So, while we were spending a week in the desert at our Boondocking Rally, we noticed that our refrigerator suddenly wasn't cooling like it should on propane. Linda, with her bionic hearing, said the sound of the refrigerator running should be louder.
It works fine on electric, and it had been working fine on propane, so we weren't sure what was going on. We had the refrigerator stuffed with food for the Rally, so I suspected that was part of the problem, but once most of the food was out, it still wasn't performing as it should.
We didn't have the luxury of screwing it up more while in the desert, so we muddled through and decided to troubleshoot it once we were back on hook-ups.
Our refrigerator is a Norcold N822RT RV model that runs on either propane or electric.
This is our first Norcold as the fridge we had in the fifth wheel was a Dometic, and it worked beautifully after we upgraded the cooling unit.
Now, most RVs come with "RV refrigerators" that run on propane or electric, but some are now coming with all electric refrigerators which those of us in the RV world refer to as "residential refrigerators" because they are they same type that you will find in sticks and bricks homes.
There are huge differences in how these types of refrigerators work, but just know that "RV refrigerators" are "absorption refrigerators". Without getting too technical, basically a chemical reaction in the back of the refrigerator absorbs heat out of the interior of the refrigerator leaving cold behind. There is no compressor cooling the inside. Oh, and note that Dometic and Norcold are by far the main two manufacturers of RV refrigerators.
This chemical reaction requires the solution in the absorption refrigerator coils to be heated and that heat is provided by either 120-volt AC electric or propane (there are some 3-way RV refrigerators that may also use 12-volt power for heat).
In our case, our refrigerator was working fine on 120-volt electric, and our freezer was working just fine on propane. It was just the refrigerator portion that wasn't staying cold enough. By the way, we keep digital refrigerator thermometers in both the fridge and freezer sections so we can monitor temperatures at all times.
Recommendations are that the fridge be 34 – 40 degrees and the freezer should be around 0 degrees with fluctuations of 2 – 3 degrees either way.
So, after watching several YouTube videos, we became convinced that our issue was a dirty or clogged burner assembly, and we were confident we could take the burner assembly out and clean it ourselves. If the problem was something else, well, we'd deal with that later.
There were a couple of videos that were most helpful to us. This one is for a Norcold; it's a different model than ours, but the back of the fridge looked pretty much the same.
This one from Ford's RV Refrigeration Training & Service is also very good. He's using a Dometic, so you can see the differences.
So, this morning, we got out our tools and decided to go to work. We did our own 10-minute video to document the process and to show that we could remove the burner assembly without having to take the refrigerator out, even if it didn't go quite as smoothly as we'd hoped.
So, we were surprised to find the burner assembly and the flue area were much cleaner than we expected. We had a can of compressed air and a vacuum ready to go, but neither were really necessary. We tapped on the flue to see if we would get a bunch of rust or debris falling down, but there was nothing at all that caused concern.
I just took a light breath and blew air through the burner assembly just in case there was something we couldn't see in the orifice. Then we just decided to put it all back together and test it.
We got a nice blue flame, and it seemed like it was working properly. Linda said the sound was more like it should be as well.
We left the fridge on propane for several hours and it cooled properly. We don't know if the little we did had an effect, or if there was some other cause of our issues in Quartzsite. But at least we now know we can successfully remove, inspect, and clean the burner assembly if we have problems later.
Now for some more information about RV/absorption refrigerators.
RV Refrigerators require:
1) Being reasonably level so that the fluids run through the coils and the chemical reactions occur properly. It doesn't have to be perfectly level, but if you are noticeably unlevel (you feel like you are in a fun house), then you should get more level.
2) A proper heat source. If the heat applied is inadequate, performance will not be up to standards. In the case of poor performance on propane, check the flame and if it is too low, look for kinks or pinches in the propane line or remove and clean the orifice and burner assembly and make sure the flue is not blocked.
3) Proper venting. The heat drawn out of the refrigerator box has to go somewhere. There is a vent on the roof and the heat should rise naturally through the vent. If, however, your refrigerator is in a slideout, there will be no roof vent but rather an upper vent on the outside of the slide. It is even more important for fridges in slides to have good venting. You may need baffling to direct the heat out, and many RV refrigerators (both in slides and not) have battery powered (12-volt) fans on the back to help blow the heat out. If it gets too hot on the back of the refrigerator, you can have major problems.
If you smell ammonia or see a yellow, powdery substance in the exterior refrigerator compartment, turn off the refrigerator immediately. This is bad, and you will most likely need to completely replace the cooling unit.
Additional Tips To Keep Your RV Refrigerator Cooling Properly
1) Park so the side of your rig where the refrigerator is gets as little direct sun as possible. Once the outside temperature gets above 85 degrees, your fridge will struggle and the hotter it gets, the more it will struggle.
2) Don't open the refrigerator any more than you have to, and definitely don't stand with the door open. It takes much longer for an RV refrigerator to recover lost coolness. In hot conditions, it may take an hour to recover for each minute the door is open.
3) Don't pack your refrigerator too full. It it is really full, you may want to purchase a small battery powered fan to circulate the air inside the box.
4) Don't place hot items in the refrigerator. Let leftovers cool before putting them in. Don't put in drinks that you've just taken out of a hot car – put them in the shade or leave them in the rig and let them get to room temperature before loading them.
5) If your RV has been sitting unused, turn the refrigerator on at least 24 hours prior to your trip to give it plenty of time to cool before you pack it with food and drinks.
Certainly, residential refrigerators don't have many of the issues listed above, and they tend to be less expensive to purchase and repair. There is good reason to go that route.
However, if you plan to boondock a lot, residential refrigerators complicate things since they don't have a propane option. They will draw down your batteries quickly if you are not plugged in, so you may need to run your generator a lot or you may need a much bigger bank of batteries and much more solar wattage to keep those batteries charged.
That's it for this entry. We hope you found some helpful information in there somewhere.