Refrigerator failure: Replace or repair?


By Tammy Williams

While visiting Jackson, Mississippi, I noticed things were not as cold in my RV refrigerator or freezer. After an Internet search, I learned about high temperature switches installed on Norcold refrigerators. Apparently some Norcold models had a bad habit of bursting into flames, and this recall box shuts the refrigerator off when the boiler gets too hot. According to many web articles, the switch has been known to trip when there is no overheating. There is a hack for that, which could save the expense of a service call.

I removed the outside panel and located the box. The red light was glowing, indicating it had indeed shut the ‘fridge off. There is no button or exterior toggle to reset it, but it can be internally reset by dragging a magnet across its surface. The trick is to use a strong enough magnet. Grabbing that souvenir from Mount Rushmore probably ain’t gonna cut it.

I use magnets to keep the bedroom television from moving around in transit, “locking” it to a metal plate on the wall. When I put one of those on the box and moved it around for a minute or so, I physically felt the switch and heard a click. The red light was off again. I was so proud of myself.

Six hours later, foodstuffs were even warmer. The hack did not work.

 I called Magnolia Trailer Pro and talked to Rob. Waiting for him to arrive, I began the painful process of throwing away four garbage bags of food, saving some items in two soft-sided picnic style coolers I use for shopping. 

Later, Rob pointed out the tell-tale signs of a cooling unit failure: yellow stains along the bottom of the compartment, indicating leaking ammonia.

A brand new RV refrigerator, which runs on either electricity or propane, was about $4,000. But then there is the issue of getting it in the motorhome:  new installs require removal of either a slide out or the windshield. A cooling unit ordered directly from Norcold was $1,400.

Wincing at the thought of spending either amount, I looked around on the Internet for rebuilt cooling units. I spent hours online, looking at sites and reading reviews and Better Business Bureau complaints. Meanwhile, what little food I had left was thawing in the shower.

Many people replace their RV refrigerators with a residential model, which is certainly less expensive. That doesn’t work for me, as I like to boondock for days or weeks at a time and not rely on electricity. After speaking to a friend who is an expert in refrigeration, I opted for the new cooling unit from Norcold. It was backordered for two weeks. Growing weary of getting ice at the gas station every day, I bought a little dorm-sized cube refrigerator for 85 bucks at Target. It was just enough for Diet Coke, white wine, pet food, and a little ice for cocktails.

Rob’s fee for the service call and installation of the cooling unit was $450. Thinking that the part would fit in the small compartment outside the rig, I was a bit taken aback by that quote, but desperate as well. On the day the part arrived, I could not believe my eyes: the cooling unit is the entire back of the refrigerator!

It took both Rob and a helper to wrangle the refrigerator out of its cubby, put it on the floor and replace the guts on the rear. No wonder the labor cost $450!

More than $1,800 later, I’m back in business. The refrigerator is running even colder than it did before.

Nellie, my motorhome, is 10 years old this year (nine, if anyone at an RV park asks). That means the refrigerator is 10 years old, too. Since this happened I now know two other RV owners whose ‘fridge cooling units failed at the 10-year mark. Keep that in mind if you’re in the market for a used RV, or if you are budgeting for repairs on the one you already own.

Tammy calls Seattle home, but when on the road, she travels with her 2 dogs, Rocket and Pinkie, and Boss Tweed, her cat. A quote from her blog: “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.”

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1 year ago

We have replaced the cooling unit in our Norcold twice since our MH was built in 2006. The latest replacement was in 2018 in Mesa Az. We now have an Amish rebuilt cooling unit & it works great; hopefully it will last for a good few years. CampFridge in Tempe Az installed the unit for a very reasonable price. I would highly recommend Matt for fridge repairs if you are in the area.

Bryan Crawley
2 years ago

I refused to continue my travels when I learned that my “Notcold” frig could potentially cause a fire in my coach. I was already dealing with the marginal cooling capability. I decided to replace it with a Samsung residential. And thanks to an iRV2 forum individual, who posted numerous pics of his Samsung install, I felt I could pull it off. 5 Years later…ice cream rock hard, beer ice cold, 50% more cu ft storage and most of all, very happy wife.

2 years ago

I’m counting my blessings! My norcold is 20 years old and still cooling like new. It could go at anytime but I have no reason to complain after this many years.

2 years ago

Bought my RV new in 2006, after replacing 4 Norcold cooling units in 7 years and having to wait 3 to 4 weeks each time for “Norcold to manufacture it” I went directly to jc-refrigeration. in Shipshewana, IN. They manufacture a superb unit. They installed it 3 years ago and it has worked fantastic. Ice cream actually freezes. I highly recommend them.

bob aikman
2 years ago

The Amish dealer is Pines RV service 260 768 7990 @Shipshewana In. bought many cooling unit always treated with respect he also builds new cooling units as well as refurbished ones ask for Larry

2 years ago

In 2006, we bought a NEW motorhome. In 2009, we had a frig fire and Norcold paid the full shot of getting it replaced. They even replaced my Kidde fire extinguisher. 14 months later to the day, the same thing happened. Norcold wouldn’t do anything.
We opted for a Amish built replacement cooling unit and have been happy ever since. Much colder freezer, even keeps ice cream froze, something our eariler ones wouldn’t.

Bill T
2 years ago

Good to know. Thanks.