How Does an RV Refrigerator Work, and Differ From a Conventional One?

One of the most important and popular home-away-from-home appliances is an RV refrigerator. What makes one of these customized appliances different from a conventional model? How does an RV refrigerator work? Here are the facts you need to know.

RV Refrigerator Differences

Many RV enthusiasts wonder why it’s not a good idea to simply use a small, conventional model in an RV. 

For one, conventional refrigerators aren’t built to last in an RV. A residential fridge is not durable enough to withstand all the shaking and bumping that comes with along with traveling in an RV. The construction materials, internal mechanisms, and functioning parts are not strong enough to withstand the jostling and over time, will break down. 

An RV refrigerator is built primarily of steel, which is a very solid, durable and strong material. Steel can stand up to the motion, vibrations and variable temperatures that are a part of RV’ing.

Because a refrigerator is such an important appliance in an RV, a specially designed model built specifically for an RV is well worth the extra money. Some new RV prices already reflect the inclusion of an RV refrigerator.

Choosing a fridge for your RV, whether purchasing independently or through RV Finder sources, depends on the size you need to accommodate your family needs, the space available for a perfect fit and how it all comes together with your budget. 

RV fridge prices vary by make, model, size and features, so it’s important to do your research and comparison pricing. You may have to make some concessions, but you also should be able to purchase an affordable model that works out well for your RV. Once you know what to look for, it’s easier to decide on the must-have features.

How is an RV Fridge Different than Regular Fridges?

Conventional refrigerators work by using a compressor. An RV fridge, also known as an absorption refrigerator, does not. An RV refrigerator doesn’t use any moving parts, which is why it’s more durable and lasts longer for life on the road.

How an RV Refrigerator Works

An absorption refrigerator operates by heat and chemical reactions, using a combination of water and ammonia. The refrigerator is equipped with a number of different tubes which once reaching the boiling point in the internal generator and in reaction mode, move into the separator, dividing the water and the ammonia.

Traveling through separate tubes, the water moves to the absorber while the ammonia moves to the condenser. It’s here where the ammonia cools down and turns back into liquid. From there, the ammonia moves to the evaporator and combines with hydrogen gas, causing it to evaporate in cold vaper form. 

The cold vapor moves to the interior cooling coils, which cool the entire interior of the refrigerator, starting in the freezer. The vapor continues its journey back into the absorber, mixes with water, and the process repeats itself over again.

An RV refrigerator can also be operated by using an alternate source of power, such as electricity produced by a generator.  The required heat needed to trigger the cooling process is created by using an element. Alternately, propane can be used to heat the chemicals if electricity is unavailable or conserved.

Most of the newer RV refrigerators have an auto feature that uses propane as a backup fuel source if electricity becomes unavailable.

Smart RVers start the cooling process the night before a trip. Even if using propane for 24 hours, the absorption cooling process uses minimal amounts.  An RV refrigerator takes about 24 hours to get nice and cold. In hot weather, it takes even longer to get cold.

An RV refrigerator is typically 6 cubic feet in size; 1 cubic foot for the freezer and 5 cubic feet of refrigerator space. To save space, use smaller containers, prep/chop/cut food ahead of time, store in food storage bags and buy smaller sizes of condiments.

Set Up

Call in a professional installer if you are not familiar with hard wiring the RV refrigerator to the electrical system or attaching correctly to propane lines.


Depending on the size, new RV refrigerators run anywhere from $1,100 to over $3,000.

Take the time for comparison shopping, watch for sales on older models or consider purchasing a refurbished model.

Tips for Lasting Longer

Refrigerators cost money, whether a conventional or RV model. To prolong the lifespan of an RV refrigerator, practice these tips:

  • Freeze and refrigerate already frozen or cold food. The fridge won’t have to work as hard to cool down warm or room temperature food or beverages.
  • Allow space between all items inside so air can circulate and pass evenly around the interior, including the shelves.
  • An RV refrigerator fan helps cool things down about 50% faster and keep temperatures more stable. A fan typically costs under $20 and run on two “D” size batteries. 
  • An inexpensive thermometer can help keep track of internal temperatures. The ideal temperature for the refrigerator should remain between 34 to 36 degrees Fahrenheit; while the freezer should remain at between 0 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. These recommended temperatures prevent food from spoiling.
  • Watch frost build-up in the freezer. Defrost the freezer as necessary to keep it working efficiently and maximize space.  To prevent damage, never use a pick, sharp knife or heat sources like a hair dryer to defrost the freezer.
  • Keep the refrigerator level to prevent damage and maintain operating efficiency. Keep the refrigerator free and clear from obstructions, dust and dirt, especially near the vents.
  • Run the refrigerator periodically to check for potential noises, clogs and to make sure it’s working properly.
  • Check seals around the doors to keep cold air inside.


As one of the most important appliances in your RV, the initial investment will pay for itself after years of great RV trips now and in the future. By using the maintenance tips to prolong the life of your refrigerator, it is a good long-term investment for the serious RVer.