How Does An RV Refrigerator Work? A Quick Guide.

How Does An RV Refrigerator Work

There are several types of RV refrigerators with different cooling mechanisms and fuel options. Absorption refrigerators cool via a combination of gases and chemical reactions, which evaporate and then condense inside the unit, powered by AC electricity or propane gas. 12v DC refrigerators operate like domestic fridges and run on battery power. They can be more efficient than absorption fridges.

If you’re asking yourself, “How does an RV refrigerator work?” or just want to know more about RV fridges, then this is the article for you.

Read on to learn about the different types of RV refrigerators, their cooling mechanisms, and their fuel needs.

If you need a replacement RV refrigerator, check out the latest options from Furrion here.

How does an RV refrigerator work?

There are several different kinds of RV refrigerators with other cooling mechanisms and fueling arrangements.

The most popular RV fridges cool using an absorption mechanism. Absorption cooling has been around since the mid-19th century, originally using water and sulphuric acid. In modern absorptions fridges, a safer mix of water, hydrogen gas, and ammonia is now used as the refrigerant medium.

The cooling cycle in an RV fridge begins with the refrigerant medium being exposed to heat. This heat needs to come from a power source, which could be a battery, a generator, or liquid propane fuel.

Heat causes the refrigerant to boil, evaporate and then condense, taking the heat energy away and cooling down its environment. The cycle is then repeated as the gas returns to a liquid state.

Absorption RV refrigerators can run on either electricity, propane gas, or both, usually with an automatic switch between them when electricity is turned off.

You can also buy RV fridges that run entirely on 12v direct current (DC) electricity, using a similar compressor and condenser design and mechanism to domestic refrigerators. They can reportedly be eight times as energy efficient as a propane absorption fridge.

12v DC refrigerators are also more energy-efficient than running an AC-powered fridge since there is no need to change DC to AC via an inverter, incurring electrical losses in the process.

Whatever kind of RV refrigerator you have, you can speed up the cooling process by adding a sealed ice block to the top shelf when you first turn on your RV fridge.

How is an RV refrigerator different from a normal refrigerator?

This depends on the type of RV refrigerator you have.

12v electric RV fridges run very similarly to domestic fridges but on a smaller scale.

There are both similarities and fundamental differences between RV absorption refrigerators between these fridges and those commonly used in houses. Both types of fridges cool food using evaporation and condensation of a refrigerant medium.

Domestic fridges utilize physical compression of freon as a refrigerant medium, while RV fridges use only the absorption mechanism with a mix of water, hydrogen, and ammonia. In contrast to domestic fridges, the cooling system in an RV refrigerator has no moving parts. The refrigerant gas is the only thing that moves, working its way around a set of internal tubes.

Do you need electricity to run an RV refrigerator?

Not necessarily, but this will depend on the type of refrigerator you have in your RV. A 12v electric refrigerator will require electrical power from the battery, solar panels, a generator, etc., to run.

RV absorption refrigerators do need some form of power to provide the initial heat of the absorption cooling mechanism. This could be AC electricity drawn from a generator or battery via an inverter (which converts DC to AC), but propane could also supply it.

The most popular RV absorption fridges are designed to switch automatically between electricity or propane power, but some may require activation via a button or switch. Read your user manual to be sure.

If you run your RV refrigerator and other appliances from the power in your 12v battery, you will need to monitor your charge level and keep it topped up regularly to avoid power cuts that could spoil your food. Most RV users charge their batteries using a generator or solar panels.

A gas generator can provide electricity/battery charge for an absorption RV fridge or a 12v DC RV electric fridge.

Propane gas can be used to power an RV absorption fridge. In dual power fridges, propane power may be automatically activated when the electricity cuts out.

How Does An RV Refrigerator Work?

What happens to an RV refrigerator if there’s a power cut?

If you have a 12v DC electric fridge, it will be able to continue running on battery power in the event of a generator failure or power cut, as long as the charge remains in your battery.

In an absorption RV refrigerator with dual-fuel capability, cutting out the power will normally activate the automatic switch to propane power. If this does not happen automatically for your refrigerator, you may have to press a button or switch.

Can I run an RV refrigerator on solar power?

Yes, you can run your RV refrigerator on solar power if you have a solar energy system installed for your RV or a suitable portable solar power kit.

To run a 12v DC electric RV refrigerator constantly, you will need up to 300 watts of solar energy, depending on fridge size. This could be 3 X 100-watt panels or 2 X 150-watt panels, for example. You should also have a battery with enough capacity to store and provide electricity overnight while the sun isn’t shining.

Lithium batteries are more efficient, more robust, and easier to maintain than older lead-acid battery types. This makes them a more reliable choice for a solar system to power your RV refrigerator.

Are RV refrigerators safe?

RV refrigerators have been in use for many years now, and in themselves, all types are considered very safe when used following the manufacturer’s instructions.

The main area of concern around the safety of RV fridges relates to the propane gas sometimes used to power them. Some fear driving with propane running to your fridge could be an explosion risk in case of a road accident.

Some people turn their propane off while driving, hoping that the fridge will remain sufficiently cold for long enough to preserve their food while they’re on the road.

Even if you leave the propane running while driving, it must be turned off before stopping at a gas station since having naked flames near a petroleum pump is dangerous and illegal.

In any case, a propane-fueled RV refrigerator will be safest when well-maintained. Always check your unit and its connections after each trip. You should professionally leak propane systems and pressure tested every year.

A final word

RV refrigerators are safe, simple, and effective cooling appliances, whichever type you choose. With care and regular maintenance, a good RV refrigerator could last from 10-20 years.

Don’t forget to check out our Recommended RV Equipment list!

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Hi, my name is Andy. I have been camping my whole life. I started camping with my parents as a little kid and remember hanging out around a campfire roasting marshmallows. As I got older, car camping was a regular occurrence. After I got married and started a family, we decided we wanted to share the travel and camping experience with our kids. Out of that experience, this site,, was born.

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