Saturday, December 2, 2023


P.U. Proboscis asks: Why the strong ammonia smell in the refrigerator?

By Russ and Tiña De Maris
“Dear Low Tech RVing: When I open my RV refrigerator door, I about get knocked over by a strong ammonia odor. I only use ‘Simple Green’ to clean my fridge. Is there a problem here? —P.U. Proboscis”

Ammonia in the refrigerator? Say it ain’t so!

Didja forget to toss out the leftovers?

It’s yet another sad story from someone like P.U. Proboscis. Odors and RV refrigerators aren’t uncommon companions. Happily most are related to failure to take last month’s supply of forgotten leftovers out and pitch them. Sad to say, sometimes RVers returning from a trip have actually forgotten to remove food from the traveling fridge. After a while, the memories of the happy meals shared on the road turn into a nightmare. A good cleaning out may not always cure the problem. Some have found that commercial “pet odor” removing concoctions (found at pet stores) applied liberally to the inside of the fridge will actually remove even those “unforgettable” rotten food odors.

But the strong smell of ammonia in the refrigerator – that’s another story. Most RV reefers don’t work like the ones back home. Instead of using a compressor motor (highly energy consumptive), a combination of ammonia, hydrogen, and water is heated by a burner or small electric element. Through the magic of science and technology, these remove heat from the refrigerator box. Sadly, if the cooling system which seals this trinity of chemicals in matrimony is breached, well, all sorts of refrigerator hell breaks loose. If you smell the strong odor of ammonia around your RV refrigerator, its cooling unit is most likely kaput.

Replace the cooling unit?

Kaput cooling units can be conquered with replacements. And, yes, if you are very handy with tools you can probably do it yourself. If you feel hesitant, most RV repair firms can do it for you. However, the consensus among RV techie types is this: If your RV reefer is older than 10 years, it’s probably just better to replace the whole unit. After all, other things can go gunny bag too. New refrigerators come with warranties. Not that a multiple hundred or low thousand-dollar payout makes you feel good.

If your RV isn’t moving much, i.e., you spend all your time in an RV park with available electricity, you might consider replacing the confounded chiller with a small “apartment size” refrigerator unit. Lowe’s has a 7-cubic-foot model for a little more than $200. And, yes, you won’t have ammonia in the refrigerator if you install a 12-volt compressor-style fridge. From what we’ve seen, if you’re a boondocker, you’ll need plenty of solar panels and lithium batteries to make it work. Too spendy for our blood – we’re sticking with a conventional LP rig. And keeping a proboscis out for ammonia.


Revised RV refrigerator safety device protects against fires
How to kill lingering RV refrigerator smells
Dometic 12-volt DC fridge power usage tests 

Photo credit, opening image (refrigerator only, edited in meme) Wwikitom on 


Russ and Tiña De Maris
Russ and Tiña De Maris
Russ and Tiña went from childhood tent camping to RVing in the 1980s when the ground got too hard. They've been tutored in the ways of RVing (and RV repair) by a series of rigs, from truck campers, to a fifth-wheel, and several travel trailers. In addition to writing scores of articles on RVing topics, they've also taught college classes for folks new to RVing. They authored the book, RV Boondocking Basics.



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Dr. Michael (@guest_143791)
2 years ago

I like how you say “….it’s probably just better to replace the whole unit. After all, other things can go gunny bag too. ” like it is no big deal.

The fridge that came with my RV is larger than the one I have at home. The only way to remove and replace it is via the windshield. From what I understand, the windshield must be removed, at least 8 men and a hoist or crane will be needed to remove the fridge and the same crew to set the new one in place.
Including the new fridge, the total job is estimated to be around $8,000.

Gary Smith (@guest_142377)
2 years ago

You must be paying by the word for this article. So much flab, so little content.

Modern Chinese RV refrigerators are made so cheaply that three years or less is about all you can expect from them. It’s really not too difficult to replace the entire cooling unit on one, and that will make it like new or even better.

I did my own for about a third of the cost that my dealer quoted and it only took about a week.

I understand that you are desirous of expanding your content but come on, quality trumps quality.

Larry Lee (@guest_142374)
2 years ago

Cost of solar systems continue to decline IF you can do the installation process yourself.
Our residential size fridge only requires 120 amp hrs per day including ice maker and defrost system. If we are boondocking we turn the icemaker off but I haven’t yet figured how to stop the defroster. We have 2 panels at 160 watts each and need one more to power the fridge. I have enough room for a total of 4 which will allow some LED lights, water pump etc. Generator backup for rain & clouds, microwave etc.
Alternatively, I could skip the solar, add 4 Lithium batteries plus a bigger charger so I would only have to run the generator 1 hour per day at 200 amps! Lots of options. I have chosen to start small and build up to just what I need. YMMV (Your mileage may vary)

Dave (@guest_142327)
2 years ago

Boy, I’ve had the opposite experience with my 12volt compressor frig. Check out JC Refrigeration in Ships wanna, Indiana. Great service and a great product. In and out in about 3 hours. Don’t boondock alot, but after a fire in our last Motorhome, we decided no propane and no residental for me.

Irv (@guest_142321)
2 years ago

Ammonia exposure can be dangerous or fatal depending on the concentration and time.

I’d turn off the refrigerator so that ammonia isn’t circulating through the refrigerator. That may slow down the leak into the refrigerator. Open the windows and vents to dissipate the odor. I’d worry about sleeping–the leak might get worse overnight.

Get it fixed before using the RV again.

Terry (@guest_142317)
2 years ago

I have a friend who has a older motorhome that he fixed the refrigerator by removing it and setting upside in his pickup and driving around for a week or two and reinstalling and it started working. He has had success with several doing this. He does have a older rough riding pickup.

Irv (@guest_142324)
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry

Turning a propane refrigerator upside down is a well understood fix. Search for: “burping a propane refrigerator”. (The driving around part is probably unnecessary.)

When a propane refrigerator is operated off-level, liquid ammonia can accumulate in wrong places and prevent ammonia gas from circulating.

Larry Lee (@guest_142379)
2 years ago
Reply to  Irv

I doubt the upside down burping method will help if there is an ammonia odor since that indicates sufficient corrosion has occurred to allow leakage and unit is toast.

Scott R. Ellis (@guest_142311)
2 years ago

“From what you’ve seen” a modern compressor-type (NOT residential) reefer requires a lot of solar? What have you seen? The numbers suggest a pretty modest power consumption. And the anecdotes report a much better cooling experience.

Tommy Molnar (@guest_142315)
2 years ago
Reply to  Scott R. Ellis

The compressor fridge is definitely a better cooling unit. It cools the fridge instead of REMOVING heat, which is my basic understanding of the difference between the two. We were almost to the point of swapping out our typical RV fridge for a 12v compressor unit when a tech at an RV repair facility advised against it. Since we are big-time boondockers, he said we were far better off keeping the fridge we have because it takes almost NO 12v power to run the propane side of the equation. And we have 700 watts on the roof and recently changed over to Lithium Ion batteries. He said the 12v compressor fridges are power hogs. So, we’re sticking to our old fridge, which continues to work just fine. Just my opinion here.

Larry Lee (@guest_142378)
2 years ago
Reply to  Tommy Molnar

“Power hog” is not a useful term when deciding whether your 700 watts of solar can run the 12v fridge. You might already have a system in place which could power the fridge. Consider how the battery state of charge is on a typical morning and you can estimate whether the amount remaining would supply the 120-140 amp hours required.
3 reasons to switch from absorption to compression: risk of fire with absorption units (especially when not well maintained), risk of carbon monoxide poisoning if unit is not well sealed and vented, and compression units do a much better job of keeping food consistently cold (especially in the freezer).

Last edited 2 years ago by Larry Lee
Pat (@guest_142320)
2 years ago
Reply to  Scott R. Ellis

I got a 12 volt compressor back on my refrigerator when the LP unit died. It is an energy hog. I have 400 watts solar and 510 amps of Lithium. I can only go five days if it’s very sunny, so I am spending more money for hookups to recharge the batteries. I’m considering going back to LP.

Larry Lee (@guest_142376)
2 years ago
Reply to  Pat

Based on my rough calculations and assuming you have 4 panels of 100 watts each, if you add one more panel (or at most 2) you should reach the break even point where the sun will power your fridge. You might also check into turning off the defrost system if it has one since that, plus the icemaker, is what really sucks the batteries down.

Tommy Molnar (@guest_142407)
2 years ago
Reply to  Pat

I have since heard more people complain about the excess energy needed to run a 12 volt compressor fridge on other sites. There is no doubt about which fridge keeps a more even temperature and is all around better at being, well, a fridge. But having said that, we’ll still keep our old trusty propane unit for carefree boondocking. Our first trailer (a 97 Nash) never showed any signs of fridge demise for the 16 years we had it. Our current 2012 Arctic Fox has displayed no problems either. I think we maintain stuff fairly well and hope for another 16+ years of trouble-free use.

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