Why Is My RV Refrigerator Not Working? Troubleshooting Guide


One of the most convenient things about camping in an RV is having the amenities of a home. But just like home, sometimes things break down. RV refrigerators sometimes operate off the batteries, propane, shore power, or generator, making troubleshooting problematic, leaving many RV owners wondering why is my RV refrigerator not working?

Here’s what I’ve learned from owning my RV:

An RV refrigerator can lose power when the propane runs out or the batteries are drained when not connected to shore power. Two-way refrigerators run off of either electricity or propane. Three-way refrigerators have the additional option of running off of 12-volt battery power.

But there’s a lot of other reasons that an RV refrigerator might not work.

A tripped breaker could simply mean that you just need to replace a fuse. But if your breaker hasn’t tripped, it could be a sign that you have an electrical problem or need to replace the heating element.

But that’s not all there is to know about your RV refrigerator. In this article, we’ll dive deep into potential causes for your refrigerator not working. We’ll also discuss troubleshooting and when it might be time to get a new one.

Why Is My RV fridge not working on electricity?

Your RV fridge will stop working on electricity because of a bad control board. If you have no tripped circuit breakers, it could also be that you have a shorted electrical refrigerator heating element.

If you have a newer RV, you likely have a two-way fridge.

This means it either works off of propane or off of 120-volt electricity. Some older models have three-way fridges that work off propane, 120-volt electricity, and 12-volt electricity.

Assuming you have a two-way refrigerator, check first to make sure you don’t have any blown fuses. When a fridge is running on 120-volt electricity, it’s wired through your circuit breaker, just like in your house. So check your circuit panel first.

If you find a tripped circuit breaker, reset it and try running the fridge on electric again. If it trips again, there is a chance you have a shorted heating element.

If you don’t have a tripped breaker, or if it doesn’t trip again, it could be that something went wrong with the heating element. Alternatively, it could be a bad control board.

If you are not comfortable replacing these items yourself, you may need to call a professional.

You can either take it to the repair shop or call someone to come to you. Keep in mind that an empty refrigerator takes a long time to cool down. So, if you haven’t used it in a while, or if it’s hot outside, it may just need some extra time to cool down.

If the control board and heating element test fine, just put a couple of frozen 2-liter bottles inside of the fridge when you turn it on. This will help it cool down faster.

You also need to make sure your camper is level.

Unlike your home refrigerator, your RV refrigerator does not have a compressor. Instead, it has a gas absorption cooling system. The electric heating element heats the gas inside the fridge’s cooling unit. This causes it to rise inside the cooling unit tube and circulate throughout the system.

If it’s not level, the gas will not rise. It won’t circulate properly, which means the cooling unit won’t be doing its job.

How do I reset my RV refrigerator?

Every model of RV refrigerator is different, but in most models, the reset button can be found inside the refrigerator. Just press it and you’ve successfully reset your RV refrigerator.

It is impossible to reset your refrigerator by turning it on and off like you can if your outlets aren’t working. In most models, you will find a reset button inside of the fridge itself.

If you have determined that you don’t need to replace your heating element or control board, you may want to try resetting your fridge. Generally, you can reset your outlets by disconnecting any power and reconnecting the power. That’s not possible with your refrigerator.

Most people know the term RV stands for “recreational vehicle.” Some people also know the term motorhome and will often use the terms interchangeably.

But did you know that not RVs are motorhomes?

An RV is any recreational vehicle, including those with motors such as a Class A, B, or C. But RVs can also include non-motorized campers such as travel trailers and 5th Wheels, which would not be classified as a motorhome.

To learn more about the differences between the terms, check out this recent article.

Just click the link to read it on my site.

How do I know if my RV refrigerator runs on propane?

If your RV refrigerator runs on both propane and electricity, your refrigerator will have a panel that will allow you to switch back and forth. But you can also test it and see if it still cools when not connected to shore power and when your inverter is off.

Most RV refrigerators can run off of either a 120-volt electrical system or propane.

Most modern RV fridges can be set to switch between propane or electricity automatically. This way, you don’t have to remember to switch it.

RV refrigerators are categorized into two kinds of refrigerators: two-way or three-way. They both run off of either electric or propane. The three-way adds in the additional benefit of running off of battery power, too.

In short, you are likely using a refrigerator that runs off of both features and can use either gas or electricity. But electric just isn’t as efficient when it comes to energy usage.

A single 20-pound propane tank can last up to a month, under most circumstances. This includes using the water heater, cooking, and running the fridge.

On the other hand, running an RV fridge on battery power alone will deplete it’s way below the recommended limit of 50% within just a few hours of usage.

When your refrigerator is operating properly, the flame will heat the boil assembly and run the absorption refrigerator. The flame should be solid blue and not bounce around. Generally, it will run on gas, unless it is set to automatic or you’ve set it to run on electricity.

If you set it on automatic, the gas will switch off and run on electricity when it is available. Alternatively, if the electricity is disconnected, the gas will kick on automatically. It may take a few minutes.

If you find that your gas isn’t kicking on, check the battery power to make sure there is enough power to ignite the refrigerator. It needs at least 10.5 volts to open up the gas valve and spark the igniter.

Your RV should also be level, and the igniter should be free of debris. If all looks good, allow up to 24 hours for your propane refrigerator to get cold enough.

Does an RV fridge need battery power to run on propane?

An RV fridge doesn’t need battery power to run on propane, but it does need battery power to open the gas valve and spark the igniter. The front panel LEDs and thermostat run off of battery power, too.

Most importantly, though, all modern RV refrigerators have an electronic control board.

This control board acts as the brains of the fridge. It requires a 12-volt current for the unit to operate. One of the things it controls is the gas valve. If no power is present, the valve will close, and no propane will flow through the burner. If the burner isn’t heating, the refrigerator isn’t cooling.

If you find that your gas isn’t kicking on, check the battery power to make sure there is enough power to ignite the refrigerator. It needs at least 10.5 volts to open up the gas valve and spark the igniter.

Even though your fridge may be running on propane, most modern refrigerators need to draw some electricity. This usually comes from the battery. The front panel LEDs, thermostat control panel, and ignition all need electricity.

As an RV owner, you know that most RVs have a battery for the motor, just like a car battery.

But they also have a battery, or even multiple batteries, to power the inside of the RV, too. If you have a 3-way refrigerator, those batteries will power the fridge, too. But if you are unsure of the differences between the battery systems, read this recent article.

Just click the link to read it on my site.

Can a propane RV refrigerator run on a generator?

If your RV refrigerator runs on both propane and electricity, it can run on a generator. Most RV refrigerators will run off of multiple power sources. They usually include electricity, propane, and a 12-volt battery. 

So yes, your RV refrigerator probably does run on a generator.

Most operate best while using propane, but you may not want to run it on propane if you are running your refrigerator while driving. If you have a three-way refrigerator, just switch it over to 12-volt power. That’s why you have it, after all.

If you don’t have a three-way refrigerator, traveling with your propane turned on allows your refrigerator to keep running efficiently. Propane also keeps water hot in your water heater and keeps your RV warm.

The benefits of running propane consistently are pretty straightforward.

However, most refrigerator manufacturers recommend cutting off the propane at the tank while driving. This is for safety reasons.

Appliances, even heavy ones, can move while on the road. Propane lines aren’t super sturdy, so the lines can become pinched or even break. If you happen to get into an accident and propane leaks and sparks, it could be problematic. Remember, it doesn’t take much to ignite propane gas. You also need to make sure you shut off all pilot lights and propane valves before entering a fueling station.

In some states, it may be prohibited by law to keep your propane on while driving or going through tunnels. So you can check each state’s laws, or you can just keep the fridge off.

In fact, most modern refrigerators are very efficient at keeping things cool for quite a long time. This makes it unnecessary to run your refrigerator while driving.

As long as you started with a cold refrigerator and kept it closed while traveling, it will stay nice and cool for several hours.

If you put a big bag of ice in the freezer compartment, it will stay cool even longer. Make sure all of the seals are tight, and the door is locked if possible. You only lose about 4 degrees for every 8 hours the fridge is off.

Additionally, you can purchase a fridge fan for about $20. The fridge fan circulates cool air. Simply place it on the bottom shelf next to a small bag of ice for maximum efficiency.

If you are concerned about your fridge getting too warm or just want to experiment with temperature changes, purchase a fridge thermometer.

A fridge thermometer is a good idea anyway. Whether you keep your fridge running or turn it off while traveling, they are an inexpensive way to ensure food safety all the time, not just when driving.

How long do RV refrigerators last?

RV refrigerators last an average of 12-15 years. And a well-maintained RV refrigerator can last up to 20 years.

Taking care of your refrigerator can help it last quite a long time. Some tips to get the most life out of your RV refrigerator are below:

1. Level your RV

Make sure your RV is level. Using your refrigerator on uneven surfaces can result in malfunctioning. If it’s comfortable to walk around in, it’s good enough. But it’s better to have it as perfectly level as possible.

2. Keep it ON or OFF?

You’ve probably heard that constantly switching your refrigerator on and off can shorten the overall lifespan.

This isn’t true. RV refrigerators are designed specifically for RV use. Manufacturers understand that people are going to be turning the units on and off with frequency. The only thing you will do by leaving your fridge on is to increase your energy usage.

When it’s not in use, go ahead and turn it off. If you don’t travel frequently, you may want to consider running it now and then. Just to make sure it’s still working and it’s not growing mold or something inside.

3. Close the door

For any type of fridge, you want to avoid leaving the door open or opening it too frequently. Limiting the amount of time the door is open will help keep the contents cooler and lengthen the refrigerator’s life.

4. Defrost the freezer

Refrigerators should be defrosted monthly or bi-monthly. This does not only make them last longer but also keeps ice from accumulating. Accumulation of ice can make it less efficient.

5. Get it serviced

It would be best to get it serviced regularly. Flue cleaning and an airflow check will keep your refrigerator running smoothly. Preventative maintenance will prolong the life of the fridge and catch any potential problems ahead of time.

What is the best RV refrigerator?

RecPro makes some of the best RV refrigerators in both small and large sizes, up to 10.7 cubic feet. 

Below are my recommendations for RV refrigerators of all sizes. All links take you to the product page on Amazon.

For smaller needs, the RecPro RV Refrigerator provides 3.3 cubic feet of storage. It connects directly into your 12 volt DC power and only draws 15 amps and 180 watts total. It measures 32 ¾ inches high by 19 inches wide. It’s 19 inches deep, making it perfect for small spaces.

For medium-sized spaces, the SMETA Electric 110V/Propane Absorption Refrigerator with Freezer, 6.1 Cu.ft, White has a nice-sized top freezer. It’s about twice the size of the RecPro at 6.1 cubic feet of storage space. It has 3 interior shelves. It also has an absorption cooling system without a compressor, which is highly efficient, quiet, and environmental-friendly. And that means a longer lifespan too.

If you need an even bigger refrigerator, this RecPro RV Refrigerator has a whopping 10.7 cubic feet in storage space. It has a full-sized fridge and a top freezer. It’s 23.5 inches wide and 59 ⅝ inches tall. It is 24 ¾ deep. The best part is that it is frost-free! This means you won’t have to worry about ice and frost building up inside.

Did I answer everything you wanted to know about why your RV refrigerator is not working?

You can expect your RV refrigerator to last several years, especially with good usage practices, and some preventative maintenance.

Whether you have a 2-way or 3-way refrigerator, it needs to be kept level. Also, keep the door closed as much as possible.

Whether you turn it off or keep it on in between uses, it won’t make a difference to the life-span of the machine.

Have you had your refrigerator serviced lately?


Photo which requires attribution:

Horse Trailer with Living Quarters Video Walkthrough – 2015 Cimarron Norstar by Trailers of the East Coast is licensed under CC2.0

Jeff Campbell

Jeff Campbell travels on and off with his 3 daughters in a Newmar Baystar Class A Motorhome. He writes extensively on both RVs, campgrounds, parenting on the road tips, remote learning & schooling, and much more!

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