RV refrigerators – Go for a residential unit?

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By Russ and Tiña De Maris

Do you store your worms in your refrigerator? All kidding aside, but when RVers talk refrigerators it is like opening a can of worms. Who’d have thought that gas/electric refrigerators versus residential refrigerators could create worse rows than a Chevy versus Ford discussion?

RV refrigerators – Go for a residential unit?We’re not here to light that fire all over again. For those whose minds aren’t already set in concrete and may be wondering about the potential of installing a residential fridge in an RV, here are a few thoughts.

Power utilization

RV refrigerators – Go for a residential unit?Yes, residential refrigerators do require shore power, or a reasonable facsimile. For those who predominantly hang their hats in RV parks with shore power available, power isn’t a problem. We’ve heard the argument both ways on the boondocking side. Some tell us that a few hours of generator power keeps even the largest of residential fridges cool, calm and collected. “Purists” would certainly disagree with that approach, but there are plenty of boondocking RVers who tell us that with a sufficient solar panel array on the roof and an appropriately sized battery bank to store the juice, running a residential refrigerator quietly in the boonies is certainly doable.

The problem, it seems, is cracking the code as to just how much of a solar array is sufficient to handle the needs of the household, including the electric fridge. Few fridge manufacturers publish duty-cycle information, that is, how much time is the fridge compressor actually operating. And, of course, that will vary depending on the ambient temperature outside the fridge and how often you pop open the doors. No simple “rule of thumb” will ever apply with so many variables involved.

Warranty and service

If your standard gas/electric RV refrigerator develops a problem, help is usually available. There are scads of RV repair shops around the country, and the original fridge comes with some sort of warranty, so if it poops out during that time you’re theoretically covered. Yes, residential refrigerators also come with a warranty – or do they?

RV refrigerators – Go for a residential unit?Here’s a comment from a reader who contemplated a change-out to a residential refrigerator in their rig. “Before I purchased my Samsung RF18, I spoke to Samsung customer service about my plans. The Samsung rep said they did not recommend usage in an RV and doing so would negate any warranty.”

Another reader who had a factory-installed residential refrigerator in his unit wrote, “My reefer warranty expired and they sent me an application for an extended one-year warranty for $38. When I got it, the fine print said VOID if used in a recreational vehicle.” If you’re considering going for a residential unit, by all means, READ THE FINE PRINT.

Regardless of your refrigerator type, your warranty will eventually expire. Even if the warranty is still good and the fridge flakes out, who will service your cooler? As we mentioned earlier, RV repair outfits are drooling to fix your Norcold or Dometic. But what about a residential refrigerator? Here’s one experience an RVer had with his RV-factory-equipped Whirlpool side-by-side residential refrigerator: “It failed last January, but we couldn’t get anyone to work on it. RV dealerships and repair services wouldn’t because it was a residential refrigerator. Appliance repair services wouldn’t touch it because it was in an RV.” The owner had to toss out the broken fridge and replace it anew.

Other considerations

If you plan on going the solar battery inverter route with a residential refrigerator, here’s an observation from RVtravel.com electrical guru Mike Sokol. Mike has heard from plenty of disgruntled RVers complaining of issues with power inverters operating residential coolers. He observes, “I have a theory about why there have been so many failures of inverters running residential refrigerators. More on this later, but I don’t think that modified sine wave inverters are appropriate for this application and can have failures of both the inverter and refrigerator compressor.” While he’s still cogitating this situation, if you’re planning a new install, consider going with the somewhat more expensive pure sine wave inverter – you may save yourself a lot of grief.

And consider logistics

We don’t know how many of you have rigs with small doors. Friends of ours with a spiffy Class A coach (equipped with an “old fashioned” gas/electric refrigerator) would have a world-of-hurt in swapping to a residential unit. Their coach entry door is big enough for people, but impossible to move a refrigerator in or out of. Their only hope should they need to replace or exchange their reefer will be to have the rig’s windshield removed, swap out the fridges, then have the windshield put back in. We’d hope it wouldn’t happen to you, but better get out the measuring tape before you order a new refrigerator.

Alternatives

One oft-reported reason for swapping out gas/electric refrigerators for residential units is out of concern for safety. Yes, many RV fires have been traced back to issues with standard RV refrigerators. Often the trouble is an overheated cooling unit that cascaded into a catastrophic fire. Some RVers have installed elaborate (and expensive) fire suppression systems in their refrigerator compartments. But why not stop the fire before it starts? It doesn’t require ditching the old reefer and putting in a residential unit.

RV refrigerators – Go for a residential unit?As we mentioned in an earlier story, an aftermarket device called Fridge Defend can do just that. The device is wired into the back of a Norcold or Dometic refrigerator, and it monitors the refrigerator’s boiler temperature. If the temperature begins to rise beyond the safety limit, Fridge Defend shuts the refrigerator down. No excessive heat, no fire. “But where does that leave my fridge full of food?” you ask. The unit continuously monitors the temperature and when the boiler temperature drops back down into the safe area, it turns the unit back on and your refrigerator goes back to work cooling your food. We’ll be installing and testing a Fridge Defend very shortly, and will report back. Meantime, get more information by reading our earlier story here.

RV refrigerators – Go for a residential unit?Mike Sokol (mentioned earlier in this story) is presently testing yet another alternative. His genius is a combination of solar panels, storage batteries, inverter, and not a residential refrigerator, but a high-efficiency refrigerator designed for the marine industry. Mike says it’s an “8-cubic-foot, marine-grade refrigerator from Vitrifrigo with a 12-volt Danfoss swing compressor. This technology is electrically way more efficient than a standard residential 120-volt rotary compressor. Plus this refrigerator is built for the marine industry and designed for vibration, something that might be a problem for a residential refrigerator compressor and copper coolant pipes designed to sit in your non-moving home.” Readers are already champing at the bit to hear his findings. Check out more information here.

Residential fridge? Gas/electric? There’s no one-size-fits-all solution; your lifestyle, finances and technical ability will all have a bearing on how you decide to keep your groceries cool.

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Phil Hetzendorfer

We just had JC Refrigeration in shipshewana Indiana convert my norcold 1210 to a 120v residential. It draws .9 of an amp. Took them 2 hrs and we’ve never been happier. Ice cold food and freezer at 6 degrees
The nice thing about it is that it still my same refrigerator. 3 yrs warranty. Cost about 1k.
Read all the reviews and the place is super clean and busy and professional. Please I am not advertising for these people but they solved my problem with a 10 year old norcold and just want to pass it on.

robs

When we bought our 5th wheel the Gas/Electric fridge had been replaced with a Danby apartment sized fridge. We have a 1500 Watt Pure sign wave inverter and 4 Golf cart batteries / 400 watts of solar and have never run out of power except when camping it rained for 5 days straight we had to run our generator. We have owned the fridge for 4 years. Retail for this fridge is less than $300 dollars but the solar / batteries and inverter where about $2000 which is equal to the purchase of one gas / electric fridge plus install cost.

David J Davidzik

Well, I’m new to the residential fridge community by upgrading motor homes. After picking up our 2014 Cross Country and on our first camping trip we realized the Res. Fridge was no cooling completely. We took it back to the dealer and they simply use a local appliance repair company to come out and replace the cooling fan. No big deal. My rig has a Magnum 2000 watt sine wave inverter that keeps everything happy on the road. We have yet to do any no hookup or boondock yet but everything I’ve read is the four house batteries, not sure what kind, is plenty of power to keep the fridge cold and then running the genset a couple of hours a day to charge the batteries. We’ll see on that.

The article was extremely biased towards the traditional dual power RV fridge when the industry is moving rapidly away from them because of expense, weight, and choice of mfg., Norcold or Dometic.

TJ

Our Dometic in our 2005 Layton 5er went bad last year to the point we barely got out of the rig at night from the ammonia leak. So we researched and ended up buying the Avanti from Walmart for 325.00. Yes it’s a residential but designed for RV and boat applications and uses very little power. It already has all the mounting points for holding it down which was a plus. All we do is boondock and have 400 watts of solar and 4 batteries and a 1500 watt pure sinewave inverter and have yet to have to crank up our generator to cool this fridge. It’s 1.5 cubic feet larger and fit nearly perfect in the factory hole altho we had to trim 1 inch from the top opening on the RV. We also had an extra inch or so on each side to fill in so off to Menards for trim and stain and you can’t tell the difference. SO after a year I will say we will never, ever go back to Dometic and find our Avanti works perfectly even on the hottest days and is much more efficient and no propane usage. And for the cost of repairing or replacing that RV fridge I can buy several Avanti’s and can install myself in less than an hour and they fit thru the RV entrance door. WE LOVE IT. I’m sure there are better fridges, but the Avanti worked perfect for us boondockers.

Ray Zimmermann

Regarding warranties on residential fridges in RVs – most all high-end coaches now come with residential fridges. So do these owners not have warranty coverage? If the author of the article is going to make this claim, he should have called Tiffin, Foretravel, Newmar, etc for comment about this. My Alfa came with a residential Whirlpool. It has worked fine for 13 years (on a MSW invertor). Had one malfunction, had no problem finding an appliance repair guy come and fix it. Granted, I rarely boondock, but the few times I did I had no problems – needed to run generator a couple times a day anyway to keep batteries charged for other power needs. I’m not knocking anyone who wants an RV gas absorption fridge – I had one for 13 years in my previous coach – but this article seems unfairly one-sided.

Dave davis

The RV industry put in a horrible product called a Norcold. 10-15 model years used this, and getting new cooling units installed was extremely expensive. I saw many bragging how they bought a cooling unit for $800 and installed it themselves. That is far beyond the tech skills of the average owner.
My 16 year old Norcold failed and needed its second cooling unit.
I bought a 15.5 cuft HE for $581.00. The repair shop picked it up, removed the old, (removing the side window, not the windshield).
Installed the new for $600.
4 years later, not one thing of problem. I can plug it into my inverter and run for over 24 hours. I can drive for 6 hours with no power and it keeps every thing cold and frozen.

Dollar for dollar a properly installed inexpensive residential is a good alternative. The inability to find service is a ridiculous statement. The whole back is easily accessible outside. It’s not for everyone , but a good alternative for most.

Tom Hargreaves

We have the original Norcold 12 cuft 4-door gas-electric in our ’04 Endeavor. We the haven’t been satisfied with the cooling. especially while driving. I looked at a lot of residential refers that were 12 cuft or larger (we use all that space) and found that with the most efficient ones we could still do our month-long boondockings but would be running the genny at least as much as we do now: 5-6 hrs/day. [My theoretical calculations: one efficient 16 cuft ‘fridge purportedly used 350 kW/year => 959 W/day => 80 amp hours/day, total. Running the genny for 25% of the day resulted in the ‘fridge using ~60 AH from our 460 AH flooded Lead-acid batteries (230 usable AH).] With our fans, LEDs, and my wife’s CPAP, we would still be sucking a lot out of our batteries before recharge. I wondered if there were alternatives.
There ARE alternatives. A company in Indiana, JC Refrigeration LLC (www.jc-refrigeration.com), makes replacement cooling units for RV ‘fridges. They make beefier gas-electric units AND compressor units to replace original coolers. They sent me the following specs for my 12cuft Norcold replacement:
AC Compressor: 110V- 120V 0.8A 96.4 W 56% duty cycle @ 80F Amb
DC Compressor: 12V-24 V 5.5A 67 W 56% duty cycle @ 80F amb
Prices were not much more than a residential ‘fridge, I can do the replacement, and the unit would fit through the door. I plan to order the DC unit as soon as I can accumulate the cash.

Tim H Lecluse

Here is my discussion! A new small refrigrator from home depot is less than 200$!

Nancy Michaels

The gent who could not get adequate warranty for a Samsung fridge may have saved himself a whole lot of trouble!! We have a Samsung refrigerator and stove in our sticks and bricks home. They are both VERY POORLY MADE!!! We’ve had more service calls on these two appliances than any other piece of equipment we own, including all of our RV pieces. The repairman said he’s done more work for Samsung appliances than any other! I would never buy another Samsung appliance in my lifetime!! We both have Samsung phones and they work just fine. Stick to the simple stuff!!

Old Rv'er

Our present RV has Residential refrigerator installed at the factory, has worked for the last 11 years. The secret it for it to be long lasting is: it needs to be installed as close to the middle of the RV as possible, why, at the center, it bounces around less than if forward or rearward. Next, twice yearly we blow out the coils underneath and clean around it as good as possible. This allows it to “breathe” better and that has also contributed to it’s working fine. My ice cream and beer are always cold, my meat is always frozen solid, and we don’t have to worry about food deteriorating from not being cold enough. Very, very rarely do these units cause trouble if you keep them clean and they are installed amidships. I would never own RV without one of this type. Yes, pure sine wave inverter, and at least 6 good quality Deep Cycle batteries, Lead Acid type will work, AGM is better, unless you got lots of $$$$, lifepo4 type is overkill I feel.

Brenda

We had a residential refrigerator installed 3 years ago after paying $1300 for a new cooling unit on our NEVER COLD. In fact that cooling unit failed after 16 months and Warrenty wanted to put in another cooling unit.
Since we fulltime we were sick of throwing out spoiled food. We do prefer staying at COE and State Parks with electric hookups and never boondock.
So we had the dealership we bought our used Dutchstar take out the 4 door never cold and installed a 2 door 15.5 cubic ft residential. The removed the side window behind the passenger seat to remove and install. Our residential was only $800 vs $1300 for a cooling unit. And we have never thrown out spoiled food. We either keep the doors closed when traveling or run the generator.
We don’t consider ourselves “campers” but do prefer more natural places to camp with electric hookups so a residential has worked out for us.

Sebastian

After having continuing problems with my Norcold not working properly and having replaced the cooling unit, I replaced it with a 10 cu ft Whirlpool. I installed 750w of solar and 6 golf cart batteries, along with a 1000w pure sine wave inverter dedicated to the fridge.
I can run indefinitely on solar power with no need for shore power or generator.
The fridge is the same size inside, way smaller on the outside, so I have more room for storage. The Norcold barely fit out the door and weighed a ton, but the Whirlpool was light and with the doors off went in easily.
Now I don’t have to precool stuff before putting it in the fridge, the ice maker cranks out ice like crazy, and our food is cold or frozen, like it’s supposed to be.
Last bonus, the Whirlpool cost $450 , or 1/7 the cost of a Norcold.
It’s been in use for 5 years with no issues.

Cindy Wahl

We changed out our Notsocold 10 cuft 4 door for a 16cuft Ge from Lowe’s for $550. We measured to make sure the refer would go through the passenger door with the refer doors removed. Lowe’s delivered it and got it through the door for us. It was lighter by far from the old Notsocold. It takes 60-80 amps per day off two house batteries (480 amps). We did add solar to the roof but the generator recharges those batteries fine with running at breakfast and dinner in national parks with trees. We have 3x the storage. After throwing out food from the Notsocold at Bryce Canyon because of high altitude/hot outside temps, we love the GE and ability to boondock with less frustration over refer temps. The Notsocold was 55 degrees when it was 100 out. My husband installed it himself in a weekend. Since it was slightly narrower than the Notsocold I ended up with a broom closet that we added a cabinet door to, a bonus!

Lee Wenk

I had real issues with my Dometic, so I paid somebody to remove it and ordered a residential unit. They delivered it to my motor home. I just had to fill the extra space with drawers and get the new refer into that space. No problems. We never boondocked and I loved it.
When I got my new MH I asked that the existing refer be replaced with a residential and have never looked back.
Having come from a sailor wannabe world I do know about Danfoss swing compressors. They work and I’m a little surprised that more manufacturers don’t offer them as an option.

Renee from Idaho

I’ve often wondered about the use of a residential fridge, that seems to come now in so many of the higher end fifth wheels, when boondocking. Boondocking and dry camping is our primary camping method. We have a solar system, but not enough to supply this type of fridge. I’m very happy to stick with our current RV fridge, size and all. Thanks for the informative article.

Sally G

It’s getting harder to find newer model RVs that don’t already have residential fridges. When we bought our 2015 model class a gasser new, we chose it for the floorplan, and had no choice regarding the fridge – it was a residential, with a pure sine wave inverter.
We have always loved boondocking and had installed solar on our previous rig, so we installed solar on the new rig and have been fine, can go indefinitely without shore power or using the generator, given good weather. We hate using the generator and feel its inconsiderate to constantly run one.

We love that there are no more concerns with needing to turn off the propane power supply to the fridge while traveling, and also that being 100% level is not a requiremant for residential fridges. We would go for another residential fridge in a heartbeat, it definitely works better and more reliably than the propane fridge in our previous rig.

It does concern me to learn that manufacturers’ warranty may be void, by having the fridge in an RV, though.

Robert Garbe

great article. I have been using the ARPRV modules for 5 years and they are great. FYI, Winnebago used a Nova Cool marine frig for a short time in the Fuse and Travato, but went to a cheap Danby after that. The marine industries are light years ahead of RV’s, but RVers want CHEAP, and that is the problem.

Patrick Granahan

Let’s face it…you are either a camper or you want to drag around your house when traveling.
The idea of having a residential 120 volt refrigerator in an RV may sound great to a RV traveler but it seems counterproductive if you are a “real camper”.
The residential refrigerator requiring “city” power just does not fit in a wilderness setting.
Trying to create your own power supply using solar, batteries, gasoline or diesel generators etc sounds like a real project and not camping. Make up your mind…real camping or just rent a cabin width electric power like your home….or…buy a cabin on a lake.
If you need full electric residential convince and can’t live without 120 volt power chances are you are not a real camper…stay home and watch TV.

Having camped since 1983 in a travel trailer with a standard propane/ battery/shore power
RV refrigerator I quite frankly can’t understand the need for the inconvenience of dragging a residential refrigerator along on a camping trip.
If properly cared for a propane powered refrigerator will last forever.

Cary Nickel

I’ve gotta go with a gas unit. Our entire purpose for RV’ing is to be out in the boonies, dry camping. No shore power needed. The Dometic fridge in our 2019 Passport (we purchased the unit last July) works great. Much improved from past gas fridges we’ve owned. It’s roomy, gets cold quick, and makes ice in the freezer even on the hottest days, and in my experience, gas fridges are very efficient when it comes to propane usage.

This is our first ELECTRONIC gas fridge. Previously, on our older RV, we could light the fridge and guarantee that it would run until we ran out of propane..no 12 volt required. It remains to be seen how the electronics will hold up. (The “board” in our water heater gave up the ghost first trip out), but so far, we’re totally happy with a gas fridge.

Thomas A Geis

Just change out the Norcold for a residential unit, wife loves it. We don’t camp in the woods and have an inverter while on the road then the RV park so power is not a problem. Installed thru the front door so no space problem, just need two guys with strong backs. Yes there are Warranty issues but you have to consider I can buy TWO residentials for the price of one RV unit.