RV Refrigerator Basics 4320

woman opening an RV refrigerator

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, there are some RV fridge basics that will help you know what you’re looking at when you’re out on the showroom floor.

RV Refrigerator Types

When it comes to RVs you’ll see either compressor-driven refrigerators or absorption refrigerators. Absorption refrigerators tend to be most common. You’ll also see the term “residential-style refrigerator.” 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 that was designed for use in a fixed residence.

Compressor Refrigerator

A compressor-driven fridge in an RV is generally powered by AC/DC power. This means you can run it off of shore power if your RV is plugged in, or off of your coach batteries if it’s not plugged in. Residential refrigerators, as in the ones that are used in fixed homes, are also compressor refrigerators, but they can only run when plugged into the wall. This means they can only run off of AC power so you will need an inverter for times when the RV is not plugged connected to shore power or a generator.

Compressor refrigerators tend to cool faster and more efficiently. They’re not affected by altitude.

Absorption Refrigerator

The most common type of refrigerator you’ll find in RVs is an absorption refrigerator. Absorption refrigerators can run off of LP gas. This makes them more flexible than compressor-driven refrigerators. A “2-way fridge” usually refers to an absorption RV refrigerator that can run off of AC Power and LP gas.

A refrigerator that could be used in an RV

A “3-way fridge” usually 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.

Residential-Style Refrigerators

You can find a “residential-style” refrigerator in some large towables and Class As. 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 continue to function when not plugged in is through the use of a generator or through 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 draw power from batteries, described as a “residential-style” fridge.

Which RV Fridge Is Right For You?

There’s no right answer. It all depends on your preferences. There are many opinions when it comes to an RV fridge. Some RVers swear by residential refrigerators. Some RVers really like the option of having propane. Still, 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). For every pro, there is a con. For every argument one way, there is a valid counter-argument. But, there are some questions to consider to help you while RV shopping.

Things To Consider

How Much Food Do You Want to Store?

If you cook a lot, or you camp with a large family, you may really want the capacity of a “residential-style” fridge. If you’re always plugged in when you RV because you only stay at developed campgrounds with electric hook-ups, you should run into very little problems. However, if you like to boondock or you do overnight Walmart stays, your best bet is to upgrade your battery bank and/or your solar capacity 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 a lot of food, you’ll probably enjoy the space-saving nature and flexibility of AC/DC compressor fridges or absorption fridges.

Is Your Battery Bank Easily Accessible?

Upgrading your battery bank is a relatively easy endeavor and can cost as little as a few hundred dollars. If the RV 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?

Some 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?

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 better option. 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.

Do You Primarily Boondock?

If you love boondocking in nature, an absorption fridge is a smart way to go unless you’re able to upgrade your battery bank right off the bat. 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?

In some cases, an RV may have a “residential-style” fridge—one that is AC power only—and not have an inverter on board. In that situation you’d find that you can’t spend much time off-grid. If you have an onboard generator you’d have to run it, which could conflict with quiet hours, noise restrictions, or “generator hour” policies in some campgrounds. If you’ve ever rented an RV from a traditional RV rental company you may have experienced this.

A pure sine wave inverter is a "must" for a "residential-style" fridge.

RV Refrigerator Maintenance

For any type of fridge, you generally want to help it by opening the door as little as possible. Try to limit the amount of time the fridge door is open. Make sure you’re level if you’re using an absorption fridge. For any refrigerator, you want to make sure it’s not overstuffed so it can cool efficiently.

Consider a fridge fan to circulate more air inside the fridge if you’re using an absorption fridge. This helps keep a more consistent temperature and can help maintain more even cooling. Absorption fridges should also be defrosted monthly or bi-monthly.

A refrigerator fan will circulate more air inside your RV fridge. This is helpful for absorption fridges.

Also, be sure to take the RV in for refrigerator service. Flue cleaning and an air flow 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.

RV refrigerators are a hot topic in the RV world. There are many opinions as to what’s best. There 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. Changing out an RV fridge can be complicated due to fridges not fitting through RV doors, or modifications needed to fridge cabinets. If you can’t have it all “out the dealership door”, you may want to consider erring on the side of upgrading your power capacity later. It’s often an easier project than swapping out a fridge.


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

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Nadia Bajuelo Contributor
Nadia hit the road full-time in an RV with her husband, Jon, and their 2 dogs. She dreams of traveling the world, creating content that inspires, and hugging a koala bear. She’s been an educator and a marketer for a Fortune 500 company. These days, she works as a content creator and marketing strategist from the road. She writes for various blogs and magazines, also documenting her adventures with Jon at their blog RoamingRemodelers. Until she finds that koala to hug, she’s happy boondocking, visiting indie bookstores along the way, and drinking as much tea as possible.
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