Saturday, December 9, 2023


Fact or Fiction? New RV refrigerators are not designed to operate on propane above 5,500 ft. altitude (ANSWER)

When I first read on a social media post that newer absorption refrigerators must be run on electric in high altitudes above 5,500 feet, I believed it to be fiction. After all, I have dry camped high in the mountains for years and never had any problems. Nor had I ever heard of it when I worked in an RV dealership.

Author camped in Wyoming at 9,500 ft.

However, after researching it, I discovered it to be true.

Both Dometic and Norcold owner’s manuals outline the potential of experiencing reduced cooling performance and burner outages when operating on propane gas at altitudes over 5,500 feet.

Dometic owner’s manuals state: “Always operate the refrigerator on electric power at altitudes higher than 5,500 feet.”

Norcold owner’s manuals states: “Norcold recommends that you operate the refrigerator on AC when at altitudes higher than 5,500 feet above sea level.”

Norcold                      Owner’s Manuals                Dometic

An online search will confirm that many RV owners are experiencing problems operating these name-brand absorption refrigerators on gas above 5,500 feet.

Following are just a few examples

“My brand-new Norcold fridge (24.1 Vegas 2017) won’t stay lit at altitude on LP.” Per this post.

“Now Denver is at 5,280 feet and we camp in Colorado at National Forest campgrounds that usually do not have hook ups are all above 5,280 ft. The Dometic fridge hardly works on propane it tries to ignite and fails to ignite 99% of the time, we have been to five dealers and spent nearly $800 of our own money and it still doesn’t work. Now Dometic is telling us that their new fridges will not work above 5,000 feet. Why are dealers in Denver selling a TT with a fridge that only works at sea level?” Per this post.

“We took our trailer out for the first time at 6,400 ft. elevation and the refrigerator stopped working on LP gas. It would not re-light and we had to move all the food to a cooler.” Per this post.

“We just spent a week camping without electrical hookup in Colorado at 9,000 ft. and our Dometic fridge couldn’t keep the propane flame lit.” Per this post.

“I am out elk hunting in Colorado at a 9,000-foot elevation. Dometic fridge (about three years old) is trying to run on propane but is struggling, particularly at night when temps are near freezing. It tries to light multiple times—click poof, click poof, etc. About half the time it checks out. When it does run the flame sound is loud and irregular. I recently replaced my regulator and the new one probably needs adjusting to 11 lbs. as the fridge ran barely with my old regulator. Next week, I will borrow a gauge from the propane company and adjust it. The flue and burner were recently serviced. Another rig in the same campground with a newer Dometic fridge is worse off than I am as their fridge doesn’t run at all. My question is, has Dometic come up with a fix for this? Their product is obviously defective” Per this post

What’s causing the problem?

Air becomes less dense the higher you travel. With less air (oxygen) to support combustion fuel, burning appliances operate less efficiently, if at all. You have likely experienced this phenomenon via less engine power when ascending a high mountain pass in your RV. The odd part is this only seems to be impacting newer RV refrigerators. Seasoned RVers don’t recall this type of problem with older RVs they have owned.

Is there a fix?

There is no shortage of discussions regarding this subject on online forums.

Many posts contain information where Norcold informed the customer to narrow the gap on the ignitor. Others say to adjust the pressure of the propane regulator. Others say to adjust the air/propane ratio, some say clean the burner, while others claim there is a different-sized orifice that can be installed. One person commented that they solved the problem by removing the exterior access door, which allowed more air for the combustion process. As far as I can tell, there is no official “fix” offered by Norcold or Dometic other than to operate the refrigerator on electric.

Disclaimer: Neither the author nor endorses making any of the changes listed above. Stay safe and leave any adjustments to a trained expert.

Test your knowledge some more with these previous Fact or Fiction questions:

Now, some questions for you:

  • Have you experienced problems with your RV absorption refrigerator at high altitudes?
  • Is there a reoccurring half-truth you keep seeing online that you would like to see addressed?
  • Were you taught something by other RVers that turned out to be bad advice?
  • Have you recently read something that left you wondering, is that true?
  • Do you know something to be true, but none of your RVing friends believe you?

Please share your comments using the comment box below and we will do our best to provide the facts in a future Fact or Fiction entry. Thanks!

Dave will be speaking at the 2023 America’s Largest RV Show in Hershey, PA, September 13th – 17th. He would love to meet readers that will be attending. Feel free to introduce yourself after one of his seminars.


Dave Helgeson
Dave Helgeson
Dave Helgeson has been around travel trailers his entire life. His grandparents and father owned an RV dealership long before the term “RV” had been coined. He has served in every position of an RV dealership with the exception of bookkeeping. Dave served as President of a local chapter of the RVDA (Recreational Vehicle Dealers Association), was on the board of advisors for the RV Technician Program of a local technical college and was a board member of the Manufactured Home and RV Association. He and his wife Cheri operated their own RV dealership for many years and for the past 29 years have managed RV shows. Dave presents seminars at RV shows across the country and was referred to as "The foremost expert on boondocking" by the late Gary Bunzer, "The RV Doctor". Dave and his wife are currently on their fifth travel trailer with Dave doing all the service, repair and modifications on his own unit.



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Jim (@guest_241606)
5 months ago

We live in Denver and almost all of our camping is at higher altitudes.
Our camper has a 12v compressor refrigerator and it works great.
Our old camper had evaporation fridge but I never had any problems with it at 8000 ft.
Our furnace and hot water heater seem to work fine on propane at altitude

David Devoucoux (@guest_241586)
5 months ago

I routinely camp for a week at 8k feet attitude each Fall. My 10 year old rv fridge runs fine….
Maybe my gas orifice isn’t adjusted properly…grins.
But it also works fine anywhere in Arizona.
Go figure.
P.S. I do understand the science of gas burners at high altitudes.

Kyle Petree (@guest_241573)
5 months ago

My circa 2018 Norcold has this warning in the manual, however I just returned from boondocking at 8500′ for 5 days with no issues. This is common for us, but I don’t know the “top” of its abilities. Considering myself lucky…..

David Hagen (@guest_241343)
5 months ago

I used to live in Denver and spent many a night at altitudes of up to 9000 without any problems.

Spike (@guest_241253)
5 months ago

I don’t know about “newer” absorption fridges…perhaps they have cheapened them like everything else they make now.

It’s been a while since we have had this type, but I remember the owner’s manual referencing how to configure something in the fridge for propane use at altitudes, IIRC, above 6000 ft. I also recall 9000 as the upper limit for use even with the alteration.

But then again, I forget what I went to the kitchen for in 20 steps, so perhaps the above is just not accurate, but my parents, after retirement, would spend months high into the Bighorn Mtns and never had issues.

Edward Wilkinson (@guest_241327)
5 months ago
Reply to  Spike

Spike…I remember something of the same advice. But that was many years ago. The 9000 ft mark is one of the things I think I am sure I remember. But I think I am sure is about as close as I ever come to remembering anything anymore…what am I doing here in the kitchen now, anyway???

JohnM (@guest_241240)
5 months ago

This is also true for home gas appliances as well as portable (think Honda) inverter/ generators. I live at 7500ft and our gas oven was never right. I had to get our Honda Inverter re-jetted to work right.

Ed Wullschleger (@guest_241128)
5 months ago

For as long as I can remember, generators and motorcycles have always used different size jets to account for differences in the gas/air mixture at altitude. Sounds to me like the newer gas absorption refrigerators are just using different orifices than they used to use. I don’t have this problem with my 2014 Coleman LT trailer. It’s gas absorption refrigerator has always worked for me at high altitudes here in Colorado.

Last edited 5 months ago by Ed Wullschleger
Lee` (@guest_241083)
5 months ago

Mine operates on 12vdc. Doesn’t use propane or VAC. Its a cheap coach purchased in 2019 and has operated flawlessly full time ever since and obviously altitude does not matter it could probably operate in a vacuum.

Jim Johnson (@guest_241040)
5 months ago

Based on the title, this only affects newer refrigerators? My speculation is nothing has changed. The operational problems of burners at high altitude have always been there (and likewise for cooking, the problem of water boiling at a lower temperature). Automobile carburetors frequently required retuning when changing altitude. Adjusting the air/fuel ratio on LP appliances is the same.

What I suspect is manufacturers had enough complaints or regulators did, that the easiest solution was to add a little ink to the manual, not to mention safer than having a bunch of propane-ignorant people fiddling with their LP appliances.

Edward Wilkinson (@guest_241242)
5 months ago
Reply to  Jim Johnson

Jim, I would agree with you except for the fact that I have, for over 40 years, camped with various travel trailers all over the high mountain camps of the Uinta and Wasatch mountains of Utah. I have never…not once…had a problem with the LP fridges I had in those various trailers. These folks who are complaining are not imagining this problem. It does sound like something is different with the new LP fridges…and it is not being addressed by the companies. Obviously you are correct about the nature of LP gas, but I think there is something different going on here than just that. I ask that Dometic and Norcold comment on this. I repeat…I have never had a problem with many different LP fridges far above 5500 ft except for the cooling efficiency deficit which was not severe enough to stop a 4 day camp out.

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