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Is a 12-volt refrigerator right for you?

“Boondocking with Confidence” is boldly proclaimed by an advertisement in a popular RV trade magazine for a 12-volt compressor refrigerator, followed by the tagline, “Keep more food and drinks colder for longer, even off grid.” The ad fails to mention what it is comparing its product against when it states “colder for longer”.

Sponsored content on the adjoining page goes on to say, “More and more RV manufacturers are offering 12V reefers to consumers as both an optional upgrade or as standard equipment”. That is followed by: “According to *** (manufacture that I am not naming), every year it’s estimated that 20,000 RVs catch fire and one of the leading causes is gas-powered refrigerators.”

It goes on to say: “Absorption models primarily run on gas, but many still rely on batteries for added power. Add solar charging capacity to the boondocking mix and campers can stop worrying about food spoiling because of a dying gas supplied refrigerator.” It closes with: “The new Premier Series is targeted to the remote camping boondocking customer to keep cool well over 24 hours when paired with a single battery and no external charging. When combined with generator or solar solutions, *** (the manufacturer) states its 12V fridges can run indefinitely.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe a 12-volt compressor refrigerator has a place in the RV industry. But I think this ad and sponsored content require a bit of scrutinizing, especially when it comes to boondocking (aka dry camping).

While I don’t know if the same ad and sponsored content is being presented to retail buyers, my concern is that someone just looking to enter the RV lifestyle, with plans to dry camp for extended periods, might buy into the “Boondocking with Confidence” slogan, only find a 12-volt compressor refrigerator was not the right choice for them.

Let’s take a deeper look at the statements above.

“More and more RV manufacturers are offering 12V reefers to consumers as both an optional upgrade or as standard equipment.” A quick internet search reveals a 12-volt compressor refrigerator is considerably less expensive than the same size gas RV refrigerator. This begs the question, is it really an upgrade or something the RV manufacturer installs to save money. Or was it the only refrigerator available due to the supply chain issue?

12-volt compressor refrigerator comparison
Is a 12-volt compressor refrigerator really an upgrade if it cost less? Amazon photos

“It’s estimated that 20,000 RVs catch fire and one of the leading causes is gas-powered refrigerators.” A quick online search for facts about RV fire statistics revealed the following: “One of the most comprehensive studies about RV fire was conducted by the U.S. Fire Administration. Their study involved looking at RV fires between the years of 2016 and 2018. During these two years, there were around 3,700 RV fires in the United States. The study put out by the USFA tells us about overall statistics relating to RV fires.”

Further research on RV fire causes shows that of the thousands of RV fires each year, RV refrigerators are the number two cause of fires. The study also lists the primary causes of RV refrigerator fires which are wiring problems, chewing critters, lack of maintenance, rodent and insect nests and off-level operation, which are all preventable. Note: Fires started by the propane system/leaks weren’t on the list of causes.

“Absorption models primarily run on gas, but many still rely on batteries for added power.” The added power is the minuscule amount of 12 volts required to operate the circuit board and gas valve. It is insignificant compared to what a 12-volt compressor refrigerator will draw. Note: Some absorption refrigerators have a small electric heating element designed to prevent condensation which can easily be disabled to save power while boondocking. Learn more here.

“Campers can stop worrying about food spoiling because of a dying gas supplied refrigerator.” I am not sure if the statement refers to running out of propane or the refrigerator itself dying? A gas-powered absorption refrigerator can run weeks on a single cylinder of propane, so running out of propane is much less of a concern than running out of 12-volt battery power. As far as the gas refrigerator dying, unlike a 12-volt compressor refrigerator, an absorption refrigerator has no moving parts and can run indefinitely if properly maintained and operated level, as recommended by the manufacturer.

“The new Premier Series is targeted to the remote camping boondocking customer to keep cool well over 24 hours when paired with a single battery and no external charging.” The phrase “when paired (aka: dedicated) with a single battery” should be of concern for anyone that plans to dry camp for extended periods of time. Planning on camping for a week? Just bring seven batteries with you! Oh, and that doesn’t include the battery power needed for lights, the water pump, RV furnace, etc.

Here is RVtravel.com’s Tony Barthel’s experience with a 12-volt compressor refrigerator: “My current personal experience is limited to the GE 12-volt fridge. They are much more power-hungry than I had anticipated, particularly in hot weather. On a very warm day, I can easily blow through all the reserves equivalent of a single 100 amp-hour lithium battery with this fridge. On cooler days, the fridge consumes less power. But this is more than I had assumed the fridge would take.”

“When combined with generator or solar solutions, *** (the manufacturer) states its 12V fridges can run indefinitely.” Well, just about anything can run indefinitely, even a 120 VAC electric heater, if you have enough electricity available! Enough power is the number one reason most RVers don’t boondock!

Which is right for you?

Is a 12-volt compressor RV refrigerator right for you? Only you can decide. I encourage you to employ due diligence when making your decision. Don’t immediately buy into advertising hype or what a salesperson tells you.

Below you will find some comments gleaned from social media to get an idea on the experiences of others.

Have a 12-volt compressor RV refrigerator in your RV? Please share your experiences in the comment section.

##RVT1065

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Tom Sikora
1 month ago

I would like to see a power consumption comparison of a 120V residential fridge vs. a 12V compressor fridge of comparable size running from the same battery/inverter set-up. Charge up some lithium batteries (say 400 AH), then power each separately under the same conditions until the batteries run out. Because of the inefficiencies of inverting, I will guess that the 12V fridge will run longer. But how much longer? This would be useful information.

Ed Wilkinson
1 month ago

I just want to add this note…I hear folks advise others to change from the 12v to a propane if they don’t like the performance. A big word of caution to those considering this move: I have had bids from $4,000.00 and up to have this done. So, do I spend $2200. for quality lithium batteries, $350. to upgrade my converter to handle lithium batteries, and maybe add another 190 watt solar panel with my other two existing, and upgrade the solar controller to handle that load, as it is rated at only 500 watt capacity? Another however many dollars? Add the generator and extra suitcase 100 watt panel and controller I have already purchased and you get pretty near the point of just going ahead with the gas fridge retrofit.

This is a disaster if you make the wrong choice. It is NOT a little thing that can easily be corrected. Again…please do not do what I did. Consider how you camp, don’t buy into the hype. It can work for some, but is an expensive mistake if it does not work.

Dobsonion
1 month ago

Thank you Dave for raising this important issue. We had a Sprinter-based class C for a decade and enjoyed lots of boondocking with an absorption fridge. Just 175W solar and 220Ahr Trojan batteries were sufficient.
Then we “upgraded” to a newer Sprinter C with a 12V fridge. Boondocking is no longer possible, even though we have 375W and a 200Ahr AGM!! The fridge draws 6A when running, which is 50-80% of the time. Do the math, this thing is drawing 100Ahr on warm days. Add fans, radio, clouds, other normal usage and you can see that the solar cannot keep up. Very frustrating!
Other issues you have not discussed. This fridge saves manufacturers on installation because there is no vent. No need to cut holes in the roof or side wall. With no standard venting, our fridge doubles as a heater, pumping out warm air out the front! Grrrrrrrr.
Cannot find a solution that would cost less than $2k.

Neal
1 month ago

Sailors have been using 12v fridge/freezers for a long time. I sailed to Ibiza Spain from Florida then back via the Cape Verde islands. Chest style fridge/freezer held food for 4 people for 7 weeks. Used 2 solar panels to run it and onboard electronics and lights. We had meat for lunch and dinner every day. If you want serious energy independence check out how sailors make it work.

Bruce Williams
1 month ago

My “nevercold” gas failed. Wife was always worried about the gas potential for fire. We converted to the JC Refrigeration 12-volt unit using our factory “box”. We have nothing but praise for it. I have 630 watts of solar on 4 lead acid batteries. We have a cold fridge, Ice cubes, and are very pleased. One day I would like to have lithium batteries, but until then the current setup is doing just fine.

Al Handy
1 month ago

We recently purchased and installed a 12 Volt Fridge for our Catalina 303RPK, 10 CF which is much larger than the OEM. The only reason we purchased the unit, was to run it as we traveled, to keep our food stuffs cool, or frozen. I really dislike having the gas on to run anything while pulling, it may be only me and personal concern and decision. Our first time out, with the new unit, a door shelf cracked. I later found out from the manufacturer that one should not load the fridge, and travel with it full. Of course, being male, I did not read that part on the owner’s manual! Looking at the glass shelves and the plastic ones on the doors I can see why they don’t want you traveling with the unit full. Weight concerns have made these internal items very thin. Kinda defeats our purpose. Live and learn, I will still travel with it on and full of food. 🙂

It seems that it will run approx. 8-10 hours on our battery, after the second trip I added a second battery as insurance.

Ed Wilkinson
1 month ago

My wife and I in April 2022 purchased a new bumper pull trailer equipped with a G.E.12v dc compressor fridge. Likely the same type mentioned in the article. We are not inexperienced; yet I reluctantly bought into the hype surrounding these fridges, as there was not then an unbiased report I could find anywhere. Well, we learned a thing or two since then.

We have 380w of factory rooftop solar. We purchased a100w portable solar panel/controller, two 6v 225a golf cart battery bank, a 2500w quiet generator. We must run that generator frequently. We mountain camp, dry,exclusively. Many mountain peaks and heavy forested areas block the sunniest of spots we can find. We are novices to solar use and 12v fridges. We’re always very conservative with power usage.

This was to be my last trailer purchase. But it’s not usable for our purposes.

Heed Dave Helgeson’s advice! Consider!

PLEASE, Don’t do what I did

Bill J
1 month ago

Dave, great article on the appearance of 12v compressor refrigerators in the RV manufacturers option list. You not only reminded us to look at advertising claims with a skeptical mind, but gave a great review of advantages and disadvantages of the new 12v refrigerators now available for RV use. I converted to a 12v refer two years ago and love it. I researched the product at a time when the US RV manufacturers were first getting into this. I found that as with most products, there is a vast difference in quality. Tony was seeing an 8amp draw on his GE fridge. My Vitrafrigo with a Danfoss compressor draws 5.38amps. I see about 20 amp/hour a day drain greater than when I ran my absorption unit. I could not find any information on where GE gets their compressors, but I know China has been producing cheap 12v compressors for some time with much poorer quality. Poor compressor efficiency and poor insulation in construction can greatly effect user experience with these refrigerators.

Alain Marchildon
1 month ago

I have a small class B RV and it is equipped with a 12 volts refrigerator (3 cu.ft.). We have been using this RV since 2013 and we are very satisfied with the 12 V fridge. Our RV has one solar panel and an AGM battery so there is never a concern for running out of battery power. The RV has no propane which I like very much; never having to check the propane level, finding a place to refill, checking for limitations in ferries, tunnels, etc. I rely on a Webasto heater and an alcohol marine stove for cooking. The water heater is heated by the engine coolant or 120 volts for longer stays in campingrounds.

Sheryl Hendrix
1 month ago

We bought a used 2017 Newmar Baystar in 2020 the residential refrigerator went out at the end of that year. We bought a GE 12 V and have absolutely loved it! I can put a soda and my milk to the back and have it a little icy I love it! Ice cream stays hard as a brick. The absolute only downside I have found to this fridge is it has to be defrosted about once every six months, but that’s when I do a deep clean anyway. Can’t speak on the power usage if we’re not plugged into 50 amp power we have a lot of solar panels and a lot of batteries so we don’t have to question the power.

Tsippi
1 month ago

Thank you for this excellent article. I help run a forum for owners and wannabes of a brand of small Class Cs. A lot of wannabes are convinced they want DC fridges. Those of us with more experience point out that there are pluses and minuses with either absorption or condenser fridges. From my perspective, the two best reasons to get a condenser fridge are the ability to travel with more food within the same refrigerator footprint (or the same amount of food in a shorter fridge) and the hope that fresh vegetables will last longer. However, what one gives up in terms of not having to worry about their batteries is no small matter. I will say that the people who are happiest with their DC fridges seem to be folks who have purchased from the top DC fridge brand and who opt for smaller, counter height models that only consume about 2.4 amps per hour when running.

Pat
1 month ago

I am a full-timer with 500 watts solar and 510 amps lithium. I travel all over the country. Last year I spent a rainy summer in New England with a 12 volt refrigerator and no generator. I kept having to leave my dry camping spots and check in at private campgrounds in order to change up. This year I am back to a propane refrigerator in my new RV.

Is the 12-volt a better refrigerator? Yes, I think it is IF you regularly have power, are willing to listen to a generator daily, or boondock in the sunny southwest with enough solar. It gets groceries cooled down fast, and keeps consistent temperatures. Ice cream stays hard. Leveling is not as critical, which can be a boon when arriving at a site in the pouring rain.

For my purposes at this time, propane is a better option. When I quit traveling and boondocking, and start staying in long term sites with utilities, I will go back to 12-volt.

Larry Lee
1 month ago

For reference, we have a Whirlpool residential fridge in our Thor 40′ Tuscany xte DP. It is wonderful at keeping all the contents uniformly cold and making ice cubes.
Now for energy numbers: Using a Kill-A-Watt device over several weeks, it turns out this large fridge uses 120 amp-hours per 24 hours. To accomodate that I installed 810 AH of lithium batteries from DragonFly and will soon have 700 watts of solar panels on the roof operating through our 45 Amp MPPT Morningstar charge controller.
Our two previous RV’s had absorption refers. The first one (1972) never cooled very well, developed a leak, was replaced with a remanufactured one which functioned even more poorly, and was then replaced by a small college dorm size 120 volt compressor type which did fine. Our 2nd RV also had an LP powered fridge which, with yearly maintainence and an inside fan, did OK for 12 years, but it never kept the ice cream hard. And we had to regularly adjust the temp knob depending on the outside temp.

Snoopy
1 month ago
Reply to  Larry Lee

Wow your up grade to 810 Am of lithium batteries & the supporting charging systems & now 700 watts of solar must have cost over $2000.00! Also sounds like you like frozen ice cream & really cold beer. Hey I like the way you think!
Snoopy

Steve H
1 month ago

We have a 12v fridge in a Sprinter motorhome, with 300w of solar on the roof, a 100w portable panel, 200AH of lithium batteries, and a 2000w inverter. We also have an induction cooktop and a convection microwave oven.

First, we camped in dense shade and ran the fridge, induction, and oven, plus using the lights, vent fan, water pump, etc., in normal camping mode. The second mornig, we woke up to dead batteries and had to run the generator.

Second, our RV was parked next to our house, with full sun for about 8 hours and partial shade about 4 hours each day. We turned on the fridge on Tuesday and loaded a few “test items” In the fridge and freezer on Wednesday–no generator or power cord plugged into the house. All the items were still frozen or cold on Thursday, so I went to the grocery store and loaded the fridge on sunny Friday. The fridge worked perfectly over a cloudy weekend, then we left for a month on Monday. Caveat: no cooking or water pump use during that experiment!

Leonard Rempel
1 month ago

We are one of the fridge fire statistics. Luckily I put out the fire without it causing too much damage, however I had the fridge converted to a 12 Volt unit by a company in Shipshewana, In. specializing in such conversions.
WOW, it keeps the freezer much colder (ice cream cold) and is light years safer than a “No-cold” absorption fridge.
We still dry-camp if we want as we have 4 x 6 volt batteries along with a DC-DC charger. No power issues, EVER.
This may not be for everyone, but it is for us.

Tony
1 month ago

Our new motorhome was ONLY available with a 120 volt AC refrigerator, and even with the four giant deep cycle batteries, one day without shore power depletes the. I would have much rather had the LP gas absorption refrigerator in our old RV that would go weeks on a tank of propane. Unfortunately, retrofitting our new RV with a LP model will cost thousands for vents and other modifications, as it is located in a slide out.

I’ve considered swapping our 120 AC fridge for a 12 volt DC compressor model but from Tony Barthel’s recent article and others, I’m not sure it would be a whole lot netter than what we have. In the meantime we are looking into a big solar array and four lithium batteries. By the way, Winnebago did not prep this quarter million dollar RV for solar.

Rod
1 month ago
Reply to  Tony

The advantages of a 12v refrigerator over gas are astronomical. More space in a smaller box, no gas, no vents, no leveling. With the technology of lithium batteries, anyone that buys an rv today will include this tech in their rv. Get rid of the old type batteries. This is just my opinion.

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