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A refrigerator in RV is the most basic appliance and you wouldn’t even want to call a vehicle “RV” if didn’t had a refrigerator. With RV being on road or at campsites, its obvious you want to know alternate options to power the refrigerator in RV.
RV refrigerators can run on propane when you don’t have 120 Volt electricity hookup. Normally, RV refrigerators are 2 way that can run on LPG and also on electric AC power. Some RV refrigerators can run on LPG, electricity and additionally on DC battery, these are called 3 way refrigerators.
Going boondocking needs you to plan for running appliances in absence of electricity hookup. Unless you have a good generator to power for as long as you want, you would want to have an alternate solution to power the refrigerator in your RV. Propane or LP is a great option during such times.
Propane RV refrigerators do not consume much propane. These refrigerators run on absorption principle that does not involve any moving parts. Due to this, the consumption can be minimal to the extent that you wont see much drop in the propane level even after full day use.
RV refrigerators – power sources
Refrigerators that you get in RV or motorhomes are different than your home or residential refrigerators. Your RV wouldn’t be lying at one location, you would be going down the road at high speeds. Refrigerator will therefore go through continuous vibrations.
That is a much difficult situation for a refrigerator and therefore, companies like Dometic, Narcold and others manufactures fridges that are specially for RV use.
So, what is so different about them? They work using an absorption principle which does not include any moving parts. This helps in making them work better during the RV usage.
A RV refrigerator can be a 2 way or 3 way type.
2 way RV refrigerator : When we say 2 way, it means there will be 2 sources to power the refrigerators. Mostly, the most basics or main one is the AC power. AC power can come directly from electric hookup or the RV generator. The second source will be the propane or LP gas. A 2 way refrigerator for RV on an average costs you around $1100 to $2000
3 way RV Refrigerator : Three way RV refrigerator includes 3 power sources for refrigerator. 2 of them are obviously the AC power and LP gas, and the third is the DC battery source. With extra dc power you can be little bit more relaxed while boondocking. Specially, if you have longer duration stops while traveling, the 3 way refrigerator helps a lot.
With 3 way refrigerator you can conserve power by switching to propane when 120 Volt electric supply is not available.
The best thing to do is to go for both options, gas and electric or a 2 way refrigerator. Having a 2 way refrigerator gives you an edge specially while boondocking when the electricity hookup is not available. By switching to propane you can conserve the power. Having a 3 ways refrigerator makes even better as you can switch to battery while traveling.
Do you also get propane refrigerators that don’t need electricity? Yes, you have those as well. These refrigerators will be entirely working on propane or LP gas without having to need any electricity.
There is no need of electricity or DC battery to run a propane refrigerator in an RV.
One down side with only propane based refrigerators is that they may not be high power or watts. They also need more time to cool and that means you need to plan way before you start the journey.
Having good leveled surface while operating is also critical with them and that means you wont be able to run them while in traveling. Running them while traveling also posses the risk of fire or explosion. That’s another point to remember.
Thus, having a 2 way or 3 way refrigerators makes sense and is also much more convenient.
When to use propane source
No doubt having a 3 way refrigerator for you RV trailer camper or motorhome will be much more convenient. If you are a guy who camps only at campgrounds that provide for electricity hookup then may be 3 way is not for you.
Having to boondock at bushes or remote national park, you obviously need the multi option 3 way or 2 way fridge.
So, how do you manage the usage? Should you keep it in propane or electric power or dc power. Lets see the different situations and what should be your choice. I am sure, those of you who already have the 3 way fridge would be doing this.
At the campground
While you are at a campground or any place that provides for electric hookup, just go with the electric AC power usage. This is obvious, you get good efficiency and the fridge runs at its best with AC power.
The electric hookup could be little bit costly when you compare with others but its definitely the best and logical option to take.
While traveling, you can opt for DC battery to power a RV refrigerator. This is the best option as using propane while traveling may not be safe and its better to avoid using it.
Electric hookup wont be available and generator, even if available, is better not to use. If you have DC power then go for it, else you can keep the refrigerator off. Generator can be used, but in ideal conditions its better not to put it on.
So, when do you use propane to run the refrigerator then? As i already said, using propane while traveling may not be a good option. DC battery can be good to use, but you may not be able to sacrifice it for refrigerator.
The DC battery may drain quickly and you wont have it for other usage. Its better to use it only when propane or AC power cant be used.
Use propane while boondocking. When you are in remote place without electricity or generator, then the best option is to go for LP gas.
Efficiency of propane RV Refrigerator : Your absorption type of RV refrigerator wont use much of LP gas. They tend to be working efficiently with propane and can last for much more time. With a gas of around 10 kg you can run the refrigerator for more than 2 weeks.
Another time you may want to switch to propane is while making longer stops during your travel.
While the RV is running on-road go for DC battery but if you happen to make in-between long time halts then switch to propane. This will make sure your battery isn’t draining out unnecessarily when you have the best option available.
Automatically switching sources : Another feature with the new 2 or 3 way refrigerator is that they can switch between power sources on its own when set to automatic mode. For example they will continue using electricity as long as its supplied and when its not there, it will start using propane.
How does the fridge on propane work
To understand the exact working, you would need to be technical guy or a professional rv repairer or refrigerator technician. Lets see few basic processes that you may or may not need to know as an RVer. But, lets have a look.
It works on the principle of absorption. The refrigerator has chamber and tube that holds ammonia, hydrogen and water. LP gas is used to heat up the ammonia and water which then flows to the evaporator where it gets mixed with the hydrogen.
The mixing of ammonia and hydrogen results in absorbing heat and results in cooling. The principle is based on absorbing the heat inside the refrigerator through the mixture of ammonia and hydrogen. The process is repeated where in ammonia becomes gas again and mixes with water.
Refrigerator use while driving
One question that most rvers have is whether they can keep the refrigerator On while driving. And if yes, can they keep it running using propane. Propane as we already saw, is better in term of efficiency and you wouldn’t be spending much of it to run even whole day.
But, running the fridge using propane can be a risky affair. And thus, its not a good idea to go for it.
The obvious risk in running it is of fire. An accident or collision of the RV may lead to propane splashes and a slight ignition can lead to fire and explosion.
Do you really want to take such a risk? Also, while you are at gas station its not allowed to be on propane. In fact, its a law in some of the states that you cant have propane running.
You could check on fridge manual if they have any directions given on its usage during travel. Normally, we don’t find such mentions but its logically for us to take this decision.
Would you be okay to keep it running with the kind of risk it brings with it? If no, then better keep the refrigerator off or if you have DC power then use it.
For travels less than around 8 hours you should be fine without running the refrigerator. There are many ways to keep the food cool, and also RV refrigerator are designed to keep the food good even when they are not ON.
Leveled surface for RV refrigerators is ideal
Another reason to keep the refrigerator OFF while moving on road is because the refrigerator work best only when they are leveled. And, with RV going through turns, curves and slopes, the surface is not going to remain leveled. Thus, the refrigerator may start to malfunction with continuous such usage.
RV refrigerators are designed to handle such usage but if you put the refrigerator under such conditions more often then its life may get shortened. You can read more on RV refrigerator life here.
With absorption type of functioning, the fridge will need extra efforts to keep food cooler when it goes on road and when the surface isn’t leveled. And, also the risk of malfunctioning over a period of time.
Keeping the refrigerator cold while driving
So, if you are not going to keep the fridge ON while going down the road then how the food will remain cool? Well, there are multiple things that can be done to keep the refrigerators cold even when its ON.
- Start the refrigerator at-least 24 hours before your travel. This allows it cool down better. Also, with absorption mechanism of functioning need that much time to start the cooling. Once the fridge is cold enough, it can keep the food cooler even when it remain off during your travel. A travel for around 6-8 hours shouldn’t be a problem
- Do not open the door often while in travel. Opening the door again and again will affect the cooling. Thus, make sure you open it only when needed.
- Pack the refrigerator properly. Don’t over-pack nor keep it more empty. Having frozen foods can also help keep it cooler. Make use of the freezer for foods that can remain frozen.
- You can make use of ice bag as well. This can help in keeping the temperature down for longer times.
- Don’t forget to start the refrigerator when you take break in between. Specially, if the halt time is longer, make sure to turn on the propane source.
You can visit my previous post to check on details on keeping the refrigerator cold while traveling.
Summarizing the advantages of propane RV refrigerator
So, should you have a refrigerator that runs on propane in you RV or motorhome? Well, its only logical to have this source if you boondock often. Having electricity hookup is great but you may not have it every-time.
Also, generator in your RV could be limited for use and also higher in cost. Having a propane powered refrigerator gives you freedom of refrigerator usage.
With automatic switching of energy source from AC power to propane also makes sure your refrigerator continues to work even when you forget about changing to propane.
As we already saw, a gas of bottle can be enough to run for entire week. Thus, saving you on the energy consumption. You can boondock more often when you have propane based refrigerator and be worry free.
Rving after winter season : Starting a propane based RV refrigerator after a gap of time can be a problem. consider after a gap of almost 3 months of off season during winter you take the RV out. The propane running RV fridge will take some time to get ignited.
The pipe that brings in the LP gas to fridge will take time, it would take few seconds till the time it starts to work. The best way here would be to turn on the burner on the gas stove rather than fridge directly. Or if its 2 way or 3 way refrigerator then first use the electricity rather than propane.
Once, the propane is used by the gas burner stove, then you can switch the propane for the fridge as well. Else if you don’t have electronic igniter then it will take multiple attempts to light the flame.