll keep your food cold even in the hottest weather.
Because RVs are often much smaller than traditional homes, every square inch of space is precious.
If you’re remodeling your RV, you’ll need to take careful measurements of the space available for your fridge. Most new RVs have inbuilt fridges, but check the dimensions to ensure they will fit when replacing an existing one.
Also, consider how you’re going to get the fridge into your RV in the first place. Some units are large and heavy, and maneuvering them into some RVs can be challenging.
The fridge’s interior storage space is vital for any RVing family.
If you’re traveling alone or with just one other person, it doesn’t need to be too big. Food will only keep fresh for so long, even with refrigeration, so a larger capacity doesn’t necessarily mean you can stay off-grid for longer.
You’ll need more storage capacity if you travel with a large family.
A residential refrigerator is a good option if you stay in RV parks and can rely on a dependable hookup.
But suppose you want the flexibility to dry camp or boondock regularly. In that case, you’ll need a fridge that can run on an alternative power source – or is efficient enough to run off an inverter.
12v fridges are ideal for those who often live off-grid and don’t have the space for propane tanks.
For maximum flexibility, 2-way or 3-way refrigerators are the way to go.
Choosing an energy-efficient RV refrigerator is vital, especially for boondocking. Reducing your overall energy consumption (propane or electricity) is always good.
But when you rely on your camper’s battery bank to provide all your energy needs, it’s vital.
An energy-efficient fridge can help you stay off-grid for longer without running your generator.
RV refrigerators are a great way to keep your food cold while on the road, but it can be hard to know which one is right for you with so many different features available. Here are some of the most common features to look for in an RV fridge:
- Ice makers: If you like to have ice on hand for drinks or camping, then an ice maker is a must-have. Some RV fridges have built-in ice makers. However, they commonly clog, so consider a portable ice maker instead.
- Bluetooth controls: Some RV fridges come with Bluetooth controls, so you can adjust the temperature from your phone or tablet. This is an excellent feature if you’re always on the go and don’t want to have to stop and adjust the fridge manually.
- Freezer compartments: Freezer compartments are great for storing ice cream, frozen meals, leftovers, and other perishables. Many 12v fridges have adjustable freezer compartments, so you can quickly adapt their size.
- Storage layout: The storage layout inside an RV fridge can make a big difference in how easy it is to find what you need. Look for a fridge with shelves that are easy to reach and spacious enough to store everything you need.
Check Out Our Latest RV Fridge Reviews
Why Are RV Refrigerators So Expensive?
RV refrigerators are designed to withstand the rigors of life on the road. They’re built with robust construction to stand up to the constant movement of a moving vehicle, and they’re heavily insulated to keep cool even when running on 12v power. They also offer multiple fuel options, so they can run on propane, 12v, or AC power.
These features add up to a higher price tag for RV refrigerators compared to residential models. But for many full-time RVers, the peace of mind that comes with knowing a fridge will cope with everything that life on the road has to throw at it is worth the price.
Tips & Tricks For Using A Refrigerator In An RV
Invest in a quality refrigerator – it will save you money in the long run
A good refrigerator will keep your food cold and fresh for longer, so you won’t have to replace it as often. It’s also more energy-efficient, saving you money on campground electric bills and performing better when camping off-grid.
Cool the fridge before you put your food away
Cooling an RV refrigerator can take several hours, so it’s best to precool it before storing food. Precooling uses a lot of energy, so if you can run it on 110v, all the better. You can also help it with ice packs and parking the RV, so the area where the fridge is installed is in the shade.
Plan your food storage space carefully to make efficient use of fridge space
Packing a fridge is all about efficiency. You want to make sure that you’re using all the available space without overcrowding it. So start by packing the larger items first, and then fill in the gaps with smaller items. Use plastic bins to organize things to easily see what’s inside. And don’t forget to leave some space for airflow.
Consider an RV refrigerator with a freezer for extra food storage options
An RV refrigerator with a freezer is an excellent option if you have the space. It will give you more flexibility in what you can store, and you won’t have to worry about your food going bad as quickly. Plus, it’s handy for making ice cubes if you don’t have an ice maker.
Some 12v fridges are dual-zone, so you can choose to have both sides act as a fridge, freezer, or one of each for maximum versatility.
Keep your RV level to help reduce propane consumption
Keeping your RV level is essential if you’re running your refrigerator on propane. The fridge has to work harder to cool the contents when it’s not level, using more propane.
You can use leveling blocks or chocks to help keep your RV level or invest in an automatic leveling system.
Check the seals on your RV refrigerator door regularly to ensure they are airtight
One of the most important things you can do to keep your RV refrigerator running efficiently is regularly checking the seals on the door. Over time, the seals can become worn or damaged, letting warm air in and cold air out. This can cause your fridge to run less efficiently and use more energy.
To check the seals, close the door on a piece of paper. If you can pull the paper out easily, then the seals need to be replaced. You can buy replacement seals at most RV parts stores.
More Tips For Cooling Your Fridge & Keeping It That Way
Frequently Asked Questions About RV Refrigerators
Can I replace my RV refrigerator with a standard refrigerator?
The short answer is yes. The more detailed answer is that you may need to modify your RV setup.
A standard refrigerator runs only on 110-120VAC power. However, your old RV refrigerator may have been a “3-way” refrigerator, running on 110-120VAC power when plugged into shore power, 12VDC power when dry camping, or propane gas.
There are several factors you need to consider before making the switch:
- Size – will the new fridge fit in the space of the old one?
- Power requirements – does your RV have enough 110-120VAC power to support a standard fridge? If not, you may need to upgrade your electrical system.
- Decommission the propane gas pipes – if your old fridge ran on propane, you’d need to have the gas lines capped off.
- Insulation – a standard fridge will not be as well insulated as an RV fridge, so you may want to add additional insulation around the new fridge.
How much does it cost to replace an RV refrigerator?
Depending on the size and type of your RV refrigerator, it can cost anywhere from $500 to $4,000 to replace.
When choosing a fridge, price is an important factor, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. Take all factors into consideration. Sometimes the more expensive models provide better value in the long term as they may be more efficient and durable.
Is it better to run an RV fridge on propane or electric?
There is no definitive answer to this question. It depends on several factors, such as where you plan to park, how often you use it, and any existing power sources. That said, here is a general guideline to help you choose the right option for your needs.
If you plan to use your RV fridge primarily while camping off the grid and already have propane tanks to heat your water or cook in your RV, running it on propane is likely your best option. Propane is an efficient way to power an RV fridge, and it doesn’t require any additional solar panels or batteries.
On the other hand, if you already have a 12v electrical system installed or don’t have propane tanks fitted, electric is probably best. You can run your fridge from your RV batteries and recharge them from generators, solar power, or shore power.
2-way and 3-way fridges offer a good compromise between propane and electric, so you don’t have to commit either way.
Should I leave my RV refrigerator on all the time?
If your fridge runs on propane, you should always switch it off when you’re driving. Or switch it to another power source while you’re on the road.
When an RV refrigerator is running on electricity, in theory, you can leave it switched on all the time. That said, when preparing your RV for storage, there’s no point in leaving it switched on.
If you don’t have any food that needs refrigeration, you don’t need to keep the fridge on.
Will the RV fridge run off the battery while driving?
A refrigerator in an RV can run off battery power while driving. In fact, if you usually run your fridge off propane, it’s a safety must to flip it to the battery charging (or off).
Do RV refrigerators need to be level?
An RV refrigerator does not need to be level to operate. However, an absorption refrigerator needs to be level for the most efficient cooling.
If the refrigerator is tilted even a little bit, the cooling process will not work as smoothly and may even be damaging over a prolonged period. Though it may not seem like a big deal, ensuring your RV refrigerator is level is important for its longevity and function.
Compressor fridges aren’t so sensitive, but it’s still a good idea to keep them level so that the cooling elements can do their job correctly. Overall, it’s just good practice to keep your RV refrigerator level, no matter what type you have.
A fit-for-purpose levelling system is essential in an RV anyway. All those boondocking sites with less than even terrain makes it a must have. Plus there are plenty of different types of stabilizing jacks to help make the job a breeze.
There are a few different types of fridges for RVs, and the one you’ll want will depend on your RV lifestyle.
A propane fridge is a good option if you’re a full-timer or frequently go off-grid. However, if you have a smaller camper and a well-specified electrical system, a 12v fridge is a perfect solution. Large families who like to entertain and rely on campground hookup will suit a residential fridge.
And suppose you’re on a budget or don’t use much food that needs refrigeration. In that case, you could get away without an RV refrigerator altogether.