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What Is a 3-Way RV Fridge?

What Is a 3-Way RV Fridge?

Having a 3-way RV fridge inside your rig gives you ultimate convenience and flexibility. Whether you’re plugged into power at a campground driving cross country or boondocking in the middle of nowhere the food in your fridge and freezer won’t have to suffer. 

Let’s learn more about the versatility this refrigerator offers and why it’s ideal for people who enjoy various camping options.

What Is a 3-Way RV Fridge?

A 3-way fridge is an absorption-style RV refrigerator that can run off AC power (shore power), propane, or DC power (RV batteries). This is where the 3 way name comes from, the three different power sources it can use. Absorption refrigerators provide extensive flexibility because you have the option to switch to propane as a means of conserving electric power.

3 way RV refrigerator

How Do They Work?

You might be wondering how these highly useful and versatile fridges work. Let’s take a look at how a 3-way RV fridge operates. 

3-way RV fridges use an absorption process to remove heat from inside the refrigerator. This process uses a refrigerant with an extremely low boiling point, typically ammonia. When the refrigerant hits its boiling point (below 0 degrees Fahrenheit), it evaporates. During evaporation, heat is absorbed and vented out of the refrigerator. The vaporized refrigerant is then converted back into a liquid, and the process repeats.

The cold is created inside the fridge by boiling ammonia instead of a compressor . The benefit here is that this process takes place without a pump (compressor), so absorption fridges are very quiet. This also allows the fridge to run on anything that produces heat, be it electricity or even burning propane.

For a More in depth explanation of how these fridges work check out our article -> How Does an RV Refrigerator Work? It’s Pretty Cool!

RV Fridge Vent
You can always tell if an RV has an absorption fridge because it will have vents on the outside.

2-Way vs 3-Way RV Fridge

The most apparent contrast between a 2-way and 3-way RV fridge is the distinct options for sourcing power.

Most RV refrigerators function on what’s commonly called “two-way power.” These refrigerators operate on either propane gas or 110V electrical supply. 

3 way fridge control panel with DC power option
Note the control panel options on this 3 way fridge. Both DC and AC are options

As the name suggests, three-way refrigerators offer a third option for RVers that adds to the overall flexibility of where you can park your RV. In addition to the standard propane gas or 110V electrical supply, a 3-way RV fridge gives you the option of using 12V power from your RV’s batteries to run the unit

Benefits

There are several notable advantages to having a 3-way RV fridge in your rig. Aside from the usability and functionality of this type of refrigerator, it’s worth mentioning a couple of other factors as well.

The DC option is most frequently used when driving and there is an excess of power from the vehicles charging system to run the fridge. You could also use your RV’s solar system to power your fridge while you’re camping off-grid without an inverter.

Having the 3rd power source option also gives the ultimate in flexibility in case one or both of the other power options quit working.

Drawbacks

While it might seem like a neat option to have a 12V DC power option on your fridge, keep in mind that they use a lot of power. Running a 3 way fridge on battery power alone will not last very long at all and will consume lots of your precious off grid power. Usually these fridges at least have low voltage shutdown to prevent from completly draining your battery.

Compared to a compressor driven fridge we calculated that running an absorption style fridge on electricity uses eight times more power! Yes that’s a lot of wasted energy. When plugged in at an RV park or the driveway this might not be a big deal, but trying to use it off grid on electricity can be difficult.

Pro Tip: If you want to have an efficient electric fridge while camping off grid read our 12V Fridge Article

Can You Use a 3-Way Fridge When Driving?

Yes! However, when using a 3-way RV fridge while driving, we recommend using 12V power instead of propane gas. Part of this refrigerator’s allure is the option to obtain power via the 12V RV battery, so you can use it safely while you drive. Not only will you minimize your propane usage, but you will not have an open flame burning while you drive.

All gas stations, most ferries and tunnels require that you turn off the propane fridge before fueling so having a 3 way fridge can eliminate this hassle.

Can a 2-Way Fridge Be Converted a 3-Way Fridge?

If you’re more than just an amateur DIYer, you can convert a 2-way fridge into a 3-way fridge. If you add an inverter behind the refrigerator, adjust the wiring, and install switches, it will power the fridge on 110V AC. The correct sizing of the battery bank is essential, and you must know electrical work to do this correctly.  Doing this will add even more inefficencies in the system however and is not recommended.

Dometic 3-Way RV Fridge
Source: Dometic.com

Adding a DC heating element to your fridge is possible but you would also need to replace the control board and add controls at the front. All this is possible but it’s usually more affordable to purchase a 3-way fridge rather than execute the upgrade. Additionally, there’s currently no after-market converter kit for turning a 2-way fridge into a 3-way, so it’s a complex operation that requires technical and precise skill. 

Consider Investing in a 3-Way RV Fridge

Next time you find yourself questioning whether or not your food is still fresh by the time you reach your next campsite, consider investing in a 3-way RV fridge. These refrigerators will give you the ultimate flexibility in power sources to keep your food cold no matter what. Keep in mind however that they are not efficient on electricity and the DC power source is best for travle only. If you want to have the ultimate absorbtion fridge a 3 way is a great addition to any RV.

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About Mortons on the Move

Tom & Caitlin Morton of Mortons on the Move gave up the stationary life for one where they are constantly on the move. They are full-time travelers, television hosts, and digital media producers.
They left their jobs, sold their house and possessions, and hit the road in September 2015 in their full-time “home on wheels”. Since then they have traveled the US, Canada, and even internationally by RV.
Now, they are Discovery Channel & PBS TV Co-stars of The RVers, producers of “Go North” on Amazon Prime, co-founders and instructors of RV Masterclass, and contributing authors for Hwy.co and an Arizona travel guide.

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David B Bayless

Saturday 21st of August 2021

I am really interested in buying the new Ford F150 Hybrid Pickup Truck which acts as a portable generator. I am interested in an Airstream Trailer with the only electric refrigerator. You can still boondock as the Truck acts as your generator and I dislike propane for safety reasons. I would really like to see an all electric RV, electric heat, cooking, water heater and AC and refrigerator.

Mike & Donna Hester

Thursday 19th of August 2021

Good morning hope all is well for you two and for your family's and friends. I was just wondering if you are going to be putting a 12v refrigerator in your Bigfoot. If so which brand would you go with? If you don't mind me asking. Anyway thank you for your time have a wonderful day. Michael and Donna Hester

Mortons on the Move

Wednesday 25th of August 2021

Yes, our current plan is to install a Dometic 12V fridge in the Bigfoot.

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