Monday, September 25, 2023



Is your RV refrigerator cooling unit REALLY dead?


warm refrigeratorHere’s a scenario you probably don’t want to face: You open your RV refrigerator door to grab an icy cold drink, and instead of a nice cold can, you draw out a tepid 12-ouncer. Looking around inside you feel your heart sicken as you see everything in the produce drawer is wilted. Your cooler is anything but cool!

Now lets make the scenario worse: You take the RV to the service shop and shortly thereafter, the service tech declares your RV refrigerator is a terminal case. “Cooling unit’s shot. Might as well buy a new refrigerator,” the cheerful tech declares. “Either that, or you could risk it with a new cooling unit.”

While there are no hard statistics on how many RVers get news like this every year, we can assure you, it’s probably far too many. Sadly, a lot of RV cooling units are declared DOA that really may not be “bad.” How can you tell what’s really wrong with your RV “non-chiller”? Here’s an easy way almost any RVer faced with a warm refrigerator can find out in just a few hours whether there’s really something wrong with the cooling unit, or if it’s some other, less expensive problem.

First, a little background. RV refrigerators work on a chemical and heat process that absorbs heat from the inside of the “box” and discharges that heat to the outside air. There are no moving parts in the RV cooling unit, the most expensive “part” of an RV fridge. Yes, a cooling unit, especially one that’s been mistreated (operated “off level”) can go bad; likewise, a cooling unit can develop a leak, allowing the charge to bleed off. Outside of that, there isn’t much to go wrong with a cooling unit.

An initial check with nose and eyes can tell you much. Open the access door to the back of your refrigerator. First, look up. That means, look upwards along the inside of the refrigerator compartment – you should be able to see the sky above, through the vent above the refrigerator up at roof level. If there’s a blockage that prevents you from seeing light, that means heat can’t escape from the fridge. Clear any obstructions.

Next, sniff. If you can smell the odor of ammonia, then your cooling unit has a leak. Also look all over the back of the refrigerator at the coils. If you spot yellow stains, you have a cooling unit leak. A cooling unit leak is a serious problem that most RV shops don’t fix. However, more and more specialists are getting training, and in many instances, if you track one down, they may be able to fix your unit for less than replacement costs.

No stains, no yellow, and a clear shot for getting the heat out? You’ll need to find out what’s wrong – the cooling unit, or some other part. To do this, you need to operate the cooling unit independent from the control system. You’ll need a short 120 volt power cord, a couple of terminals, electrical tape, an electrical multimeter, and a little time.

Safety first: Disconnect the refrigerator from shore power, right in the back of the box. Next, remove the 12-volt positive lead off the refrigerator and tape the end of the wire to keep it from shorting on anything.

You’ll need to determine which wires coming out of the refrigerator’s control box run to the 120-volt heating element, located in the boiler stack. These leads may be identified by a notation on the control board or housing. If not, you’ll need to remove the metal covering from around the bottom of the stack, accessing the wires that come out. If you have a “three way” refrigerator that allows you to operate your refrigerator on 12-volt power, you’ll need to make sure you get the wires leading to the 120 volt heater – NOT the 12-volt heater.

Disconnect the 120-volt heater leads from the control board or control unit. Use your multimeter to test the resistance of the heater element. It should be within 10 percent of spec. Where to get that information? Look up a service manual for unit on the Internet at If your heater element is out of spec, replace the element and see if you’ve solved your problem. If the element is in spec, proceed as follows:

Hook up a pair of terminals that correspond to the ones from the heater element wires to the “hot” and “neut” wires in your electrical cord. Tape them to keep them from shorting, and plug the cord into 120-volt power. Leave the setup alone until the next day. If the cooling unit is working, you should find that the freezer compartment reaches the freeze point by that time. If it has, then the cooling unit is fine, and your problem is elsewhere in the system. If it’s not at (or very near) the freeze point, the problem lies in the cooling unit.

If you don’t want to perform this test, take your rig to an RV tech. If you’re told the cooling unit is bad, ASK how that determination was made. If the unit was not operated independently of the refrigerator’s control unit, then the tech really doesn’t know if the cooling unit is bad, unless one of those other conditions (yellow stains or ammonia odor) were found.



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