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RV Refrigerator Basics: Types, Buying Guide, and Maintenance

Everyone has an opinion when it comes to RV refrigerators. The topic is sure to start up lively debate among RVers. Like all other things RV-related, your RV refrigerator is a matter of personal preference. And your RV travel style will highly influence that preference.

With that said, some RV refrigerator basics will help you know what you’re looking at when you’re out on the showroom floor.

RV Refrigerator Types

Most new motorhomes and used motorhomes offer either compressor-driven refrigerators or absorption refrigerators. Absorption refrigerators are the most common, but you’ll also see “residential-style refrigerators.”

Unfortunately, this term can be confusing. Some RVers and RV manufacturers use that term to refer to the design, and others to mean a refrigerator designed for use in a fixed residence. Let’s clarify some info on how different RV refrigerators work.

Absorption Refrigerators

absorption-rv-refrigerator-basics-08-2022Photo by Camping World

The most common type of refrigerator you’ll find in RVs is an absorption refrigerator. Absorption refrigerators can run on propane, in addition to an electrical power source. This makes them more flexible than compressor-driven refrigerators.

A “2-way fridge” refers to an absorption RV refrigerator that can run off of AC Power and LP gas. A “3-way fridge” refers to an absorption RV refrigerator that can run off of AC Power, LP gas, and DC Power. This fridge can run off of shore power (or a generator), propane, or house batteries.

Absorption refrigerators provide more flexibility because you can switch to propane to conserve power. Switching to propane also helps you stay out longer without shore power. They generally don’t cool as quickly, evenly, or efficiently. You also must park the RV almost perfectly level for the fridge to function properly.

If you’re considering an absorption fridge, we recommend checking out a high-performance RV propane tank and other useful accessories. Many of our options are lightweight and refillable.

Compressor Refrigerators

compressor-rv-refrigerator-basics-08-2022Photo by Camping World

A compressor-driven fridge in an RV generally requires AC/DC power to run. This means you can run it off of shore power if your RV is plugged in or your coach batteries if it’s not. Residential refrigerators, as in the ones that are used in fixed homes, are also compressor refrigerators, but they can only run when plugged into an AC outlet.

If you installed a true residential fridge in your RV, you’d need an inverter when the RV is not connected to shore power or a generator. Compressor refrigerators tend to cool faster and more efficiently, and they’re not affected by altitude.

Residential-Style Refrigerators

residential-rv-refrigerator-basics-08-2022Photo by Camping World

You can find a “residential-style” refrigerator in some large travel trailers (including used travel trailers) and Class A RVs. They’re popular because of their greater capacity and because they cool more evenly. They’re also generally less expensive than an RV refrigerator.

You can think of a “residential-style” fridge as a “one-way fridge.” They only work off of shore power. The only way they can function when not plugged in is through the use of a generator or an inverter. An inverter will convert DC power from your batteries into AC power your fridge can use.

Be aware that some RV manufacturers may use the term “residential-style” to refer to the design, larger size, or the fact that it cools through a compressor. So you might find an AC/DC compressor fridge, which is not like the fridge in your home because it can also be battery-powered, described as a “residential-style” fridge.

Which RV Fridge Is Right For You?

There’s no right answer. It all depends on your preferences, and there are many opinions about the best RV refrigerator.

Some RVers swear by residential refrigerators. Some like the option of having propane. Others hate having to refill propane and prefer an AC/DC compressor fridge (remember, since this kind can run off of two power sources, it’s not a true “residential-style” fridge).

Things To Consider When Shopping for RV Refrigerators

For every pro, there is a con. For every argument one way, there is a valid counter-argument. But, here are some questions to consider to help you while RV refrigerator shopping.

How Much Food Do You Want to Store?

A refrigerator that could be used in an RV

If you cook a lot or camp with a large family, you may want the capacity of a “residential-style” fridge. If you’re always plugged in because you only stay at developed campgrounds with electric hook-ups, you should run into very few problems.

However, if you boondock or do overnight Walmart stays, your best bet is to upgrade your battery bank and/or add solar panels to your RV if you go with a “residential-style” fridge. A heavy-duty battery bank (most stock battery banks are not beefy enough) will ensure you can stay off-grid without running out of power.

If you don’t need to store much food, you’ll enjoy the space-saving nature and flexibility of AC/DC compressor fridges or absorption fridges.

Is Your Battery Bank Easily Accessible?

battery-rv-refrigerator-basics-08-2022Photo by Camping World

Upgrading your battery bank is relatively easy and can cost a few hundred dollars. If you’re considering an RV that doesn’t have an easily accessible battery bank, you might want to consider an absorption fridge.

A “residential-style” fridge works best with an upgraded battery bank, and an AC/DC compressor fridge can drain your stock battery bank when boondocking.

Would You Like To Refill Propane Less?

refill-propane-rv-refrigerator-basics-08-2022Photo by Camping World

Some full-time RVers find it quite a chore to refill the propane tank. If this is you, you’ll want to go with a compressor fridge. Water heaters and furnaces still generally use propane, so it will not entirely eliminate the need for propane.

Some RVs are propane free, but not many. The less propane you want to use, the more upgraded your battery and solar capacity needs to be.

Are You Always Perfectly Level?

level-rv-refrigerator-basics-08-2022Photo by Camping World

If you’re always perfectly level, you’ll have no problem with absorption fridges. However, if you’re not, a compressor fridge may be a good idea. You won’t be comfortable if your RV is so unlevel that you and your belongings are sliding over to one side.

But, if you do a lot of Walmart overnights, Harvest Host stays, or driveway stays with family, it might be nice not to have to bring out the leveling blocks or worry about being exactly level. Learn how to level your RV right the first time, regardless of the refrigerator you select.

Do You Primarily Boondock?

boondock-rv-refrigerator-basics-08-2022Photo by Camping World

If you love boondocking in nature, an absorption fridge is a smart choice unless you can upgrade your battery bank immediately. If you can upgrade your battery bank, you could boondock with a “residential-style” fridge. You could also go with an AC/DC fridge, eliminating the need to be level.

Does Your RV Have an Inverter?

A pure sine wave inverter is a

In some cases, an RV may have a “residential-style” fridge—one that is AC power only—and not have an RV power inverter onboard. In that situation, you can’t spend much time off-grid unless you install an inverter before your next adventure.

If you have an onboard or portable RV generator, you’d have to run it, which could conflict with quiet hours and noise restrictions in some campgrounds. If you’ve ever rented an RV from a traditional RV rental company, you may have experienced this.

RV Refrigerator Maintenance

maintenance-rv-refrigerator-basics-08-2022Photo by Camping World

Keeping your RV refrigerator running efficiently requires best practices and routine maintenance. Here are a few RV refrigerator maintenance tips:

Open the door as little as possible and limit the amount of time the door is open when you do. Make sure you’re level if you’re using an absorption fridge. Ensure it’s not overstuffed so it can cool efficiently. Keepspare refrigerator parts and accessorieson hand.Consider a fridge fanto circulate more air inside the fridge if you use an absorption fridge. This helps keep a more consistent temperature and can help maintain more even cooling. Absorption fridges should be defrosted monthly or bi-monthly. Take your RV in for regularrefrigerator service. Flue cleaning and an airflow check will keep your refrigerator running smoothly. With a “residential-style” fridge, you’ll want an RV appliance check.

This is especially important if your RV is stationary for long periods of time. Disuse can cause more damage to an RV fridge than misuse. Changing out an RV refrigerator can be complicated because new models may not fit through RV doors or may require modifications to fridge cabinets.

If you can’t have it all “out the dealership door,” err on the side of upgrading your power capacity. It’s often an easier project than swapping out a fridge.

RV refrigerators are a hot topic, and there are many opinions on what’s best. There are smart points for and against every option. Learning the basics will help you as you shop for an RV. Often, it’s easier to start off with the fridge you really want.

What type of refrigerator is in your RV? Leave a comment below.

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