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7 Reasons to Avoid Propane Refrigerators

7 Reasons to Avoid Propane Refrigerators

RVs can have different kinds of refrigerators. For a long time, the propane absorption fridge was the most common because of its low electrical use. But are they the best option?

Let’s take a look at a few reasons why you should avoid propane refrigerators. Perhaps you’ll want to replace yours. Let’s dive in!

What Is a Propane Refrigerator? 

A propane refrigerator, also called an absorption fridge, operates with a chemical absorption process and not compression like a standard kitchen refrigerator. A combination of hydrogen, ammonia, and water produces a solution that cools your fridge.

If you want to learn the detail of how these neat fridges work check out our article about how RV refrigerators work.

The initial phase of this cooling process begins with heat — either from a propane flame or an electric element. You may have a two-way or three-way RV refrigerator. Two-way fridges run on propane or 120V AC when connected to a power source. Three-way fridges can also run on 12V DC and the other two options.

7 Reasons to Avoid Propane Refrigerators

It sounds like propane works as a great alternative energy source. Although this is true, propane refrigerators have some serious downsides. These seven reasons may cause you to rethink keeping that propane fridge you currently have and perhaps consider installing a 12V RV fridge instead.

1. The Need to Purchase Propane

Propane can be expensive. It can get costly to constantly purchase propane to keep your refrigerator, furnace, oven, stove, and outdoor grill operating. Going out of your way to get propane also takes time. Using electricity to run a fridge is very easy as long as you have it available, however, you may be running a generator more.

Small RV fridge.
Propane can get expensive when living full time in an RV.

2. Keeping a Propane Refrigerator Level

One of the biggest drawbacks to owning a propane refrigerator is the need to keep it level. Because of the hydrogen, ammonia, and water solution, the fridge won’t operate correctly if it’s not level. 

The ammonia liquid needs to fall from the condenser at the top to the evaporator at the bottom. Your fridge won’t cool well if it’s unlevel because the ammonia liquid can’t travel down. If your fridge remains unlevel for long periods, the coils can also become damaged through crystallization.

This usually is not too much a problem when using the RV because being unlevel is not comfortable, but storing the RV means it needs to be leveled too.

Pro Tip: Learn more about your RV fridge by uncovering How Does an RV Refrigerator Work? It’s Pretty Cool!

3. The Potential for Propane, Ammonia, or Hydrogen Leaks

The chemicals used inside the fridge cooling unit are caustic and dangerous if they leak. Most of the time a leak does not get inside the RV because they are vented to the outside, but it still could be a health hazard.

While the hydrogen employed in the fridge is also potentially explosive this is a much lower concern because of the small volume and ventilation required for the fridge.

RV refrigerator.
Propane refrigerators have both pros and cons.

4. Higher Fire Risk

Propane fridges have a flame in the back of them to produce heat. This flame is enclosed, but improper installation or maintenance can leave it exposed and increase fire risk. Birds or insects getting into the fridge compartment and building nests next to the warm fridge are common reasons for fridge fires.

When traveling, you should not have your propane turned on. However, many RVers want to make sure their food stays cold and doesn’t spoil, so they run the propane anyway. Operating while moving increases the likelihood that wind could blow propane out or an accident could damage an active propane line.

5. Consumes More Energy

Let’s look at a comparison. A 6 cu ft Dometic propane absorption refrigerator uses 440W when operating on electricity. A larger 10 cu ft Dometic compressor fridge uses only 156W. The compressor units tend to operate for much shorter times as well and by our calculations we have seen propane units require eight times more energy. Modern appliances are becoming more energy efficient. They cool down much faster, so they don’t waste energy.

Converting our RV Fridge to a High Efficiency DC Compressor- 8x More Efficient! and Better Cooling!

The outside temperature will also affect the energy consumption. The compressor will run more often in hotter temperatures and use more energy. They can run up to 1.5kwh a day. 

However, they use much less compared to a propane absorption fridge. In 90 degree temperatures, propane fridges can consume 4 to 5kwh just overnight.

RV kitchen with small refrigerator.
Save energy by converting from a propane fridge!

6. Takes Longer to Get Cold

Because of the process absorption fridges use to get cold, it takes them longer than compressor fridges. They don’t have a fan that circulates the cooler air. 

As a result, it can take 24 hours or longer for a propane refrigerator to get cold. If you only go camping for a weekend, you might as well not have one at all.

7. Propane Refrigerators Are Expensive

Let’s look at a comparison again.  A 6 cu ft Dometic propane absorption fridge can cost over $1,800. A larger 8 cu ft Dometic absorption fridge can cost over $2,200. An even larger 10 cu ft Dometic compressor fridge will cost a little over $1,500. 

Compare that to a similar size apartment fridge for just a few hundred dollars.

These three fridge examples have the same design with a top freezer and a bottom refrigerator with a right hinge. But the cheapest and most energy-efficient option is the compressor fridge. The propane refrigerator will cost more for a smaller unit.

Why Are Propane Refrigerators Commonly Used in RVs?

Propane rv fridges are designed for travel. With no moving internal parts they are relable when getting jostled around. The also are built to be secured in a cabinet and have lockign doors.

The biggest reason by far is that they can operate with little to no electrical power. This was a problem in the past but with the advent of lithium-ion batteries power storage is better than ever and compression fridges are now viable.

Pro Tip: Want to upgrade your fridge? Find out Can You Replace Your RV Fridge with a Standard Refrigerator?

Electric refrigerator in an RV.
Consider converting your propane fridge to an electric model.

Can You Swap Out Your Propane Fridge for Electric?

So what are your alternatives to a propane refrigerator? Consider swapping to a 12V DC fridge or upgrading to a residential fridge if you need the extra space. First, a 12V DC unit can operate on your RV’s electrical system without any upgrades. Just plug it in, and the compressor will start to cool. You can use these refrigerators inside or outside.

Second, if you choose to upgrade to a residential fridge, you must have adequate space and install an inverter. Most residential fridges won’t fit in the same spot as the RV propane fridge. You’ll probably have to do some remodeling to make room. 

Also, a residential fridge needs an inverter if you want it to run off the batteries. If you don’t have shore power or want it to run while driving, an inverter will convert 12V DC power from your RV batteries to 120V AC power to run the fridge.

The 3 types of RV Refrigerators! Gas Electric, 12volt, and Residential!

Is a Propane Fridge Worth It?

Consider an RV propane refrigerator if you dry camp often and don’t regularly have a power source. However, just know the downsides of owning one.

If you stay at RV parks and campgrounds where you always have a power pedestal, then switching to an electric fridge could save you time, money, and worry. It depends on your camping lifestyle.

So what works for you? Are you team propane or team electric? Drop a comment below!

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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.
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Grant Owens

Monday 24th of October 2022

Was this article endorsed by the electric company? I have been living in an RV for several years now, and even in a 30 year old RV, my propane fridge sips propane. I have a friend who has a toy hauler and no issues with that one, unless he forgets to pour in back on propane from electric, since it we'll kill his 12v batteries even though it's designed for 120. I exchange the 5 gallon tank even 2 wow because I also use propane for water heater and stove. Never had issues with it, and it's a medium sized fridge. Where in staying there was a lightning strike that took it power here for a day and I had to offer my land lady space in my fridge so some of the guys she just bought would not go bad. And with rolling blackouts here in California? And being asked to conserve electric during certain times? The person who wrote this article is extremely mis informed.

Dave Wellman

Monday 8th of August 2022

I disagree, live off grid and have been running 19 cub. Ft fridge dryer, hot water and furnace etc for 20 yrs with no problems. Cost to run far cheaper the electric. Spend little ove 400 for 6 months on propane.

Jodi Werhanowicz

Thursday 10th of February 2022

One thing you can add to your list - propane refrigerators don't work well above 5500 feet. We never had that problem with any of our previous RVs but our new one shuts down frequently at altitude.

Nic

Saturday 29th of January 2022

You left off a serious and potentially deadly reason; Burning propane generates carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless byproduct of combustion that requires the refrigerator's external vent cavity be well sealed from all interior areas of habitation.

Mine leaked into the campervan when the wind was bearing against the side of the vehicle with the vent and the control knobs weren't properly sealed. Fortunately, I woke up with a headache... and realized what happened.

Now I only use compressor refrigerators.

PRB

Saturday 29th of January 2022

We're on team "don't drive with propane on" and would love to switch to a 12V fridge.

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