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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 the Difference Between Propane and a Residential fridge?

The main difference between RV fridges and residential fridges is the process they use for cooling. Residential fridges use mechanical energy ( a compressor)whereas RV fridges use thermal energy (heat) to run their cooling cycles.

A propane refrigerator, also called an absorption fridge, operates by a chemical energy transfer process and not compression like a standard kitchen refrigerator. A combination of hydrogen, ammonia, and water produces a solution that uses heat to separate and then recombine the chemicals resulting in a cooling effect.

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

Weirdly 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.

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

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. From higher fire risk and chemical leaks to the need to stay level, lets take a look at some of the drawbacks.

1. Higher Fire Risk

Many people cite the fire risk associated with a propane fridge as the main reason they don’t want one. Unfortunately, we have seen a few RV fires caused by fridges. Overall, fridge fires are one of the main reasons RVs burn, but it’s mainly due to improper maintenance.

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.

If you have a propane fridge, you need to regularly check the back of it behind the outside vent to make sure no debris is building up around the burner.

2. 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.

3. 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!

4. 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.
Many RVers are choosing a DC or residential fridge instead of propane.

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.

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 reliable when getting jostled around. They also are built to be secured in a cabinet and have locking 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.

Pro Tip: We spilled the beans about How to Use Your Norcold RV 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 or much solar power. However, just know the downsides of owning one. We recommend anyone who owns a propane fridge know the fire risk and check the back of the fridge before every trip to make sure debris has not accumulated.

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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About Tom Morton

Tom, a Pacific Northwest native, is our technical genius. Born in Washington and raised in Alaska before settling in Michigan. He's the man who keeps our operation running, both figuratively and literally.

With a background in Electrical Engineering, Tom specializes in RV solar systems and lithium batteries. He made history as the first documented individual to use a Tesla battery module as an RV battery. Tom has personally assisted countless RVers with system installations and has educated thousands more through his videos and articles.

Cinematography is another of Tom's passions, showcased in his work on the Go North series. You can see his camera skills on display in The RVers TV show on Discovery Channel and PBS where he also stars as a co-host.

Tom's mechanical expertise extends beyond RVs to boats, planes, and all things mechanical. He's renowned for taking on maintenance and repair projects single-handedly and is often spotted underneath RVs, making him the technical backbone of our endeavors.

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Mike J

Friday 22nd of December 2023

If you go to the rv park three times every summer 12v will work but if you camp out year round in the West the 12v fridge is a deal breaker. Reality...manufactures substituted the cheaper 12v fridges because of covid supply chain issues while jacking up trailer prices and sold the trailers anyhow in a crazy market. Now times are getting tough and manufactures don't want to give back the money they saved on the cheap 12v fridges so now somehow 12v fridges are better plus they get to sell you solar panels and lithium batteries. So now propane is evil, a propane fridge is a dangerous fire trap and a trailer with a belly full of lithium ion batteries is a safer place for your kids to sleep at night.

Leo

Sunday 9th of July 2023

Hello Cait and Tom and happy Sunday! since 1995 I have been a full-timer in three different fifth wheel's, thru out the west, mainly in the southwestern four corners states. my views come from day to day living, I agree with all your viewpoints. one cannot go for a weekend trip by turning on your LP fridge without letting in cool down properly, overstuffing it and then take off to perhaps somewhere hot. LP fridges are very slow to cool down, the hot sun on the outside of the rig, and if the roof vent is clogged with whatever, will not allow the fridge to cool down, inside temps will be too warm, ice cream at best will be 20 degrees, and ice cubes will take takes a long long time to freeze! this was in my 8 cubic inch fridge, after two problems I finally got rid of it and got a residential 12 C.I. Galanz fridge! what a difference never looking back!!!....... Thanx, and happy trails!

Mortons on the Move

Saturday 15th of July 2023

Glad to hear your happy, we personally have similar experience and have heard many similar stories. We have one LP fridge left in our truck camper but i bet its not long for this world.

James

Saturday 1st of July 2023

Do not believe what the industry is telling you about compressor refrigerators, they put them in new RV's for one reason........they are cheaper. And they wont care if your 12V battery is dead. Experience is a dear school

Kevin McGovern

Friday 13th of January 2023

We went to an RV show at the Wilson County TN Fairgrounds this morning. Big surprise. None of the RVs we looked at had propane refrigerators. The manufacturers must be phasing them out.

We’re looking to buy a used RV soon. If what we get has a propane unit, I’m swapping it out for an electric.

Disappointed running my generator

Thursday 27th of April 2023

@Mortons on the Move, I’d gladly trade you my brand new 12v fridge for an old propane one. Dead battery every day running NOTHING but the fridge because we don’t have the power available to turn the lights on and sitting here using the neighbors generator to save our steaks. First trip out with this new trailer and *really* missing the old one. The solar isn’t big enough to change the battery, the battery isn’t big enough to run the fridge and doing the math to even make this remotely work means another 5k in upgrades if you actually go camping and not to a trailer park.

Mortons on the Move

Monday 16th of January 2023

The trend is electric for sure. We have done away with propane in all our RV's and havent looked back!

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.