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Ask Dave: Is it OK to drive with the propane refrigerator on?

Answers to questions about RV Repair and Maintenance from RV expert Dave Solberg, author of the “RV Handbook” and the managing editor of the RV Repair Club. This column appears Monday through Saturday in the RV Travel and RV Daily Tips newsletters. (Sign up for an email reminder for each new issue if you do not already receive one.) Today Dave discusses driving with the propane refrigerator on.

Dear Dave,
Half of the RV community says it’s okay to run an absorption fridge while traveling (except through tunnels, and when refueling). The other half of the RV community says no. The manufacturer says you have to be within xx amount of degrees from level, front to back and side to side, to prevent damage.

My question is: While traveling the roadways up and down hills, with an absorption fridge running and the possibility of wind blowing the flame out, what damage can be expected or done to the fridge with it on? —John

Dear John,
There is a big difference between legal and safe when it comes to several aspects of RVing, I have found. In the 1980s and even early ’90s there were about 12 states that outlawed the use of any propane device running while driving down the road. However, since there are now several vehicles that run on alternative fuels, one of them being LP, there are no states that I know of that restrict it. But, yes, there are certain areas such as many tunnels, the Washington Bridge and other areas that restrict passage, as well as when refueling.

It’s best to shut propane off

In my opinion, it is best to shut the propane tank or cylinder off at the valve when driving down the road. I helped develop the RV Safety & Education Foundation’s Safety Program, and one of the topics was propane safety. We researched information obtained from the cylinder and tank manufacturers, valve manufacturers, propane suppliers, and even state and federal law enforcement and emergency responders. The general consensus was to shut the valve off. The reason is not for the damage it could possibly cause the refrigerator, but the potential for an LP leak and fire or explosion!

How an absorption refrigerator works

Let’s look first at your comment about damage that could be expected or done to the fridge. An absorption refrigerator has a liquid vessel that contains ammonia, hydrogen, water, and sodium chromate. A heat source such as a flame in the case of the LP mode or heating element in the 120-volt AC or 12-volt DC mode heats the liquid until it turns into a vapor and travels up the tube to the evaporator coil in the freezer section.

The vapors and liquids do a series of chemical changes and flashes that I won’t bore you with. Then they all need to make it back down to the bottom of the refrigerator, by gravity, through a series of zigzag tubes in the coiling unit to start the process again.

Both Norcold and Dometic state the unit should be level at certain degrees front to back and side to side for the liquid to flow, as there are no pumps to assist. If the unit is out of level, the fluid can pool in one of the curves and will heat up and start to flake and eventually harden, blocking the flow of the liquid before it can get back down to the burner vessel. It will ultimately ruin the cooling unit. This is only while being stationary, as it takes several hours or even days for the liquid to start to flake and cause damage. Typically, driving conditions will move the unit around enough to allow the liquid to go back down.

Why the open flame could be dangerous

The real issue is having an open propane source and the potential for leaks, accidents, and a flame from the refrigerator or other propane-fueled appliance that could ignite that fuel source. The propane lines in most RV’s are ¼” copper and can oftentimes run under cabinets very close to the sidewall of the rig. If an owner gets too close to road signs or construction equipment and “clips” the sidewall, it could rupture the line and create an LP leak inside the rig. Then you have the refrigerator with an open flame in the burner assembly that could ignite the entire coach.

Bumpy roads could cause problems

Hopefully, you will not have an issue with construction, signs, or other obstruction that can cause damage while driving and rupture a line. However, you could have a connection that can cause a leak at an appliance as you are taking a unit down the road at 65-75 mph on some of the best washboard roads in the country.

So how do I keep my refrigerator cool while traveling? We conducted several tests on both Norcold and Dometic units and bringing the unit down to an operating temperature of 36 degrees and shutting it off, they maintained a temperature of approximately 40 degrees after 6 hours.

Note: If you do choose to run the refrigerator on the propane mode while traveling, you must shut off all LP appliances that have an open flame when entering a fueling station.

Read more from Dave here

Dave Solberg worked at Winnebago for 15 years developing the dealer training program, as marketing manager, and conducting shows. As the owner of Passport Media Creations, Dave has developed several RV dealer training programs, the RV Safety Training program for The Recreation Vehicle Safety and Education Foundation, and the accredited RV Driving Safety program being conducted at rallies and shows around the country. Dave is a leading expert in the RV industry and author of the “RV Handbook” as well as the Managing Editor of the RV Repair Club.

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Related:

Video: Why NOT to travel with your propane tank on

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Shannon
27 days ago

We always turn off our frig when traveling. I keep blue ice packs in the freezer and move them to the frig when traveling and it works like a charm.

Hakker
1 month ago

I don’t know how you are “testing” your fridges and keeping temps. This summer we traveled to Kansas with the temps in the low 100s. Due to everyone saying we should turn off the propane while traveling, we started the day with the fridge at 38 degrees and the propane off. When we set up camp that evening (7 hours on the road) the temp in the fridge was 62 degrees – not acceptable and dangerous. And yes the fridge was full of food and drinks. We did this on 2 different days with the same results. I then turned the propane back on and all the following days the temp in the fridge never got above 43 degrees. I will admit the the temp in the camper when we stopped was in excess of 120 degrees. In the future I will take my chances with the propane on as I have for years. I think the fire/explosion danger is less than the danger of eating spoiled food. BTW the freezer started at 8 degrees and went up to 35 degrees – ice cream was a good cold drink.

volnavy007
1 month ago

If refrigerator manufacturers would make LP/115/12 types again, this would be a moot point.

Andrea
1 month ago

We have tried, on multiple occasions, to tow without the fridge on. The 6 cu ft Dometic 110/LP fridge we have will not hold temps in a safe and frozen range under most of our travel conditions, nor our usual 5-9 hour travel day. On an 80-85* day, with the sun on that side of the trailer, it just reached unsafe temps in a hour; I had stopped at a rest area to turn it off since I knew I was going to be getting gas.We do stop well before we reach the pumps and on again when we park afterwards.
Otherwise, this fridge has run great, even up to 9300′.
I’d prefer not to have to run it on the road, but it’s either that or we don’t use the fridge. I now have a medication that needs to stay in a certain temp range, which just adds to needing the fridge.

Impavid
1 month ago

I don’t believe the article takes into account the science of propane and the technology that’s put into camper propane systems.

Thomas D
1 month ago

Going down the road is good for the chemical concoction that makes your refrigerator work. It wont pool. Much better than sitting off level for a short time.
For whom it may concern, I travel with gas and refrigerator on. Have for the last 35+ years.

Rockie Simpler
1 month ago
Reply to  Thomas D

We had our first camper in 1992.
Always left the propane on for the fridge. Sold it in 2016 and bought our new camper ad we still leave the propane on for our fridge. All our friends and family do the same with no problems. The last TT has been on the road from day one and never have turned the propane off on the fridge. Being retired we have lived in our TT for the last 5 years with thousands of miles and pulled on all kinds of roads. Never had any problems.

Crowman
1 month ago

I have traveled with my propane tank on (1) to keep the refer cool. The what if’s are so rare that if you’re that paranoid might as well stay home. The flame that powers the refer is shielded in a metal box protecting it from the wind. If you’re that safety oriented here’s a what if nobody thinks about. A gallon of gasoline vaporized will equal about a stick of dynamite going off. How many gallons are in your tank and getting in a vehicle accident happens way more often.

Gene Bjerke
1 month ago
Reply to  Crowman

We were taught in boating safety classes that a cup of gas, properly vaporized is equal to a stick of dynamite.

Tommy Molnar
1 month ago

This past summer during a trip from Reno to Houston and back to Reno (late July, of all times!), we started using the fridge in ac mode, running off the batteries and our inverter. With temps over 100° every day, all day, the fridge kept a temp of about 42-43°. We even spent a night in Quartzsite where it was 120° when we arrived. This was the first time we spent a night in an RV park there. Anyway, we’re used to just shutting the fridge off when traveling, but in blistering heat conditions like this, I just didn’t think that would work. But, this was a test, to be sure, and it worked.

TIM MCRAE
1 month ago

It you don’t have a 3 way fridge (12 volt) you can use an inverter to run the fridge in 120volt mode. The inverter must be large enough to run the refrigerator on 12 volt battery, but the batteries should be charging while you are driving so you won’t run them down.

If you plan to buy an inverter you want one big enough to run all the things you want it to power. Types, size, and purpose of an inverter is a whole different topic but it is easy to Google!

For the fridge(s) just research or actually test for the wattage your unit draws when it is in 120volt mode and while the heater or compressor is running.

We have a Dometic 2 way fridge & a second, small size, residential style compressor fridge. With both running our 1000 watt inverter works just fine.

Dan and Benet Kruger
1 month ago
Reply to  TIM MCRAE

An inverter is by far a safe route to go if concerns of propane. Fridge works fine going down the road…..

Leslie Schofield
1 month ago

This summer we did a 5,000 plus mile trip in 90 degree plus temps across the Midwest. I froze 4 – 1/2 gallon milk cartons to use in the refrigerator. At the end of the day I would take them out of the frig and put them in the freezer to refreeze for the next days travel. The fridge held to 43-47 degrees. Not perfect but all food was fine. Our motto is shutting of the propane is like wearing a seat belt….you only need it once!

Bob p
1 month ago

Dave opened up another can of worms when he said driving down the road at 65-75mph as RV and commercial truck tires are not rated for 75mph.

Tom M
1 month ago
Reply to  Bob p

And that keeps people from driving that fast ?

Eric
1 month ago
Reply to  Tom M

No, but it should.

Larry Wright
1 month ago
Reply to  Bob p

Commercial truck tires (not recaps) are able to travel at Road speed limits, and no hazardous condition is imminent, there is the. One in 16 million chance a tire might fail.

tom
1 month ago

We place water bottles in the freezer section to freeze and keep the temps down. We never travel with LP valves open.

Jesse Crouse
1 month ago
Reply to  tom

We use the plastic freeze blocks. They seem to last longer.

Ray
1 month ago
Reply to  Jesse Crouse

We do too. Smaller, we can tuck them anywhere in the frig we see fit and they do last longer.