In some ways, an absorption RV fridge is an amazing appliance, but sometimes it can be a bit finicky and not operate properly. If your RV refrigerator is not getting cold, there can be many causes. Running into this problem, no matter the cause, can be frustrating. In this article, we’re going to take a look at the most common problems and how you can troubleshoot and fix them.
RV Refrigerator Not Getting Cold Troubleshooting
Today, we’re taking a look at the most common RV fridge type, the absorption fridge. This type of fridge has an amazing feature that allows it to burn propane to create cold.
RV fridges have a much harder job than your fridge at home. They still need to perform, even when getting shaken around and tilted. Not to mention, they must withstand changing elevations and extreme temperature swings.
It would seem that a way to overcome these challenges would be to give the RV fridge more cooling capacity than your home refrigerator, but the opposite is true. An RV fridge’s absorption cycle operates slower and usually has just enough cooling capacity to run properly. This means that even if something is slightly not right, it can cause big problems in an RV fridge. Luckily, we can go through some general troubleshooting steps to figure out why your fridge isn’t getting cold.
Before we get into troubleshooting, you will need to know how to access the back of the fridge. RVs have vent and access panels on the exterior wall of the unit that allow access to the back of the fridge. Remove the panel and you will see inside the back of the fridge. The below diagram indicates the parts you will be concerned with. Every fridge is a bit different. While the parts should look similar, they may be in different locations.
How Do You Reset a Refrigerator in an RV?
One of the first and easiest RV fridge troubleshooting tricks you can do is simply reset the refrigerator. There are a couple of ways you can do this, and for each RV fridge make it may be slightly different. Consult your RV fridge manual if you are unsure.
Pro Tip: You can usually find these RV owner manuals online by searching the internet for the product model number.
Many RV fridges have reset buttons. These may be located on the control panel or on the back of the fridge. If you don’t have a reset button, try cycling the power off using your control panel. Sometimes, just switching from propane to electric and back is enough to reboot the fridge’s brain.
The Fridge Works on Gas but Not Electric
In this case, there is something wrong with the electrical circuit, or the electrical heating element is bad. Use a multimeter to check the element itself to determine if the control board is providing power to the heating element. If it is, and the RV refrigerator is not getting cold, then the heating element needs to be replaced. If it is not providing power, you’ll first want to check the 120V power circuit to make sure there is power to the fridge. No power? Check the circuit and breaker.
On the other hand, if there is power, then the control board’s relay or fuse is probably not working. It is possible that the control board itself needs to be replaced, too. One thing you can do is take the cover off the control board and look to see if there are fuses that can be replaced.
The Fridge Works On Electric But Not Gas
If the fridge works on electric but not gas, then something is not working with the gas circuit. The first thing to check is if you have propane. If you are sure you have propane and the tanks are on, check the burner at the back of the fridge to see if you are getting any flame. No flame means you may need to restart the fridge to see if it kicks on. In the event the flame kicks on but then goes out, the flame sensor is probably bad.
If you hear the valve click on, and you can smell gas, but it does not light, then the igniter is bad or misaligned. RV fridges use electric igniters that will make a clicking sound and you should see a spark. If there is no clicking sound but gas is flowing, the control circuit board is probably not working. If you hear the ignitor but do not see any flame, the gas valve may not be working properly. Lastly, if you do not see anything or hear any clicking, then the control board may have failed.
The RV Fridge Portion Is Working But The RV Freezer Is Not Cold Enough
Your RV freezer should be below freezing but still in the 20s. While this may seem warm for a freezer, it’s a pretty common temperature range for an RV freezer. RV absorption-style fridges do not get the freezer as cold as residential fridges, so your ice cream might be soft.
When your RV freezer won’t stay below freezing, this may indicate the beginning of a cooling or insulation problem. Try the following steps to figure out what might be going on.
Hot Weather RV Fridge Woes
If you notice your RV refrigerator is not getting cold enough, first take note of the outside temperature. RV fridges reject their heat outside and are highly susceptible to ambient temperature.
The RV Fridge Is Working But Not Getting Cold In Hot Weather
If the RV fridge is running full-time and still not cooling, a few things could be going on. First, make sure the fridge is properly ventilated by installing an RV fridge fan. These are important for ideal performance in hot weather as your fridge needs to be able to reject its heat.
Pro Tip: In hot weather, park your RV with the fridge side in the shade. Otherwise, the sun will add extra heat and make it perform worse.
If you are sure the ventilation is adequate, then the cooling unit may be going bad. Typically, cooling units will last 15 to 20 years. But even if it is working properly, there are other reasons the fridge may not be cooling.
Common RV Fridge Insulation Issues
Keep in mind, RV absorption fridges do not have the same cooling power that your fridge at home has. Meaning, if there is an issue with the insulation of the fridge, it may not be able to keep up with the heat loss.
Many RV fridges use what is called vacuum panes in their walls. These panes use vacuum-sealed foam to add a lot of insulation. Sometimes, over years of use, these can fail and significantly reduce the insulation values of the fridge.
Magnetic seals around the door are another common failure point. One quick way to check if the seal is bad is to put a piece of paper or dollar bill in the door. It should be hard to pull it out. If the piece of paper or dollar bill pulls out easily, the door seal is going bad. Do this test all the way around the fridge door to check for seal issues.
Fridge Is Running But Not Cooling Well, No Matter The Weather
First, you need to make sure your RV fridge is actually running properly. Check that the burner is clean and operating properly by removing the shield and looking at the flame. If it’s not running, it could be a thermostat issue where it thinks the fridge is cool but it’s not. Also, check to make sure the temp settings are low enough. If they are and the fridge won’t click on, the thermostat inside the fridge may need replacing.
If the burner is running continuously and the RV fridge is still not getting cold, check the quality of the burner flame. It should be a continuous blue flame with minimal flickering or orange. If the flame looks wrong, try taking the burner apart and cleaning it. Debris sometimes gets in the burner and causes poor operation.
Also, make sure the fridge is properly ventilated as mentioned in the hot weather section by adding fridge fans.
Does an RV Have to be Perfectly Level for the Refrigerator to Work?
Generally speaking, your RV refrigerator should be level for proper operation. This is because of how the fluid flows in the RV absorption fridge cooling system works. For proper liquid movement through the system, the fridge and, therefore, the RV cannot be significantly unlevel.
However, there is some wiggle room, and your fridge doesn’t need to be perfectly level for proper function, just mostly level. If you feel the camper levelness, that’s probably a sign that it’s unlevel for the fridge as well. If you feel good, the fridge should be fine.
If your RV and fridge are too unlevel, you could experience degraded performance. If the liquid ammonia cannot flow smoothly through the fridge’s fins, you will not get proper heat absorption.
Sometimes, It’s Just Time For A New Fridge
Over the years, our RV fridge started exhibiting the symptoms of poor cooling – first in hot weather, then in all temperatures. We finally replaced it with a modern DC compressor unit. When we removed the fridge, we could see that multiple vacuum panels had ruptured (they will bulge) and were not insulating the fridge properly. In our case, the fridge was 20 years old and at the end of its life, so it was time for a replacement.
When considering a replacement, I highly suggest going with a 12V DC compressor unit. If you are plugged in most of the time or have a medium-sized solar system with lithium batteries, these fridges tend to cool much better and are much more efficient on electricity than the absorption style.
While it won’t work in some cases and uses a lot more power, you can also consider switching to a standard residential fridge in your RV camper.
No appliance lasts forever, and RV fridges will eventually cause problems. Knowing these troubleshooting steps can help you get to the bottom of a problem quickly, so you can keep your food cold.
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Friday 3rd of March 2023
My husband insists we leave the rv refrigerator on all the time to keep the gases flowing . It has been running on ac for years. Is it going to quit if we turn it off now?
Sunday 19th of February 2023
There's a blue wire that comes off control panel and it's not hooked up to anything. Where does it hookup?
Mortons on the Move
Wednesday 22nd of February 2023
its almost impossible to say as there is so much variation in fridge control panels, but its possible it is not used if it was never hooked up. may be for a different model
Monday 16th of January 2023
Our dometic fridge will make ice cubes overnight but the fridge won't cool. Fan in back does not come on.
Mortons on the Move
Monday 16th of January 2023
Sounds like it could be a cooling circuit issue, the freezer gets cooled first so it usually cools even if the fridge wont.
Wednesday 25th of May 2022
A refrigerator in your RV can be really useful, especially when doing lengthy interstate journeys. However, having it repaired when it goes down might be costly. If you smell ammonia coming from the fridge and see yellow stains in and around it, it's likely that there's a leak in the refrigerator's main cooling unit.
Tuesday 12th of April 2022
We have a brand new 2022 FR3. If we're boondocking, do we need to switch something on or off to run the fridge on propane power? Thank you!
Mortons on the Move
Saturday 23rd of April 2022
Usually, there is a switch on the fridge itself, but most automatically switch to propane if the Shore power is removed.