Low energy RV refrigerator saves much energy, work and frustration.

When the 2015 camping bug hit a low energy RV refrigerator became a big issue.

The old refrigerator cooling unit has died for the third time and we could not camp without it.  Once again I thought about having to run the generator when we go to our favorite nearby fishing lake.  The generator created noise and fumes, besides costing money to run all day.  I had already concluded that the refrigerator was the biggest of the top four coach energy hogs.  Thus I started on the path toward finding a low energy RV refrigerator.

Our old refrigerator sported beautiful double doors with panels matching our maple cabinetry.  The refrigerator’s beauty was the only positive in that love affair.  All the promotional literature of the day bragged about the  “Tri-Mode” feature.  Tri-Mode means that the refrigerator operates from propane or AC/DC electricity.

The cooling unit for that refrigerator deserved most of the blame for the many faults we encountered.  Apparently the designers focused on the Tri-Mode feature the marketing department hung its hat on.  Low energy RV camping carried not particular advantage to buyers in the early days of that lifestyle.  Propane sold for pennies compared to today and so did gasoline and diesel fuel.  Therefore most RV owners used those fuels and never worried about the cost.

By 2015 the cooling unit gave out in the refrigerator for the third time.  If we had replaced the cooling unit, it would have been our fourth unit. The $2,000 replacement cost seemed outrageous at the time.  The refrigerator had been giving us continuous problems since the motor home was purchased new.  The manufacturer would not replace the cooling unit for free.  Nor would they give any price concessions after the first replacement.

Finding a low energy RV refrigerator suddenly captured a lot of my attention.

That old refrigerator suffered with being the most unreliable part of the entire motor home by far.  The following list presents some of the many problems we had with our expensive refrigerator:

The old refrigerator had so many non-energy related problems.  A low energy RV refrigerator seemed only to be a bonus.

We encountered all the following non-energy problems:

  • Keeping the unit cold enough in hot weather was always a big challenge.  The cooling capacity was just not large enough
  • Refrigerator Cooling fins frosted over within two or three days after already being defrosted manually. The following describes the terrible process we endured while traveling or camping:
    • Open the doors wide open and transfer all the food to a few camping coolers
    • Use my wife’s hair drying to make the process proceed slightly faster
    • Keep breaking up the accumulated ice
    • Mop up the melted water before it ran all over the kitchen floor
    • Wipe down and thoroughly dry the entire interior compartments.  Otherwise frost would form immediately on the fins
    • The ice maker presented a particular challenge getting it sufficiently dried out
    • We replaced the food once the compartments were completely dried out
    • This whole process often took half a day and was a project I always dreaded.  We often just let the ice build up a lot before we tackled the job once again!

The low energy RV refrigerator goal did still drive the issue for me.  Especially with all the following energy related factors also coming into play:

  • The refrigerator in 110 VAC mode would draw over 400 watts of shore power.  That was close to 10 kWh per day because it ran nearly full time
  • This unit was definitely NOT a low energy RV refrigerator
  • The ice maker required 110 VAC so it was useless when dry camping.  The generator never ran long enough to freeze water
  • The temperature would never stabilize, especially if you were in it frequently
  • There was only a five position rough thermostat control with five LED bars indicating which setting was active.  Depending on food access activity and outside temperatures, the settings are not consistent at all!
  • In hot weather the refrigerator simply could not keep the refrigerator cold enough to keep food from spoiling
  • We had to throw out all our food on too many occasions which was an expensive proposition!
  • Leveling of the motor home was a required to avoid risk of fire

The manufacturer was constantly sending out factory recall notices saying nothing about low energy RV camping.

Instead, they warned everybody not to use the refrigerator until we had a factory service center replace certain parts.  Over the years they sent out several different versions of that notice.  Apparently they never did get their design fixed and hence had no time to address the low energy camping challenge.

We have since heard that a large number of their refrigerators had caused motor home fires.  Those fires obviously started as a result of an obviously poor engineering design in my opinion.  A fellow RV traveler told us an interesting story about an RV rally.  Four strangers sitting around a picnic table started discussing refrigerator problems.  Coincidentally ALL four parties had their motor homes burn up thanks to refrigerator fires!

Two large RV refrigerator manufacturers use Tri-Mode designs that are similar.  Both companies suffer the same reliability and hazard issues.

My quest for finding the low energy RV refrigerator solution had begun!

I was convinced that I would never again allow another Tri-Mode refrigerator in our coach.  That conviction started a long research project as we tried to find a replacement low energy RV refrigerator.   The newer expensive motor coach models have shifted to standard domestic refrigerators in the past decade.  Those units obviously run on 110 VAC only but they do avoid all the problems I outlined above.  In addition, the refrigerator industry has introduced new compressor technology.

Those compressor advancements have provided lower energy consumption domestic refrigerators.  The new refrigerators started making good sense to me in my quest for low energy RV camping.   The new standard domestic refrigerators eliminated virtually every one of the problems I mentioned above. Hence, I was very interested in pursuing a domestic refrigerator instead of “investing” in a new $2000 cooling unit.  I did not worry that a domestic low energy RV refrigerator needs AC power whenever it was running.

Our biggest challenge was finding a low energy RV refrigerator to would fit our existing cabinetry space.  We took months searching and finally settled on a frost-free (!!!!) Hot Point 14 cubic foot unit.  It did fit our space quite nicely.  The new unit does stick a few inches further into the aisle than the old unit however, but now worries.  We re-started our latest search by Googling “Apartment sized refrigerators” after discarding other low energy options. Fortunately the new refrigerator did not require much cabinet work.  All other previous refrigerator candidates did require a lot of cabinet work.  All RV units have restrictive space requirements it seems!

The time to exchange refrigerators arrived, thereby satisfying our low energy RV refrigerator goal.

The install require removing a window to remove the old and bring in the new refrigerator.  I had paid a service center that had a fork lift and experience for the job.

The new refrigerator uses only about one kilowatt-hour of energy compared to 10 kWh for the old unit!!!!  That baby gave bigger savings than I could have hoped for.  Interestingly, the new unit draws about 100 watts while the old unit drew over 400 watts of AC power. There was additional factor that made a big difference.  The running time for the new refrigerator was only about ten hours a day, thus computing to 1kWh per day. The old refrigerator had to run almost full time to maintain any reasonable  cooling.

Hey and hooray, we found a big part of our low energy RV camping solution.  This solution also improves our domestic energy usage when we the coach as a spare bedroom for company.  We paid about $500 for the refrigerator including a five year extended warranty.  That purchase saved us money compared to replacing just the previous cooling unit.

Other advantages we are thankful to have are:

  • Maintaining stable temperature control is easy
  • Defrosting problems which I used to dread no longer exist
  • We have a much larger supply of ice than necessary because it just runs until the bin is full
  • The lingering fear of a fire is no longer a nagging thought
  • We never worried about leveling the coach except for sleeping

I sincerely hope that this article is of some use to other embattled RV refrigerator owners out there!