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Can You Replace Your RV Fridge with a Standard Refrigerator?

Is it time for an RV refrigerator replacement? If so, you might consider upgrading to a residential fridge. But is it possible? And is it worth it?

RV refrigerator replacements are expensive, so you want to make the best decision for your travel needs. Let’s look at the differences between an RV and a residential fridge, the pros and cons, and what to consider before purchasing. Let’s dive in.

RV Refrigerator Types Discussion with the Mortons | Mondays with the Mortons S2E9

RV Refrigerators vs. Residential Refrigerators

Before we get into the replacement lets clarify that not all RV fridges are the same. Some RV’s come with the same type of fridge you have in your home, while most have what we will refer to as an “RV Refrigerator” for the rest of this article. Read on to learn why.

RV refrigerators work through an absorption cooling cycle process. This means it does not have a traditional compressor but instead cools the fridge using heat, ammonia, hydrogen, and water. These chemicals react when heated and travel through various tubes resulting in evaporation and condensation of the chemicals that remove heat to cool the refrigerator. 

➡ Dive in to learn more about how RV refrigerators work!

One of the best advantages of an RV fridge is that it runs with very little electricity. You can camp off-grid and power your fridge as long as you have propane. You can also get two-way and three-way RV refrigerators that can work on propane, 120V power or 12V power. 

So when you travel to a campground and have hook-ups, you can plug into an electrical source and save your gas. They operate on propane and AC power (two-way) or propane, AC power, and DC power (three-way).

Another advantage to having an RV fridge is they work for RVs. The components and structure can withstand the constant jostling of travel. Without a compressor or other moving internal parts, RV fridges sometimes last longer than standard refrigerators.

Residential refrigerators must have electricity. This requires an additional RV inverter for any off-grid travel. More than likely, you’ll also need more batteries if you plan to boondock for an extended time.

Standard fridges have more capacity, which is one of the main reasons RVers choose to have them. RV fridges need a shallow depth for the absorption system to work correctly. But a residential one uses a compressor instead of absorption to cool. This also means they don’t have to remain in a level position. 

The absorption process of an RV refrigerator requires them to remain level to avoid damaging the unit. But a standard fridge isn’t as level sensitive.

Can You Install a Standard Fridge in Your RV?

You can install a standard fridge in your RV, but it may take some work. First they are usually not the same size. RV fridges are usually designed to be installed into a pre-sized cabinet using flanges to hold it in place. This may need modification and the new fridge will need some sort of bracket built to secure it in place.

The second challenge is the power source. Residential fridges need 120V. Most RV fridges have a 12o circuit already but you will need to make sure its sized properly for your residential fridge.

In addition you may need to add more batteries and and inverter to power the fridge during travel. If you always go “plug to plug” and never stay on the road long, you may be able to just shut the fridge off, but keep in mind an unexpected delay might cause things to thaw.

Before you go this route, you might also want to read our 5 Reasons to Avoid RV Residential Fridges.

RV interior of kitchen with new fridge.
There are pros and cons to installing a standard refrigerator in your RV.

Consider Alternative RV Refrigerator Replacements

Before going to a residential fridge, consider the middle-of-the-road RV refrigerator replacement option, a 12V DC-powered fridge. These units have many of the features of a residential fridge but are designed to operate off your RV batteries without the need for an inverter. This makes them more efficient and suitable for use in an RV.

Add a few solar panels and you have a great upgrade without near as much work to keep the fridge going while rolling down the road.

Read more about 12V fridges in our article all about them.

12V RV fridge
Our RV fridge is 12V but operates muck like a residential refrigerator

The Benefits of Installing a Standard Refrigerator in Your RV

Although it involves some work, installing a standard refrigerator in your RV has perks. It has increased food storage and is not as level sensitive. 

They also have better temperature control and more modern conveniences. You really can have the conveniences of your residential fridge in your RV. Let’s take a closer look at some of these benefits.

Increased Food Storage

If you choose to make an RV refrigerator upgrade to a standard fridge, you’ll increase your food storage. For families who travel, this is very important. It takes a lot of food to feed a family of five or six, so having that extra storage can mean fewer trips to the grocery store. 

And those fewer trips mean more family time together. It also means families can camp off-grid for longer. You won’t always find a Walmart nearby. So when camping 60 miles from the nearest town, you won’t find frequent trips to the grocery store convenient.

Better Temperature Control

With the absorption process of an RV fridge, you don’t get the temperature control that you get with a standard one. Most of these RV fridges don’t have a defrost and don’t deliver the cooling precision you’d expect. 

If you choose to make an RV refrigerator replacement to residential, you’ll receive much better temperature control. This is important for keeping food fresh and preventing spoilage.

Pro Tip: Is your propane RV fridge not getting cold? We’ve got you covered with These Troubleshooting Tricks.

RV refrigerator that is small.
Typical RV refrigerators tend to have less space for you to store your food.

Not as Level Sensitive

Because a standard fridge operates with a compressor and not an absorption system, it doesn’t have to remain perfectly level. An RV fridge must sit as level as possible while in operation due to the cooling coil. 

The ammonia liquid falls from the condenser to the evaporator coils. If it isn’t level, the ammonia won’t flow properly, possibly causing crystallization, shortening the unit’s life. You don’t have to worry about this absorption process with a standard fridge.

More Modern Conveniences

Finally, an RV fridge won’t disappoint if you want modern conveniences. Standard refrigerators come in many different configurations, which is important for tiny spaces. RV fridges usually have a top freezer and bottom refrigerator. But with a standard fridge, you can get a model with side-by-side doors, a bottom chest freezer, or a top freezer.

Beyond the configurations, residential refrigerators offer more conveniences like humidity controls on crisper drawers, meat or deli drawers, and InstaView technology to see your food from the outside of the fridge.

Standard fridges offer the modern conveniences you may want, such as removable shelves and Wi-Fi-enabled technology. They also may have ice makers and water dispensers built into the doors.

Things to Think About Before You Buy

Before you run out to the nearest home improvement store to grab an RV refrigerator replacement, let’s look at a few things to consider. Measure before purchasing and ensure it will work in your space. Also, consider the additional power demands of this residential appliance.

What Are Your Size Constraints?

When making an RV refrigerator upgrade, you’ll need to measure the space carefully. If you only have room for a small RV fridge, making the upgrade might not be possible. It’s not just the height and width either. Ensure you have room for the added depth of a standard fridge. You have to consider your size constraints.

You also want to measure the entry door to your RV. The fridge might fit once inside, but you have to get it inside first. Consider the path you’ll take from the entry door to the kitchen, also. Can you get it around walls, interior doors, and islands once inside?

Interior of new RV kitchen with refrigerator.
Whether or not you use propane or solar could impact what refrigerator is right for you!

Will It Be Functional in Your RV?

This comes down to the right configuration. Do you have younger children who need to get in and out of the fridge easily? If so, you’ll probably want a top freezer. Or do you prefer a side-by-side or bottom freezer?

You also want to consider the spacing. Although you certainly need to measure, you also need to note how wide the doors will swing out and how far the drawers pull out. Can you get to a bottom drawer freezer if you have a kitchen island? Will the side doors swing out and hit the wall? Make sure the fridge will function in the space you have.

Will You Need More RV Batteries?

Standard refrigerators require more power since they don’t run off of propane. If you camp off-grid, you’ll need to consider buying additional RV batteries.

If you stay mostly at campgrounds with full hook-ups, your fridge will operate with the electricity provided. However, if you want it to run while traveling, you’ll need sufficient RV batteries and an inverter.

Pro Tip: Make cooking in your RV kitchen a breeze with these 33 Must-Have RV Kitchen Accessories.

Do You Rely on Propane?

If you love boondocking and taking your RV to remote locations, you probably rely on propane or solar power. If you don’t have solar installed and rely heavily on propane, you should consider keeping an RV fridge. 

Standard fridges require so much power that they can drain your battery supply quickly. An RV fridge will work better if you rely on propane.

RV kitchen with fridge.
Upgrade your fridge to a bigger model!

Should You DIY Your Refrigerator Installation or Hire a Professional?

Should you DIY your refrigerator installation or hire a professional? This depends on how comfortable you are with your handyman skills.  RV refrigerator replacement will require some know-how before installation. 

First, turn off the propane to your RV fridge. Then disconnect the line running to it and install a propane terminator. You’ll also want to cap the electrical wires. As mentioned before, if you don’t have a 120V outlet, you’ll need to install one.

Next, getting a new residential fridge in your RV doorway (and the old fridge out) can be quite a maneuver. Some RVs may require you to remove the windshield or a side window to get large fridges in or out, depending on the dimensions.

new fridge going into rv
Make sure you can get your new fridge in your RV doorway.

Then, you can slide the new fridge into place and connect it to power. Finally, fasten the standard fridge so it won’t shift when in motion.

If you feel comfortable doing all of this, you can install a new RV refrigerator replacement yourself. Just make sure you have help. It’s not a one-person job.

If you rather hire a professional, you’ll pay several hundred dollars. Just getting a mobile technician out to your campsite will cost you anywhere from $75 to $100 plus additional costs for time and labor. But if you don’t feel confident changing it yourself, this cost can be well worth it.

Converting our RV Fridge to a High Efficiency DC Compressor- 8x More Efficient! and Better Cooling!
On our first fridge, we upgraded the cooling system to a DC unit.

Is Upgrading Your RV Refrigerator with a Residential Model Worth It?

Depending on your travel lifestyle, space, and electrical system, making an RV refrigerator upgrade could be worth it. However, as mentioned above, if you boondock often and don’t have adequate solar power, it might not be the best solution. 

If you only have a 30 amp RV, you’ll need to do some serious electrical upgrades to accommodate the power necessary to operate a residential model. So it might not be worth it if you fall into either of those categories.

But if you have adequate power and feed a large family, consider upgrading to a residential model. It reduces trips to the grocery store and operates more efficiently than an RV fridge. The compressor technology in a standard fridge works better than the absorption system in a propane RV fridge.

So is an RV refrigerator upgrade in your future? Have you started looking at residential models? 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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Robert Storms

Thursday 13th of January 2022

We are full-time RVers and do nearly 0% boondocking. Our fifth wheel's 8 cubic foot gas/electric Dometic fridge worked OK, but was very small and really struggled to keep it's cool. In addition, we had to defrost it every 3 months, which was a pain. We were coming up on a defrost event when we needed something at Home Depot. In our wandering through the store, we found a 10.1 CF Magic Chef fridge sitting by itself with no price tag. It also had a large scratch across the front, but was otherwise in good condition. Speaking with a manager, she marked it down to $280, and we hauled it away. Now comes the fun part, removing the old fridge and installing the new one. One of the maintenance guys said he'd love to have the old fridge, so he helped us remove it. We pulled the insulation out of the cabinet and cleaned everything up. We removed the doors of the new fridge to get it through the door, and over the sink counter it went. That was the hard part. slid it into the opening, remounted the doors, and plugged it in. The frame of the fridge had a couple of holes already drilled in the back, so we screwed it to the floor. The front of the fridge stuck out just a little, so I screwed a 1"x2" strip to the front of the cabinet face to extend the floor enough for the front legs to rest on. More space, more cold, more space, faster recovery, more space, and no defrosting. On top of all that, we can now stick fridge magnets on the front! Something you couldn't do with the old fridge's wood panels. It's also lighter weight than the old fridge. Before we move again, we'll get an inverter to keep it running.

Mortons on the Move

Sunday 16th of January 2022

Sounds like quite the adventure but a great upgrade!

Richard Cook

Thursday 13th of January 2022

Another option that we chose was to remove the propane cooling panel from our Norcold 1855, and installing a JC-Refrigeration HVAC 12 volt dual compressor. It is rock solid and uses 1/4 the energy. They have several other options, but for $1500 it was well worth it.

Mortons on the Move

Sunday 16th of January 2022

Yes! we did that with our first fridge too!