Tips for Keeping your RV Fridge Cold
Hitting the open road this summer will lead to plenty of RVing fun, as well as some hot temperatures. As temperatures continue to climb all across the country, sometimes reaching record-highs in certain areas, staying cool can be a challenge. If you’re struggling to keep cool in the heat, chances are that your RV fridge is struggling as well. Nothing can ruin a good vacation like a fridge full of spoiled food. But don’t panic! There are many tips and tricks you can utilize to keep your fridge plenty cold in the summer heat. Here, we’ll cover some of the best advice collected from pro RVers to help keep your fridge running at maximum efficiency no matter the outside temperature.
How RV Fridges Work
Before knowing how to troubleshoot and solve potential cooling problems, it’s important to first understand the ins and outs of how these fridges work. RV fridges operate completely differently from standard refrigerators. Most RV fridges run off of compression or absorption. If you are unsure which type of fridge your RV has, check the manual to be sure. Absorption and compressor fridges work completely differently from each other, so read on below to learn more about them.
Compressor, or mechanical, fridges are more expensive but typically do a better job of keeping products cold, even in hot temperatures. These fridges work similarly to standard home fridges and run only on electrical power. The compressor compresses gas to a higher and hotter pressure, and the hot refrigerant then enters the condenser where it cools off and and becomes a liquid. Then the cooled liquid hits the evaporator which spikes the liquid’s temperature to a boiling point, which then helps to remove the hot air from the fridge. The evaporated gases then make their way back into the compressor, and the process continues.
Most RVs are equipped with absorption fridges. These are the fridge types that can run off of propane or electric. These fridges work by mixing ammonia (refrigerant) with water and using either propane or electrical power to go through a process that eventually the mixture until it boils. Because its boiling point is so low (-16 degrees Fahrenheit), it is able to absorb the surrounding heat inside the fridge, maintaining a cooler temperature. Although these fridges come installed in most RVs, they can fairly pricey to replace or repair, as they are somewhat uncommon outside of the world of RVing. However, replacement parts for these fridges can be found through Camping World, Amazon (sometimes), and local RV dealership service departments.
Dos and Don’ts of RV Fridges
Now that you understand how each type of RV works, it’s best to learn the dos and don’ts of RV fridges. Keep all of these simple tips and instructions in mind in order to maximize your RV fridge’s efficiency and maintain the coldest temperatures.
- Don’t use the propane setting on your fridge if the RV is unlevel.
- Do check on the evaporator fins or coils as frequently as possible.
- Don’t store hot food in the fridge, if possible.
- Do check your freezer for any ice build-up on the sensors.
- Do keep your cold food from the grocery store as cold as possible while in transit.
- Don’t shut your fridge off while there’s food inside.
- Do let your fridge “warm up” for 12 hours minimum before storing food inside your RV fridge.
- Don’t open your fridge doors more than necessary (looking at you, kids!).
- Do try to keep the side of your RV with the fridge in the shade.
- Do adjust the fridge temperature based on the temperature outside (lower setting when it’s cold, higher setting when it’s hot).
- Don’t overstuff your fridge with food, especially with an absorption fridge, as this style of fridge relies on air circulation to help keep food cold.
- Do figure out where the coldest spots in your freezer are. Store your ice cream and other melt-able treats there.
- Do consider purchasing an extra portable freezer if you travel a lot in the summer.
- Don’t neglect the gasket around your fridge and freezer doors. Keep it clean and check it for rips and tears, and replace it when necessary to help keep the cold air in your fridge.
- Do check the outside panel of your absorption fridge. Bugs, dirt, and debris can become stuck inside and create a fire hazard (similar to the flue tube with a hot water heater).
Defrosting the Fridge and Freezer
Over time, many absorption fridges are prone to ice build-up on the evaporator fins in the fridge or back sensors of the freezer. If you’ve noticed that these crucial refrigerator components are frozen over, it’s time to defrost them, as it will be nearly impossible to keep food at the correct temperature with these important pieces not working properly. For this brief project, you will need a towel, a hairdryer or heat gun, a small ice scraper, and a cooler with ice.
- Begin by turning off your fridge and removing all of the food. Place it in a cooler with ice to keep it cold while the defrosting process takes place.
- Beginning with the freezer, carefully begin to use the hairdryer or heat gun on a low setting, aimed directly at the ice. You can gently use the ice scraper to help loosen large sheets of ice. DO NOT use the ice scraper on the sensors. Start at the top of the freezer and work your way down.
- Use the towel to mop up any drips and and continue thawing the fridge. Large pieces of ice can be removed by hand and placed in the sink or shower to melt.
- Once the freezer is completely thawed on both sides, it’s time to defrost the fridge.
- Use the hairdryer or heat gun on a low setting to melt the evaporator fins. Do not use the ice scraper on these, as they can be easily damaged.
- Check the drip tray to ensure all the water has been caught and emptied. Use the towel to mop up any other water.
- Place food back in the fridge and freezer and turn it back on.
- Check the temperature setting to ensure they aren’t set to be too cold, as this can cause a recurrence of freezing.
- Enjoy a glass of wine, beer, or other beverage from one of your Harvest Hosts stays!
- Repeat this process periodically, or anytime you notice ice build-up again.
Accessories to Help
There are a few key accessories that can further help your fridge to stay cool in the heat of the summer. Check out these gadgets, and research a few options before making any purchases.
If you read our RV refrigerator maintenance blog post, then you know that most RV fridge fans are overworked and under-powered. However, there is a simple solution to this: the Valterra fridge fan. This tiny accessory packs a big punch in helping your fridge stay cool. It runs off of two “D” batteries that are changed monthly and doesn’t require you to wire anything additional into your fridge. That’s a win-win in our book. If you don’t love the Valterra fridge fan, there are several other companies that create similar accessory fans to help.
Purchase a pack of at least two or three fridge thermometers. These should have clips on them to hook right onto the shelves and help monitor your fridge temperature at a glance. For the most accurate readings, you will want to place at least two in the fridge, one in the back and one in the fronts, as well as one on each side of your freezer. However, if you only have one thermometer, this should still suffice to monitor your fridge temperatures. This is one of the best ways to monitor your fridge’s performance and adjust the temperature as necessary. The refrigerator should stay under 41°F, and the freezer should stay at 0°F.
Keeping your food cold on your adventures is super important to avoid food-borne illness and prevent food spoilage. After all, food poisoning or wasted food is a sure-fire way to spoil a vacation. Follow these tips and tricks to keep your fridge running at peak performance no matter how hot your next destination is.
Does your fridge struggle to stay cool in the summer? Do you have any other tips or tricks to add to the list? Tell us about it in the comments below!
Learn More About Harvest Hosts
We promise not to spam you!
On a recent stay in hot California another tip from a fellow told me to remove the vent covers on outside to allow better air flow. Made sense, the top vent the openings point down trapping air flow. This worked really well on helping the fridge stay cooler.
I need rv fridge help!! I have a 12v GE RV fridge. I cool it ahead of time, and the temp will get to 37. I put only cold food into it, and the temp will not get below 42 and spikes up to 47. This past trip I emptied most of the food out of the fridge and there was no improvement in temperature. When I unpacked the fridge at the end of the trip, there was ice in the freezer compartment. Since the fridge maintains a constant temperature, and there’s ice in the freezer, I believe the fridge has the potential to work…..however, I can’t figure out how to make it cool when food is in it. Since it’s a compressor fridge, I don’t have fins to place a fan on. And, even though the manual says it doesn’t need exhaust room, I did make sure there is room behind the unit to not trap heat. Any ideas on how to help a 12v fridge work??!!?
Hi Renee. If your fridge is struggling, then
A) Make sure you’re only storing cold food. Don’t make your fridge work overtime.
B) Check any outdoor filters or grates to ensure no blockage is occurring.
C) Check for ice build-up in your freezer. The ice can cover the sensors tricking your fridge into thinking it’s cooler than it is.
I paid my membership last fall, did not get a renewal this year, and you are not recognizing my email. I am not sure if I am current or not? Please advise.
I live out of my RV as I travel for work across the country. Most of the time it’s in the south. I put a small fan in the outside compartment and it did the trick. Blows the air from the bottom to the top at an angle as it blows over the compressor. This is all my system needed. Fan was $7.00 at Walmart. You will hear it running as it vibrates due to being metal against metal.
How do I get host info for my trip.
Hi Mary Lynne! Our hosts have tons of information located on each of their host listing pages. There, you can access a brief rundown of the locations, plus a list of all offerings, photos, and even reviews from previous RVers. Hope this helps!
Where is the link to the triple fan setup shown in the photo? The small one does a pretty good job (and has for decades), but three fans would sure move a lot more air.
This is the three fan model I bought
The small power cord runs down the fridge drain tube to the back of the fridge and the 12 volt power source.
It works much better than the little blue battery fan, but when the outside temp rises to 89F my Norcold absorption fridge still struggles if it’s more than half full. Also, frost will still build up on the few fins outside of the fan housing. That said I still recommend it.
Thanks for sharing this link and you’re own opinions on the model, Diana!
I believe this is what you’re looking for: https://rvcoolingunit.com/Dometic-3-fan-Special-Deluxe-Fan-with-White-LED-lights-13-inch-wide-P5672097.aspx. Best of luck!
My wife discovered this, but if a person lines the interior of the freezer compartment with very-thin silicone sheets, when it comes time to defrost, it is a snap to get the frost out of the freezer by simply peeling off the sheets.
This is an EXCELLENT tip that I will be utilizing myself from now on. Thank you!
Along with the extra fans in the fridge, ours has five fans across the fins. Smaller units like shown in your picture are basically the same make. I have put extra fans in the back of the fridge with a total of three to help facilitate evacuation of hot air from the back of the unit; this is very important. Also make sure that the sheet metal that directs the air through the top cooling fins are probably unlined, it should be just below the bottom of the top cooling fins. This is to direct the forced air through the fins to cool the unit down. If this is in any different position it will take away proper air flow. Also I replaced the factory thermostat located on the top outside fins with an adjustable thermostat. It works fabulous. The reason for this upgrade is when the factory thermostat kicks in it is way to hot and the fans cannot keep up with the evacuation of the buildup of heat. Believe me I have done all three modifications and our refrigerator has never worked so well. I highly recommend this to everyone who is in hot climate areas. It’s a shame that the manufacturers don’t build them from the factory like this from the beginning.
Thanks so much for these incredible tips!
Our camper fridge tends to be too cold, even at the warmest setting. Do you have any recommendations for us? Its a bummer when our fresh fruit and veggies are damaged by it being too cold.
There is a sensor on the fins inside the fridge. It is on a clip, with a wire attached. You can slide this sensor up and down, and affect the temperature of your fridge. For you, you will want to slide it down to make it warmer. Experiment and find the setting where your fridge is in the mid to upper 30s when the setting on the door in in the middle.
Thanks for this helpful information.
We put frozen cold packs in both the freezer and fridge to help keep things cold (just like you might add them to a cooler).
Great tip, thanks Tony!
I fill a gallon container with drinking water and freeze it at home. I put it in the freezer of the RV the night before I take off when I am doing the RV fridge “warm up” in the AM if it is still frozen, I know the fridge is working. I’ll move it down to the lower unit and have ice cold drinking water for a couple of days as well as a cooler lower fridge.
We agree that a fan in an absorption refrigerator is a big help. I had a couple of 4 inch computer fans in my “stuff collection”, for inside of the refrigerator I tied one to the bottom on a shelf with zip ties and powered it off of the 12 V refrigerator light (before the light switch so the fan runs continuously whenever the refrigerator main switch is “on”). Another problem with these refrigerators is the need for good airflow on the outside of the units to cool the refrigerant. Always check that there are no obstructions (eg: bird nests) preventing air movement from the intake vent up the chimney (or on some units to the upper vent). Shading the outside in hot weather can help a lot (our Airstream has a short awning on the backside that helps with this). Finally a fan in the outside compartment can help with moving air so we installed the second computer fan in the compartment for that purpose. It is powered off the main 12V supply to the refrigerator and switched on by a button thermostat attached to one of the tubes that gets hot when the refrigerator is operating.
Is there any way you can post a picture of the fan in the outside compartment? My husband wants to add one. If not, can you email one to [email protected] We would appreciate it. Thank you.
Thanks so much for sharing this information and tips!
I really never comment on anything, but I have had such good experience with my frig fixes that I thought I should share. First, a good exterior cleaning helped in the outside compartment. Next the interior auxiliary triple fan system with LED lights was a great boost. Finally a roof installed double exhaust fan in the “chimney” boosted the cooling so well I can maintain ice/icecream and the frig stuff is very cold. I monitor with a wireless dual sensor system that also monitors the RV interior. All are hard wired for power, except the thermometer which is battery. Of all the “options” I would have to say the roof mounted exhaust fan is probably the most effective part, but the interior fans assure an optimal cold system. It amazes/disappoints me that manufacturers know how important the frig is to the RV experience and certainly know the deficiencies in their systems, but do not address them with the additional fans. Oh, I guess I should note that my RV is a well maintained 2004 Minnie Winnie, I bought last year.
Hey Sam, thanks for sharing all of these tips and all of your fantastic upgrades. Happy trails!
We have a 1997 Lance truck camper. For
Monitoring we use a wireless indoor/outdoor thermometer and put the outdoor sensor in the fridge. Typically we leave the base in the camper and make fridge adjustments as necessary without having to guess inside temps or open the door to figure it out. Hanging thermometers are good but as soon as you open the door they are subject to being inaccurate. On long road trips we actually move the base unit into the cab of the truck so we can see the fridge temp while we’re driving for hours at a time so we don’t have any surprises when we finally reach a campsite. Cheers!
Agree. The hanging metal frig thermometers are unreliable, and some of them are just junk. If you get an indoor/outdoor thermometer with more than one sensor, you can put one in the freezer and one in the frig compartment. If you splurge and get a three-sensor unit you’ll even have a sensor to use outside the camper.
Great tips, thanks Bob!
Hey Todd, thanks so much for this information and for these tips!
I live in simcoe Ontario. Would be interested in knowing if there is very many harvest host places to stop over going west to point peeler or windsor in Ontario. Thanks in advance. Ethel
Hey Ethel, there are a few locations near Windsor and many in the Detroit rea as well if you are willing to cross the border. Hope this helps!