How to Troubleshoot a Gas RV Refrigerator That Works on Electricity

by Jodi Thornton O'Connell

It can be a vacation bummer if your cold drinks are lukewarm, but if your meats and perishables get tepid, it can endanger your health. If you wonder whether your RV refrigerator is working properly, taking a few troubleshooting steps can either quickly fix the problem or let you know it's time to head to the dealership for a repair.

Understand the Basics

The good news is that your RV refrigerator works more simply than the one in your house, allowing you to remedy some problems easily yourself. Your home's kitchen refrigerator uses Freon pumped through coils by a compressor. In your RV fridge, heat from the propane flame – or the electrical element when it's switched to electric mode – heats an ammonia mixture that causes it to circulate through the cooling tubes.

Take a Whiff

Sniff around and inside your refrigerator. Take off the rear access panel for the refrigerator on the outside of your RV, and smell. If you smell ammonia, it might mean a punctured cooling unit, so you should take your refrigerator into an RV dealer for service. Turn off the propane gas to the refrigerator and unplug it immediately as the leak could easily spark a fire. Get an estimate for repairs from your dealer, and research the price of replacing the fridge to determine which is the least expensive option.

Switch It Up

Try operating the refrigerator on the 110-volt AC mode and propane gas mode. If your fridge has a setting for 12-volt DC, try that as well. If the refrigerator runs on either the gas or the electrical modes, it can help you figure out where the problem lies.

Light Up the Meter

If your refrigerator operates in propane mode but not with electricity, troubleshoot the electrical system:

  • Remove the refrigerator access panel on the outside of your RV. Unplug the refrigerator from its outlet; plug in a small lamp or blow dryer and turn it on to ensure the outlet is getting electricity. 
  • Check circuit breakers and refrigerator fuses. Replace any fuses, and turn on appropriate circuit breakers. Plug the refrigerator in and see if it is now running.
  • Use a multimeter to test wires leading to the heating element. Unplug the refrigerator to remove shielding, because you could come in contact with dangerous voltage. When you're ready to test, plug the refrigerator back in. 
  • If the multimeter indicates electricity in one wire but not the other, the electrical heating element is most likely burned out and needs replacement.
  • If the multimeter indicates there is no voltage to the element, the refrigerator circuit boards might be at fault. Take it to the RV dealership for repair or replacement.
  • Unplug your refrigerator before replacing the shielding.

Check the Burner

If your refrigerator isn't cooling your food sufficiently in propane mode, your burner might be dirty from rust or dirt falling into it. Try cleaning your burner first to see if that fixes the problem. Here's how:

  • Remove the refrigerator access panel on the outside of your RV. Unplug the refrigerator from the electrical outlet and turn off the propane valve.  
  • Use a screwdriver to remove the tin shielding around the burner assembly. 
  • Vacuum up any loose dust from around the burner. Tap the metal shielding in the area directly over the burner to dislodge more rust and dirt, and vacuum again.
  • Spray compressed air to dislodge fine grit in the burner orifice or try inserting a very thin wire to clear grime blocking it. 
  • Reassemble the shielding; plug the refrigerator back in. Turn on propane, and switch the refrigerator back on. Look through the hole in the tin shielding to make sure the flame is burning.

If your flame lights but goes out quickly, the thermocouple is usually at fault. Take your unit to the RV dealer for thermocouple replacement, or replace it yourself if you're mechanically minded and the unit is no longer under warranty.

Should your burner not light after cleaning and you've double-checked to make sure you've turned the propane valve back on, head to your RV dealership to have the burner replaced.

About the Author

Indulging her passion for vacation vagary through the written word on a full-time basis since 2010, travel funster Jodi Thornton-O'Connell guides readers to the unexpected, quirky, and awe-inspiring.