As an RV owner, you likely plan each of your trips down to the letter. This involves budgeting everything you’re going to need for weeks on end, from gas to food to activities. Speaking of food, you probably keep your meals pretty simple while on the road. RV kitchens can indeed rival those you have back at home, but there’s still not as much space to prepare complicated meals.
If your RV refrigerator breaks down, your first inclination may be to panic. After all, it’s not like you can overlook this issue for very long. A damaged or even broken refrigerator won’t keep your food warm, which means you will have to throw everything out. That’s a lot of money down the drain.
Not only that, but now you have to spend even more money to get the RV refrigerator fixed, right? Well, you could, or you could just do it yourself.
With a little bit of patience, guidance, and some basic appliance know-how, you can fix most common refrigerator issues no matter where your travels take you. It’s easier than you think, too, especially if you read and follow these handy troubleshooting tips.
We’ll go over all your most burning questions and issues when it comes to a malfunctioning RV refrigerator, offering helpful repair tips you can typically complete in a few steps.
Problem: The refrigerator doesn’t keep cool anymore, and the model is not even that old.
You’re not sure what the problem is here. Your fridge is only a few years old, and this is the first issue you’ve had with it. Your fridge used to keep your food cool just fine, but lately you’re having to throw out more and more food because it’s gone bad early.
If you have an RV, and especially if you have a travel trailer, the issue may be a simpler fix than you thought.
Troubleshooting: Check your angles.
The general lifespan of an appliance like a refrigerator is at least 14 years. Sometimes you can milk 17 years out of them with proper maintenance. If you sprung for a brand-new RV, then your refrigerator should also be shiny and new as well. If your motorhome is used, you’d expect your fridge to be a few years old, but certainly not old enough to start giving you problems.
There should be no reason for it to stop cooling. What we recommend you check for is so obvious it’s almost silly, but it makes a very big difference in how well your refrigerator runs. We’re talking about the angle of the fridge.
Think about it. Back at home, your fridge is on a hard kitchen floor that’s flat and totally even. The house never moves, so the fridge never shifts. RVs are not that stable, and slight changes to the angle of the backend of the vehicle where the fridge sits can affect how well it works.
Want to know for sure if your fridge is at an angle? You’ll need a level. Alternately, measuring tape and a ruler work just as well. Once you figure out the offending angle your fridge is positioned at, correct it. That should solve the problem.
Problem: The refrigerator’s pilot light doesn’t stay lit.
Here’s a lesson on the anatomy of the RV refrigerator. While it may look and work a lot like the refrigerator in your kitchen back at home, there are some key differences.
Your fridge at home is connected to a power source as well as a water line for making ice, but your RV fridge has no such connections. Instead, these appliances rely on electricity or propane gas, and—for certain models—sometimes both power sources. To keep the fridge running, a pilot light or burner is a necessary component.
The pilot light should always be firing if the fridge is on. That will ignite the fridge burners, providing the power to the fridge so your milk, eggs, and other favorite foods stay cool and edible.
Sometimes, though, the pilot light doesn’t do what it should. You’ll realize it’s out, light it, then come back to the fridge a few hours later to discover it’s once again burned out.
Troubleshooting: Check your pilot light gas line and the thermocouple.
The pilot light gas line is responsible for providing the gas needed to ignite the pilot light. Over time, though, this line can get full of air, which obstructs the gas. Remember, no pilot light means no fridge burners, and that means no cool food.
You can fix this issue by finding the gas valves. First, though, turn your refrigerator off. Then turn the gas valves off as well. Wait a few minutes and then power them back on.
This hard reset should clear the pilot light gas line of extra air. It may take a few minutes for the pilot light to kick back on because gas has to cycle through the line again, but you shouldn’t have any further problems.
If that by chance doesn’t solve the issue, then the thermocouple could be to blame. This refrigerator component has a very important job, in that it maintains the gas levels that pass through the pilot light gas line. Too much gas could cause a fire, yet too little could keep putting out the pilot light.
If the thermocouple stops regulating gas amounts, you’re going to have to get a new one. Otherwise, your pilot light will continue going out.
Problem: The flame lights, but it’s not very strong.
Perhaps you’ve gotten your pilot light and burner going, but the flame is quite weak. It seems like if you even blew in that direction, the flame would go out.
If you don’t clean out the components of your fridge at least annually, you could end up with a buildup of dirt, debris, and even rust. The burner may fail, or you could get a weak flame that barely keeps the fridge running.
Troubleshooting: Clean the burner and related components.
Get into a habit of keeping the burner area clean, doing so once or twice a year. You should not use soap and water for these components, but rather a portable vacuum cleaner. That will suck up any dust, dirt, and debris that’s blocking the burner.
What if it’s an issue with rust? If that’s the case, then you probably should call in a professional repair technician. They can take a look at the burner and let you know if it’s something that can be fixed or replaced. You shouldn’t need a whole new refrigerator, at least.
Problem: Now the fridge burner doesn’t want to light at all.
As you now know, your refrigerator either runs on propane or electricity, as mentioned, and maybe even both. Hopefully, if you have a propane fridge, you’re not trying to use electric power to run it and vice-versa. If you are, that could damage the burner.
You should also make sure that you clean out your propane cylinders, as they can contribute to burner issues as well.
If you just followed the above troubleshooting tips and your fridge burner still doesn’t want to light, it could be for a rather surprising reason: your altitude.
Troubleshooting: Check your altitude and know when to switch power sources.
Here’s a fun fact you might not know: the fridge’s burner is likely to stop working as you achieve higher altitudes, especially if you have a propane fridge.
Why is this? Liquid propane cannot handle higher altitudes, such as those that are 5,550 feet and above. The burners have to work that much harder to do their job, which could lead to burner failure.
If you plan on taking a trip to the mountains or other areas of high altitudes, make sure you switch your refrigerator power source to AC power. That will preserve your burners. Once you get back down to a normal altitude, you can change the power source back.
Problem: The cooling unit has frozen over.
It’s not everyday the cooling unit in the fridge freezes, but it is something you should be aware of. You should also know that this is not something that will happen if you use the fridge every day or even a few times a month, as it will never get cold enough to freeze on its own.
Instead, you’ll only have to concern yourself with this issue if you’re the type who likes to take winter trips in the RV where the temperatures so are cold they’re dropping to the negatives (like -30 degrees Fahrenheit, which is just bitterly, bitterly cold).
You could also run into trouble if you leave your RV in a park during the off-season and the temperatures are in the negatives.
Troubleshooting: Don’t subject your RV to very cold temperatures.
This troubleshooting tip isn’t so much as a fix as just a word to the wise. The cooling solution inside the fridge is a liquid, but if it’s subjected to very cold temperatures, it can freeze. It then becomes a solid, blocking up the air lines and heat sources of your fridge.
If certain components become frozen for long periods, it’s possible the fridge could be permanently broken.
Problem: You haven’t used your fridge in a while, and now it’s running very slowly.
Chances are, if you left your RV for the off-season and you come back to fridge issues, it’s because ammonia sediment has accumulated.
This sediment only forms during long breaks, like months to a year of non-use. Also, you likely won’t have this issue if your fridge is only a few years old.
So what happens?
Ammonia turns to liquid within the fridge and begins to seep to the cooling unit. This cooling unit, which has its own fluid, now cannot cool the fridge much if at all.
Sometimes the ammonia will become a non-liquid sediment and move to the cooling unit on top of the liquid ammonia. This backs up the cooling unit even more, since it’s now further obstructed. You might not notice this problem right away, because sediment tends to accumulate gradually. By the time you realize it’s an issue, though, all your food has probably spoiled.
Troubleshooting: Don’t let your fridge sit for more than a few months.
If you’re going to leave your RV in a park for the off-season or you’re not going to drive it for a while, don’t leave the fridge sitting. Come back every few months to turn it on and run it for an hour or so.
This should be enough to avoid developing a buildup of ammonia, whether in liquid form, sediment form, or both.
Otherwise, your fridge might have a significantly shorter lifespan. Remember, you could get up to 17 years out of some fridges, so it’d be a shame if you had to throw it out at 10 or 12 years because of an ammonia issue.
Problem: Cooling fluid is leaking around the fridge.
Above, we discussed what to do to avoid a frozen cooling unit. Now you’re having the opposite problem, where coolant is leaking. This fluid is made of ammonia, hydrogen, and water, so it’s not dangerous per se, but it’s still not something you want to be sopping up every few hours. Plus, the smell is unpleasant.
Here’s how you can tell you have a cooling fluid leak:
- The cooling unit has turned yellow and is covered in an unappealing residue.
- The boiler and absorber are warm.
- The fridge stinks strongly of ammonia.
Troubleshooting: Test for a leak and then call in a pro.
You’re going to have to let a professional technician take care of the hard work here, but you can do some troubleshooting to test whether there is a leak.
This is a little complicated, so be sure to go slowly. If you don’t feel comfortable with certain elements of this job, you can always leave everything to the pros.
If you are ready to go, look for white 110-volt wires that are connected to the refrigerator’s heating element. Then, take a 110 VAC element and connect those wires to the element carefully.
Now, unplug your refrigerator. You will need to buy a fridge thermometer, like this one on Amazon, for this next step. Place the thermometer in a full glass of water, which you will then leave in the fridge for 12 hours.
Do not open the fridge door anytime before the 12 hours has fully elapsed or you could accidentally lower the temperature. Once time is up, check the temperature. It should linger around 43 degrees Fahrenheit or below.
This test confirms a cooling fluid leak, which is a relatively easy fix. If there’s a bigger issue, the temperature will be below 43 degrees.
Just as you do at home, you rely on your RV refrigerator quite a lot. There are even more components inside an RV fridge compared to the household kind, which means there’s more that can go wrong.
For most of these issues, there’s no need to dig around for the number of a handyman while you’re on the road. Instead, by cleaning some components and watching how you use your fridge (and especially how long you leave it dormant), you might be able to get a good decade or two out of it.
Of course, if any of these jobs make you uncomfortable, that’s totally okay. A repair technician knows RV refrigerators inside and out and can probably get yours up and running in a matter of hours.
If you want to get more DIY with your RV, though, you do have the option. So next time your fridge is warm or the cold air is coming out slowly, you know what to do: consult these troubleshooting tips and get to work. Good luck!