RV Doctor: Can extreme cold affect an RV refrigerator?

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Dear Gary,
Will extreme cold (below 5 degrees F) affect an RV refrigerator? I use my RV year-round and one weekend it was really cold and the refrigerator was not working on 120-volt electricity or LP. —Matt (Calgary, Alberta, Canada)

Dear Matt,
Yes, extreme cold can affect the operation of an absorption refrigerator. There are two primary causes of temporary cooling loss. The first is caused by operating the refrigerator off level. I will discount this as being a cause in this case, as it seems too coincidental with the cold weather, but it is worth mentioning. Be sure the unit is operated only when the freezer section is level.

The second is inadequate venting. Often, cold weather, especially in your area, is accompanied by snow which can accumulate on the roof of the RV and blocks the refrigerator vent. You didn’t mention whether you had snow, but if so, the unit will definitely not operate if snow is allowed to accumulate and block the roof vent.

Absorption refrigerators operate under extremely tight tolerances especially in relationship to the amount of cooling unit contents. Also the surface area of the fins and the precise amount of heat applied to the boiler is paramount. If any of the insulation around the burner tube is missing or damaged some of the heat can be lost to the colder ambient air and the heat balance will be affected, possibly resulting in not enough heat being applied directly to the generator portion of the boiler.

Inspect the burner tube to make sure the insulation and the shroud are fully intact, especially around the area of the 120-volt heating element. Inspect the cooling unit for dirt or other debris that may be affecting the cooling efficiency and wipe or vacuum it clean.

Finally, be aware that some internal cooling unit components can reach temperatures up to 20 degrees lower than the fridge compartment temperature. If we assume a box temperature of approximately 30 degrees F, then the evaporator could reach 10 – 15 degrees F. If the outside temperature is 5 degrees F, then ice can form on the evaporator, which can reduce the efficiency enough to prevent proper cooling. If this is the cause, there is no solution and the refrigerator simply will not operate under such severe conditions.

gary-736Read more from Gary Bunzer at the RVdoctor.com. See Gary’s videos about RV repair and maintenance.

##RVT928

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John
7 months ago

You mention being level, which I have heard a lot about, regarding the refrigerators. But I also, very recently, read an article that said 100%, exactly, perfectly level, is not so important. That “basically level” is all you need to worry about, especially with more modern absorption refrigerators vs. ones that are much older. I wonder if you could comment on that and a good guideline date for improvements in the absorption refrigerators that make them more forgiving of “slightly off level”. Ours is from 2006, the year of our motorhome.

Lorne Rasmussen
7 months ago

We have used our Rv many winters in temperatures in the minus 30s. When it gets cold I put a plastic bag over the vent cover and if it is real cold I put a light bulb in the compartment behind the fridge. This keep the compartment warm enough that the fridge will still work. These tips came from RV techs in cold country. I have been doing this for 40 years with no problems.

Drew
7 months ago

Great suggestions Lorne, I wonder why Gary didn’t mention either one.

Mike Schwab
7 months ago

A heat source will melt the ice to keep the refrigerator going.