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RV and Camper Trailer Absorption Refrigerator : How to Maintenance, Repair, and Replacement

Updated on November 28, 2012
Randy Godwin profile image

Randy is a lifelong lover of the outdoors and especially camping. This article is intended to help the RVer save money and time on repairs.

Restored Classic Airstream

How RV Refrigerators Work

The absorption refrigeration units utilized by many RV and camper trailer units are normally one of the least problematic of owner’s problems. With little or no moving parts to wear out, these wonderful devices will often outlive the camping unit itself. But there are still things you can do to make sure they continue operating at full efficiency. This article is intended to help you keep your RV fridge operating at it’s best level.

It’s hard to imagine using heat to create freezing temperatures but this is exactly what happens in an absorption refrigerator. An enclosed ammonia solution is heated by a propane burner or an electric heating element powered by a 120 volt electrical current. All absorption units use one or more of these types of heat sources to create the desired refrigeration in the unit. A 3-way system is common in the newer camper units.

As the ammonia solution is heated it vaporizes and rises through a network of capillaries in the unit. At some point the heat is separated from the cold solution with the cold being used to cool the interior of the fridge. The heat from the hot side is exhausted out through a chimney or vent which exits through the roof of the camping unit. The solution is then merged back together and the cycle repeats itself. As long as the solution remains inside of the intact system there is no need to change it.

Absorption fridge replaced by electric model

This electric model cost less than $300
This electric model cost less than $300

RV Refrigerator Parts

Nordic 3382 Cooling Unit
Nordic 3382 Cooling Unit

Check for model and part numbers available for your RV Fridge


Troubleshooting Your Fridge

There are several things which will cause the refrigeration unit to malfunction or not cool efficiently.  If the unit is not relatively level the ammonia solution will not cycle effectively resulting in poor cooling or complete malfunctioning.  This is one reason for always keeping your camping unit as level as possible.  This is easily rectified by leveling the unit as best you can.

Another often overlooked problem can be the lack of ventilation where the heat is exhausted through the roof.  This heat must be allowed to escape or the unit may not work well or may not work at all.  The refrigeration units in campers can usually be accessed from the outside of the RV or camper trailer.  The access door will have vents to allow air to circulate in and up through the refrigeration unit and out through a vent or chimney.  It is a good idea to inspect these vents annually for blockages such as birds nests or wasp and hornet nests.  It doesn’t take much of a blockage to slow down the cooling air flow to the unit.

If the electrical heating element is burned out the unit will not cool at all and replacement is necessary.  This is usually an easily replaced item with the part usually found at an RV dealership or ordered on line.  The gas heating unit needs to be serviced annually as carbon buildup from the heating flame will eventually become less efficient.  This item is better serviced by a certified propane expert because of the safety factors involved with clean burning aspects.

The newer model of refrigerators use a circuit board to ignite the propane burner or  switch on the electrical heating element.  These circuit boards are often plugged into the system and can be replaced without too much trouble.  Again, these may be found at your local RV supplier or ordered online.  Just make sure the model and serial numbers match the replacement part.  The same goes for the on/off switches and thermostats.

With proper care and maintenance these wonderful refrigeration devices will last as long as the camper unit itself.  Inspecting your unit annually will ensure the  unit operates efficiently on every trip you take whether to a campground or in natures wonderful wilderness.  Happy camping.     


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    • Randy Godwin profile image

      Randy Godwin 4 days ago from Southern Georgia

      Hi Susan, you got me! Have you tried using charcoal and baking soda to absorb the smell? Unless there's some unseen object causing the odor I've no clue.


    • profile image

      Susan kuhn 4 days ago

      We have a wildwood camping trailer. The refrigerator has a bad odor but freezer does not. It is still cold. I have cleaned and made sure there is nothing spoiled in it. What would be causing the odor?

    • Randy Godwin profile image

      Randy Godwin 2 years ago from Southern Georgia

      Hey Brian,my article on Power Converter repair and maintenance is located here:

      I you don't mind go there and ask your question so as not to confuse those who are asking about absorption refrigerators. :)


    • profile image

      brian 2 years ago

      hi can you help me with power converter problem , please ?

      my radio works fine on 12 volt , but on 110 it flashes on and off .

      every thing else works fine , fuse was blowen and I replaced it .still the same .

    • Randy Godwin profile image

      Randy Godwin 3 years ago from Southern Georgia

      Hey Carol, have you checked the wires you intend to use to see if you are getting a full 12 volts DC? Some of the 12 volt DC circuits may be stepped down to operate lower voltage appliances bulbs. At any rate, you seem to be getting lower voltage than is required to operate the LED light if it works fine with the battery. Let me know what you find out.

    • profile image

      Carol McKee 3 years ago

      I have a 1991 5th wheel. I'm trying to take down the old 12 volt lighting system over my sink and put in a new touch led light with blue night light by source. I can't seem to get it going. this wire runs to the fan also.. so two white wires go down with connector to one and the black on down to one also. I hook up white to white and black to black and nothing works. try it the other way and a dimmly lit blue light comes on. so when i hook up the led lights to my battery of my car the new led lights work perfect... what am I doing wrong???

    • Randy Godwin profile image

      Randy Godwin 5 years ago from Southern Georgia

      Since there is so much interest in how and where to have an absorption fridge repaired, I will allow your comments to stand for now, Roger. I normally would not allow such commercial comments to remain, however.

    • profile image

      Roger 5 years ago

      When RV owners need their refrigerator repaired, they want it done correctly and they want it to last. Repairing the sealed system on an absorption refrigerator is nothing like repairing a conventional refrigerator. Ford's RV Training & Service has spent over 30 years optimizing the required tools and procedures. Through our comprehensive training program and custom designed tools, RV Specialists get the benefit of our proven techniques without the years of trial and error. The tools we sell are custom designed to get the job done quickly and correctly the first time.

      Find out more about our in-depth program by attending one of our free introductory seminars. As a result of the proven repair procedures we teach,

      ·We give a 100% warranty on parts and labor on reconditioned cooling units and have been for 29 years.

      ·We offer extended warranties for as many years as the customer needs up to and including lifetime warranties.

      We couldn't do this if our repairs didn't work.

      We are inviting you to attend one of our free introductory seminars at our training center. Seminars are tentatively scheduled for the third Tuesday of each month from February – May, 2013. Give us a call and we'll schedule a time that is convenient for you.

      God bless you and yours,

      Roger D. & Onna Lee Ford

      1746 Big Bear Hwy

      Benton, KY 42025

      270-354-9239 (be sure to check out our new web site)

    • Randy Godwin profile image

      Randy Godwin 6 years ago from Southern Georgia

      Good info, Ein! Thanks for relating your experience on my article. The igniter can go out on an absorption refrigerator at the most inconvenient of times, it seems.

      Hopefully, other RV owners will see your comment if they have the same problem.

      Drop by anytime if you have the time, or more pertinent tips for any RV related repairs. Good to hear from you!


    • profile image

      Ein 6 years ago

      Hey Randy, Thank you for having me come to this site. You're just everywhere! A little bit of info for you or someone. Was out camping one time and the ingniter on the refrigerator wouldn't lite. I took the back cover off of the burner area and had someone hold in the lite button to get the gas flowing to the pilot and lit the unit by hand. Held the button in the required time to heat up the thermocoupler and the refrigerator stayed lit and made it an enjoyable weekend even without the igniter working. Got home and replaced the igniter which was an easy repair.