By Russ and Tiña De Maris
Scan a few RV discussion boards and you’ll surely find some who are fed up with their RV refrigerator. When the thing stops cooling, the typical RV service center approach is to tell you the fridge is dead, and offer to sell you a brand-new one. Looking at the price of a brand-new RV fridge is enough to make anyone take up drinking.
Some have decided to opt out of the whole gas/electric RV refrigerator thing and buy a home-style electric compressor fridge. Yes, you can do it, but it’s not the most practical approach for those who want to camp away from hookups, and can be a hindrance to some potential customers when you decide to sell your RV or trade it off. Many with residential refrigerators in their rigs say they can’t find anyone to service them, and others report an average lifespan of about two years in an RV.
Do you really need a “new” refrigerator when yours stops working? The heart and soul of a gas/electric RV refrigerator is the cooling unit. It’s the device that pumps the heat out of the refrigerator cabinet, and keeps your beer and ice cream cold. Cooling units do “give up the ghost,” typically because the refrigerator has been operated off-level, causing water in the cooling unit to boil.
We mentioned in an earlier story how to keep your precious cooling unit from committing suicide with an aftermarket Fridge Defend by ARP (a protection and diagnostics) unit. We installed an ARP unit on our refrigerator, but guess what – it was too late. The cooling unit had already been damaged, but the ARP helped us sniff that problem out. How so? It showed that our boiler temperatures were high, while the absorber temperature was low. Yeah, we still had a “freezer” of sorts, but the fridge interior was 50 degrees. So we were at the same place many RVers reach: Do we toss out the refrigerator, or replace the cooling unit?
How do you know if your cooling unit is damaged beyond repair? Here are the telltale signs of corruption: You’ve got the fridge turned on, the burner is burning (or the electric element is heating) and instead of cooling, the inside of the refrigerator gets hot. That’s a serious issue – it’s likely your boiler is overheating, and you need to turn off the refrigerator immediately.
Other signs of a bad cooling unit? Your nose detects ammonia. That’s a chemical in the cooling unit and if you smell it, it means the unit is leaking. Look around the backside of your fridge – do you see any yellow stains? Again, a sign of a cooling unit leak. Another sign – your refrigerator is on and heat is getting to the boiler, but the absorber coil (the coiled pipes at the bottom rear of the fridge) is cool. Finally, a funny gurgling noise. That’s water in the cooling unit boiling, which happens if the pressure in the cooling unit is low due to a leak. If you aren’t sure, turn off the fridge and have an RV technician confirm a cooling unit failure.
And here we are: Replace the fridge or replace the cooling unit? What condition is your deceased refrigerator in – other than a bad cooling unit? Our circa 2008 Norcold N811 looked good, matched the decor of the galley, but was indeed dead. The nearest replacement for this no-longer-made unit we figured was a Norcold for $1595, shipping included. But for $795 one can buy a warranted remanufactured cooling unit from a reliable U.S. manufacturer, Nordic, based in Iowa’s corn country. The outfit remanufactures a wide range of cooling units, and it’s likely they’ll have one for your fridge.
Nordic is no “fly-by-night” operation, but an established firm that takes pride in their work. Yes, they remanufacture cooling units, but it’s not simply a matter of pumping a coolant charge in an old unit, splashing on a coat of paint and sending it out the door.
Units to be rebuilt are carefully inspected, new tubing is fabricated and installed, a new foam pack put on, and the recharged unit is freshly painted. All newly renewed units are tested before they ever get into a shipping box. A two-year warranty against manufacturer defects is standard and, if you’re worried, you can buy a longer-term optional warranty. In the rare case that a cooling unit fails because of defect in manufacture, Nordic ships out a replacement unit on their dime, and pays $250 for a dealer to remove and replace the failed unit.
Nordic can make a cooling unit replacement very attractive. Here’s another example: A high-end Norcold 1210 side-by-side refrigerator with icemaker will set you back an easy $3,500. Nordic will sell you a replacement cooling unit for a paltry-seeming $1200, and Nordic includes a Fridge Defend on this unit. Price-wise, you’ll find it hard to even think about buying a new fridge.
What else? If you’re needing to replace a fridge in a rig whose door isn’t wide enough to get a refrigerator through, count the cost (and hassle) of popping out a window – or worse – a windshield to facilitate a change-out. In some cases, the refrigerator itself can go through the door – provided the cooling unit is removed first. What advantage is that? If you have to take the cooling unit off to get the fridge in, why not just get the cooling unit and put it on without the rest of the struggle? Getting a cooling unit in and out the door is a whole lot easier.
But what about replacing the unit? Isn’t it hard? Can the average do-it-yourselfer change out a cooling unit? To test the theory out, Nordic supplied us with a replacement cooling unit (it showed up in the back of a FedEx truck) and the two of us set to work on the project. Mind you, we are not “experts” by any stretch of the imagination. When somebody says they can do a mechanical project on their truck in two hours, we figure it’ll take us an easy six hours. It just happens that way.
Working together when necessary, or just one of us alone when possible, it took us just about eight hours to remove the old cooling unit, prepare the refrigerator, and then install the new cooling unit. We used tools many do-it-yourselfers would have on hand, from simple mechanic’s hand-tools, to a caulking gun, and a light-duty floor jack, which we found really helpful when it came time to lift the refrigerator back into the cabinet. We did get another “body” to help us take the refrigerator out of the cabinet and to put it back inside. But really, the “in and out of the hole” part of the job took but just a few minutes. Others could probably do this change-out in less time than we took, but we’re of the “go slow and double-check school” and, adding to that, clumsy at times.
In terms of supplies, there are a few things you’ll need to pick up. Nordic includes a small tube of thermal mastic. This goop goes between parts of the new cooling unit and the back of the refrigerator box. It’s purpose is to transmit heat between the two. We found we wanted a bit more mastic than Nordic supplied. Yes, it could be done with what they include, but we wanted to go an extra step, so we ordered a caulking-gun-sized tube for about $20 from Amazon.
You’ll also want a big roll of heavy-duty HVAC tape – some folks call it “silver tape.” It’s about $7 at Walmart. The latter is CRITICAL for an effective installation. Add a $5 can of expanding foam insulation (again, a critical issue for making your new cooling unit work well) and you’re about done for supplies. A couple of shipping blankets from Harbor Freight Tools are a great idea, too, as you’ll be laying the fridge down on the floor do the job.
You may be wondering about how all this goes together. No worries! We’ll soon post a step-by-step walk-through on how to replace a cooling unit. When it comes out, we recommend you print a copy and keep it with your owner manuals – just in case!
Once we had the refrigerator stuffed back in the hole, it took another half-hour to carefully hook up gas lines and check the connections for leaks, and reconnect power and accessory wiring. We had already installed an ARP Fridge Defend system, which included two outside blowers, and it took a few minutes to get all the wiring back in place.
How did it work? We were well pleased. Mind you, our field base is in Quartzsite, Arizona, and we did the replacement in early July. Since we’re living in the RV, having 110+ degree heat blasting into the RV through the open cabinet while the fridge was out was a no-go situation. We picked up a big chunk of Reflectix insulation from the hardware store and taped it up over the hole in the cabinet to keep the heat at bay. The day we fired up the new cooling unit was well into the triple digits, so we were a bit unsure of how long it would take before we could use the fridge.
Within four hours, the inside temperature of the fridge dropped 20 degrees. By the next day, we were able to restock food. Our cheap brand of ice cream didn’t go rock solid in the freezer, but freezer temps were in the low 20s – even with the high outside temperature that the fridge was dealing with. We’re looking forward to reporting back on how cold things really get when we head up to the Northwest for a break in the heat in a few weeks.
What about that old cooling unit? No worries. As part of the process, most cooling units are completely recyclable through Nordic. Complete your installation, go to the Nordic website and fill out the warranty activation. Nordic will then send a prepaid shipping label to stick on the box the remanufactured unit came in. Tape the box up securely and drop it off at the shipping company’s nearest receiving facility. Or pay a few bucks and call the shipping company to come out and take the box away.
Buy a new refrigerator? For about one-third to one-half the cost of a new reefer, if you’re handy with tools and have a bit of patience you can replace the cooling unit on your old familiar RV refrigerator. While the Nordic units are warranted against manufacturing defects, running off level can still kill a good cooling unit. We highly recommend installing an ARP Fridge Defend system. Put together, you can easily expect your refrigerator to outlast your RV.
Learn more about Nordic cooling units, including prices for all models sold by visiting their website.