How Does An RV Refrigerator Work?

Although both the RV and residential refrigerators serve the same purpose of keeping your food cold, they have completely different operational paths.

While your home model relies on electricity to function, the RV model relies on propane or gas as its primary source of energy. Unlike your residential unit, the RV refrigerator features neither a compressor nor any moving parts.

If you want to discover more about how an RV refrigerator operates, check out our in-depth guide below.

How RV Refrigerator Works?

As we have just mentioned above, the RV refrigerators work differently from standard refrigerators.


Unlike the standard model which use a compressor to keep things cool, the RV fridge has no moving parts. Instead, it uses a combination of chemicals—hydrogen gas, ammonia, and water—to enable it to maintain the cold temperatures necessary to keep your food fresh for longer.

It uses the heat provided by open frame (products by propane) to send the above fluids through various tubes. And in the process, chemical reactions are formed. These reactions in turn create evaporation and condensation which are responsible for keeping things cool inside the fridge.

A fridge that uses this working mechanism is known as an absorption refrigerator.

Here’s a step by step outline of how the RV refrigerator works:

Step One: Boiling Ammonia

The operation path of RV refrigerator kicks off in the generator or boiler, a vessel that contains dissolved ammonia inside.

A burner is used to heat the boiler until the boiling point of ammonia is reached. Because Ammonia is capable of boiling at a lower temperature than the water, it’ll leave the generator and waft up the pump tube and into the condenser.


Once inside the condenser, the ammonia will then dissipate its heat and start to cooling into liquid form (without any water in it).

Step Two: Cooling down Ammonia

Now the liquid ammonia that have just been formed above starts flowing from the condenser into an evaporator, which is basically a freezing chamber filled with hydrogen gas.

since this is a low-pressure chamber, the ammonia will be forced to expand. and in so doing, it cools rapidly.

An integrated fan will blow on the evaporator to help cool air as it blows past it. The cold air is then circulated through the refrigerator.

As you can easily guess, it’s inside the evaporator that the RV fridge’s COOLIN ACTION is created.

Step Three: Going back to step One

The fridge comes integrated with a device known as absorber that sends water trickling through the evaporation (freezing chamber). Ammonia will easily dissolve in the water but the hydrogen will not.

The water will then trickle down with dissolved ammonia via a tube and it eventually finds itself back to where it came from—the generator.

Once the ammonia lands in the generator/boiler the cycle starts all over again.

Can The RV Fridge Run On Electricity?

Absolutely! Some of the latest models you’ll find on the market today offer you the versatility of using both the propane gas and electricity sources of power.

This is great because it ensures you can still use your fridge even if you’re traveling or camping in an area without electricity. And once you get to an area with electrify hookup, you can turn off the propane gas and run the fridge using electrical power.

Note that the recent models are able to switch between propane and electricity automatically, making them even more convenient to operate.

And in case you’re wondering how the electricity is going to provide heat to the fridge, these models come with a built-in heating element that produces the heat needed to keep things going.

Keep in mind that when choosing the best RV fridge, you’ll come across various options which we can categorize as:

  • 2-way RV refrigerator: this is the most common type of fridge among RVers and it comes designed to run off either LP gas or AC power from the generator or campground hookup (hence the name “2-way”). However, the problem with this type of fridge is that it might be too expensive to buy or repair. It MUST also be kept in a level position when running. Otherwise, it’ll get hot and destroy itself, risking fire hazards in your RV.
  • 3-way RV refrigerator: this type of fridge is even more versatile as it can run off LP gas, AC power, and even DC power from your RV batteries.

It’s also worth noting that manufacturers are now producing electric-only residential-style refrigerators for use in RVs. Some come pre-installed in the RVs. Or you can choose to install one on your own to replace the tradition propane/electric model.

How Much Propane Will Your RV Fridge Use When Working?

When running your RV refrigerator, you might want to just how much propane it can consume to enable you to plan things ahead.

Usually, how much propane is used mainly depends on the type of ridge you’re using as well as the temperature conditions when it’s running.

That said, you can expect your RV fridge to consume approx. 1.5lbs of propane in a day.


There you have it! That’s how an RV refrigerator works to keep your foods cool and fresh for longer. As you have discovered in this guide, the RV fridge have a completely different working method that the residential fridge. Unlike the regular model which uses compressors, the RV model relies on chemical reactions to function.

Note that you can find RV fridges that use both the electricity and propane gas as sources of energy, giving you versatility and convenience when it comes to running your fridge.

  • Updated January 29, 2020
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