A very different all-electric refrigerator


By Greg Illes
The vast majority of RVs are equipped with the familiar dc/propane fridge, also sometimes called a “recombinant gas” fridge. It’s an archaic design, sensitive to poor leveling, occasionally prone to catching fire, and amazingly poor at holding inside temperature constant. It’s also so inefficient that it can take almost a full day to cool down after being shut off for a while, or being loaded up with warmish groceries.

So why are these pitiful appliances so ubiquitous and still sold in droves by the likes of Norcold and Dometic? Well, they kinda work and they’re kinda cheap. They use very little electrical power and darn little propane. And people put up with them.

Not me though. I was so disgusted with my propane fridge performance that I put a brand-new after-market cooling unit in it a few years ago. I saw absolutely no improvement (although the heavier gauge metal is probably less likely to crack and leak or cause a fire), causing me to get even more disgusted.

So I started researching all-electric fridges, such as those installed in high-end “park” model RVs. These are essentially relocated residential fridges, and when I looked up their power consumption I about had an aneurysm. Are you ready for this? A typical 120V fridge will chew up nearly 200 watts of power when running, and burn through almost 2000 watt-hours in a day.

For a plugged-in RV, this is no big deal. But for us 12V-only boondocking types, that means that the fridge would drain a 300-amp-hour battery pack every day. Even worse with the losses from having to provide that 120V through an inverter.

Even with my 400W solar array and 360AH (usable) lithium battery pack, it was an impossible scenario. I’d have to be running a generator for hours every day, just because of that power-hog fridge. Some folks may not mind living on top of a running engine, but it’s not for me. I needed a way to have my solar/battery combination and my fridge be compatible.

For a while, I abandoned the search, but I later learned about a technology that’s common in the marine/boating world, but not that familiar with RVers: the 12V Danfoss compressor.

Danfoss is a Danish company that began in 1933. You can look them up and get a lot more info, but suffice it to say that they seem to own the market in 12V refrigerator compressors. Virtually every maker out there – Vitrifrigo, Novakool, others – use the Danfoss subsystem. The motivation is simple: reliability, efficiency, low power consumption.

As I looked deeper into these products, more advantages came to light. The Novakool unit that I ended up purchasing took up the exact same space as my old Norcold. But, where the Norcold provided six cubic feet of capacity, the Novakool had nine cubic feet. The reason is that the 12V compressor and cooling coils take up far less space than the bulky chemical engine of the propane fridge. In addition, all the hardware is lighter, and I even ended up shaving more than 20 pounds off my slightly-chubby motorhome.

When I told my wife we’d be upgrading the refrigerator, she pushed back. It’s working fine, she said; we don’t need to spend the money, she said. I told her it would have 50% more space. When will it get here, she said. Project approved.

The first time I switched it on, instead of 8-12 hours of cool-down time, the whole fridge and freezer were at temperature in 45 minutes. It was impressive.

The most important thing – the power draw? Specifications say the compressor draws 5.3A on the 12V line when running. I measured it at … 5.3A. So then I let the fridge sit for a day, and measured how much power it drew. The weather and coach interior were around 75-80 F, a pretty good mid-range test. Fridge set to 40 F, freezer to 0 F. Total power draw for about 24 hours was just under 20 amp-hours. In other words, the compressor ran for only about one hour out of every six. Even if warm weather causes that to double, I’m still good with it.

I should note that I did take some extra time and added foam insulation anywhere I could during the installation. These fridges don’t require any external venting like a propane fridge does, so I sealed up those vents and insulated them as well.

Not everyone will benefit from this upgrade. It’s expensive ($1200 and up), and you really need a good solar/battery system even with its modest power draw. But for veteran boondockers, it can be a real – uh – boon.

Bottom line? So far, so good. I don’t have a lot of time on it yet, so I won’t give it a reliability score for a year or two. But all the potential pluses are real, and I’m – what’s the phrase? – a happy camper.

Greg Illes is a retired systems engineer who loves thinking up RV upgrades and modifications. When he’s not working on his motorhome, he’s traveling in it. You can follow his excellent blog at www.divver-city.com/blog

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Mark O Weiner
10 days ago

I upgraded, it’s totally worth it…. My old refrigerator was so inconsistent I had no other choice than to carry an ice chest….

When the old refrigerator came out, I discovered that I dodged a huge bullet… my electrical wires were “burning”….. could have started a fire which would have destroyed my rig…….

Now, I have peace of mind and consistent cooling….

Jeff M
29 days ago

I am curious to know- do you need a solar power system to run the fridge?

David A
2 months ago

Thank you so much for this article. Information on 12V DC compressor-based refrigerators is scarcer than you might think. I’ve seen some no-name ones for half this price, but when you’re subjecting it to thousands of hours of rough and bumpy roads, I’d feel better with a Danfoss compressor. I had stumbled onto Unique and Vitrifrigo on my own, will look into Novakool as well thanks to you.

I agree with 19KC69 that a small residential 120VAC refrigerator could be a good option for those on a budget. For example, this Avanti RA7316 7.4 cu ft is $340 and uses, per Energy Guide, 251 kWh/yr, or 680Wh/d. Sure, it’s a lot more than 250 Wh, but still 74% less than my 5.3 cu ft Norcold (which would use 2600 Wh/d (if George Sears is right re: 50% cycle time) AND should cool WAY better. 2600Wh/d is more than my whole battery capacity of 1766 Wh.

Bee O'Neil
6 months ago

Thanks for the timely rerun of this refrigerator alternative. It will save me the time researching for the Dan Foss equipped refrigerators.

We are on our third ‘absorption’ cooled fridge in 15 years in our MH. The latest one was 9 months old when it developed into a partial blocker. Yes, it is covered by warranty. The inconvenience of replacement isn’t covered by warranty, i.e., living out of an ice chest for two+ weeks.

The next replacement fridge will be Dan Foss equipped!

6 months ago

I guess we’ve been lucky, had a couple dozen RV’s since 1968, and not one of the fridges in any of them gave us a minutes problem. The first was in a 1965 TeePee 16 ft TT. That fridge kept the ice cream so hard you couldn’t scoop it.
I think a good deal of the troubles folks are having with their rigs in general is the way they treat them.
Very few RV’s (ever) were designed to get you miles into the back country on roads made for a 52 Jeep Flatfender. You’re shaking the dam thing to pieces and the appliances are the first thing to go south on ya.
I’ve observed a lot of people abusing their vehicles – vehicles of every kind!
I spent a long career fixing the troubles and talking to the owners – not one of whom in my recall would ever admit he or she played a role in the troubles they were experiencing.

Lee Shaffer III
1 year ago

The installation was easy – an ideal opportunity to insulate (sad no see so very little oem insulation).
Two and half year review. The NovaKool RFU9000 AC/DC keeps food very well using a remote temperature gauge to adjust temperature but we miss the old Dometic’s auto-defrost feature.
Wish NovaKool would build a larger model including auto-defrost.
imho, Lee

1 year ago

I am curious as to what model Norcold did you replace and with which model of the Novakool did you use. We have a 4 door Norcold 1210

Ron Painter
1 year ago

I was looking at new travel trailers in Burlington WI yesterday and was amazed to see that just about every Gulfstream rig had the 12vdc fridge. About time!!
On the other hand, I do have to (carefully) boast of my existing Dometic Fridge / Freezer that continues to work just fine. What is so amazing is that it is in a 1991 Class C Fleetwood Tioga! Just darn lucky I know!

I had to replace the ignitor board about 4 years ago with a Dinosaur Electronics board for $85. How long can mine last?? If I end up with the propane fridge failure I am so happy to see the 12Volt unit that is now standard in Gulfstream and I presume others too.

jane shure
1 year ago

The best thing you can do with a gas refrigerator is to take it out to the gun range and shoot it full of holes. I switched over to an electric years ago and I have been very happy. I did install 2000 watts of solar and I did the work myself for a big savings to myself. The only problem is if there is several days of very dark skies and tall trees. I next plan to go to lithium batteries and hopefully solve that problem.. If you are where there is plenty of sun shine you will not need as much solar as I have, I have boon dock at the slabs and BLM land for weeks at a time, it sure is nice to be able to reach in and grab a cold can of coke or beer when you want one.

Tommy Molnar
1 year ago

19KC69 says “However, most people will fall over backwards when they find out what a good solar system will cost”. Ya got THAT right pal . . .! But, if you can afford it, you’ll never again be without it.

David Crymes
1 year ago

I would love to know if he has hard ice cream with this new refrigerator. I have been searching for a late model diesel pusher and hoping for a residential refer and feed up with our side by side propane that give me ice cream that won’t harden. Our domestic is located in a slide and even with additional fans, we can’t get hard ice cream. We turn the settings up to accomplish the feat then all the produce in the refer freezes. I had no idea that residential refers used that much electricity.

Robin Kelly
1 year ago
Reply to  David Crymes

DAMN STRAIGHT! Our 2018 PUMA travel trailer came with an Evercool with 11.5 cu ft! Everything he said in article is true

1 year ago

Does anyone know of a DC refrigerator/freezer that is 12 cu ft or larger?
Looking to replace my No-Cold 1200!

1 year ago

Imagine what they could do in the space of a Norcold 1200…

Bill Jeffrey
1 year ago

Fifteen years ago, I bought a 43-quart chest refrig-freezer from Engel, one of the first with a Danfoss compressor. It has been a great unit – not a single problem in all those years. For the first five years, we used it in our trailer, while making trips of three or four weeks at a time. About 10 years ago, we began using it as a full-time freezer in our home. In other words, it has run 24×7 for over ten years without a hiccup. Talk about reliability!
The unit will operate from 120VAC or 12VDC, and comes with power cords for each. It defaults to 120VAC if available, and automatically switches to 12VDC if needed. Cooling time is very fast, and it goes to zero on the hottest days. Love it!

1 year ago

You say this needs a solar array. But what about using it with a converter? Wouldn’t that let it work on shore power?

1 year ago
Reply to  Betty

When your shore power is plugged in, the battery is automatically charged and therefore also automatically provides the 12V for refrigerator – problem solved.

1 year ago


How much was yours?

1 year ago

My father-in-law used these for years in 3 of his Class B motorhomes and one class C over a period of 30 years No problems, except for sending it back for a compressor change maybe twice. He special ordered his RVs and specified the 12 volt electric refrigerators, with little or no upcharge. The one Class B he bought off the lot that had a propane refrigerator was a constant problem. We’ve had 6 Class Bs and three Class As most with propane refrigerators, with not a lot of problems but I think we have had to replace two and the performance is sometimes marginal.

1 year ago

We’re full time boondockers and use a residential fridge, but we paid $$$ for our solar system. I am intrigued by the Danfoss compressor. Thank you for a great resource and an article with perfect explanations.

1 year ago

Tell us the size of refer you installed, if 20cf, 20 ah is impressive, if 3cf not so good!
A 10.7 cf residential will run 1/2 hour every hour and use about 80 ah per day. Surprised Novacool runs only 1 hour out of 6, that is efficient.
A 10 cf Nocold will run about $2300 installed, so Novacold at $1200 is cheap!

1 year ago
Reply to  Harry

“But, where the Norcold provided six cubic feet of capacity, the Novakool had nine cubic feet.”

George B. Sears
1 year ago

The 6 cubic foot Dometic I had in a TT had a 2000 BTU burner. I think that is 600 watts, and that’s about what the electric heater drew. The cycle was at least 50%, so 600 watts x 12 hours a day. Yikes. This Dometic drew about .7 amps all the time and 1.3 when the fan kicked in. Overall, about 30 amp hours a day. This is not for any cooling. This is for a board and a gasket heater. I don’t have the TT anymore. I have a van fridge with a Danfoss.

We live in a very wasteful country. I have a mobile home, smallish, in a climate with 10 degree winter lows. I get heat from the ground, a ground source heat pump. It is incredibly efficient. It’s paid for itself. No one cares.