The worst thing to discover on your camping trip is that all of your food is going to spoil because your fridge is not working. Before you let this dampen your trip and you head off to fill the cooler with ice, you may be able to fix it. Here is a few tips and things to check before you claim your fridge as broken
Step 1. Do you Smell Ammonia?
Checking for an ammonia smell in and around your fridge is the first thing you should do if you notice that your fridge isn’t working. If you smell ammonia, that means that your Cooling Unit is leaking.
What is the cooling unit? The cooling unit is the set of metal coils at the rear of your refrigerator.
The cooling unit needs to be level, have the correct heat source, and have adequate ventilation to work. If all 3 of these things are happening, then most likely there is a leak. Another way to detect a bad cooling unit if you do not smell ammonia is if there is Sodium Chromate on the outside of the unit. Sodium Chromate is a yellow or greenish powder that is supposed to be inside the unit. If it is found on the outside, there is a hole somewhere in the unit. Another way to detect a leaking or bad cooling unit is if you can hear it gurgling and making noise from a few feet away. This is too loud for a healthy cooling unit, and should be a good sign that the cooling unit is bad.
So, what do I do? You should first test the cooling unit by pulling the refrigerator out and setting it on a flat, level surface. Make sure that the three requirements are met to the cooling unit (adequate ventilation, correct heat, and level surface), and if the refrigerator still hasn’t cooled after about 2-4 hours it is safe to say that the cooling unit is leaking or broken.
The only way to solve this problem is to have the cooling unit replaced or repaired on the fridge. Although this won’t solve your problem immediately, it is good to know for future trips.
Step 2: I Don’t Smell Ammonia and the Cooling Unit Looks and Sounds Fine.
If your cooling unit looks, smells, and sounds fine, here is the next step in figuring out what is wrong with your fridge.
Your fridge should be able to work on a 2-way power system. This means that it can be powered by either Electric or Gas or both. If the fridge is hooked up to both power sources and it is not working, try hooking it up to each of the sources separately. If it works on one and not the other, then the problem isn’t with the fridge, it is with the power source.
If the Electrical Power Source is not working, first check your circuit breaker to make sure that you are getting power to your fridge. If it is on and it still is not working, you can use a multimeter to test the voltage in the outlet. You should be getting a reading of about 110-120 volts of electricity. If you don’t have a multimeter, another option would be to plug in another small appliance like a cell phone charger, lamp, or fan to see if the outlet works with any other objects.
If all of the test objects work and your fridge still does not, it is time to check the voltage in the electrical heating element on the back of the fridge. WARNING: This test will be done on high voltage electricity and can be dangerous. If you have never done this and are uncomfortable with doing this, it would be best to consult a professional. For this test, you will need a multimeter (view on Amazon). Look at the back of the fridge and locate the cooling unit. You should first power off the refrigerator by unplugging it.
Then, you should remove the shielding from the cooling unit. Once that is done, locate the wires that power the heating element (they are typically in a small case below the cooling unit). Place the multimeter around the heating element and reconnect the fridge and turn the power on. If you detect voltage in one wire and not the other, the heating element may have burned out. This will be an easy fix and would require you to order a heating element, which can be bought on Amazon.
If you don’t find any voltage when you do this test, you should take your RV refrigerator to professional. There is most likely a problem internally with the refrigerator.
If the gas power doesn’t work:
If the gas power is not working, you must first determine if your flame is good. This is also known as a Pilot Light. You will know if you have a good Pilot Light if it stays lit after you have started the power. If it goes out shortly after, then your thermocouple may be causing the problem.
What is a thermocouple? The Thermocouple is the device that produces a temperature-dependent voltage due to an electric effect. Basically, it converts heat energy into an electric current and allows the gas to flow to the appliance. It looks like a brass colored tube connected to the back of the refrigerator, and also connected to the gas burner.
This is a common problem for RV Refrigerators, so it would be a good idea to keep a couple extra tubes with you in your RV.
Before your remove or replace the Thermocouple, make sure that the valve is switched on to release gas to the fridge. You can also clean out the area around the frame to make sure there is no debris blocking the burner from creating a flame. You can clean this with a wire brush. If you see a steady blue flame after doing this, your fridge should now work. If not, continue to replace the Thermocouple
What if neither works?
If neither the gas or the electric work, you can try servicing and testing both the electric and the gas as listed above in case there is a problem with both elements, but if you are having no success, you should have a professional technician come out to look at the fridge.
What if both power supply work?
If both of the power supply are working properly and the fridge is still not working, there must be a problem somewhere else in the cooling system.
If you are certain the cooling system is functioning properly, you can try pressing the small black reset button next to the power supply and start the fridge again.
Step 3: Check if the freezer is working
If you find that the freezer is working but the fridge is not, it is likely that there is a blockage in the diffuser. The diffuser is a duct between the freezer and the fridge that allows the cold air from the freezer to travel into the fridge. This is usually done with the support of a fan. If the duct is blocked by ice, you will need to clear is so the air may travel through. If the duct is unblocked, listen for the fan. If you cannot hear the fan running (it usually turns off when the door is open) then you should check to make sure the fan isn’t stuck on anything or obstructed by ice. If the fan is not working at all, it will need to be replaced
Step 4: I checked everything and it still won’t work
If you have checked everything and the refrigerator still won’t work, there are a few uncommon problems that you can check for.
1. Ammonia Sediment Buildup: This is common in an RV that hasn’t been run or used for a long amount of time (like during the winter). If the ammonia in the cooling unit is left alone for too long, it starts to leak out and drip down onto the cooling unit.
2. Frozen Cooling Unit: This option will only be applicable if you live in an area with a colder climate that is around negative 30 degrees Fahrenheit. At temperatures this low, your fridge can freeze. The liquid inside the cooling unit of the fridge will freeze and be unable to cycle through, causing the fridge to not work. Make sure if you are camping in the extreme cold to properly insulate to prevent this from happening.
3. Fridge Burner Fail: This is only applicable if you are camping at high altitudes. At high altitudes, gas starts to act up due to the air being so thin. Excess air can seep into your gas lines and cause your fridge to burn up. Make sure to switch to strictly and electric power supply if you are camping at high altitudes to prevent this.
If your refrigerator still isn’t running, (Hello? Is your refrigerator running?) there it may be best to call in a professional or get a new unit all together.
Before you go testing out all of these theories, it is important that I note the more common knowledge aspects of RV parking that may assist you in your problem like 1. Parking in the shade. Refrigerators are affected by the outside heat, so make sure you help it by parking in the shade so it doesn’t have to work as hard. 2. Properly ventilate. Make sure that you are leaving a gap between the fridge and the wall, and above the fridge as well. Make sure you clean these gaps often to free them of dust buildup. Your refrigerator is trying to breath through these gaps, so it’s best to not let them get all clogged up. 3. Make sure you are parking on level ground. Even the slightest angle could affect the operation of your refrigerator. Parking at an angle can cause sediment buildup in the cooling system and cause it to be ineffective.
As always, if you are unsure about what you are doing and are uncomfortable trying to fix your unit yourself, make sure to consult a professional. They may even be able to walk you through a solution on the phone so you can continue your camping trip in the luxury you expect out of your RV. Always remember to keep an extra Thermocouple on hand before you set out on your expedition. If you are just taking your RV out for the first time in a few months, make sure you check out the cooling system in the refrigerator and test that it works before heading out on your next adventure. You may get there and find that your fridge is not working!
Good luck and safe travels!