Guess where it’s awesome to have a residential fridge? In a residence. Guess where it’s a pain? In a big metal box bouncing down the highway at 65 mph without a power connection. RV residential fridges have been frustrating RV owners since their inception, and in this article, we’re going to discuss why.
Most of us are guilty of sitting inside our RVs, thinking it would be nice if we just had one more convenience. So, after we’ve finished installing our huge TVs, recliners, and adorable Keurigs, we turn to the next “necessity” and wonder if we couldn’t have a better refrigerator.
Not that our RV fridge is awful. But wouldn’t it be great if the freezer got cold enough to keep our ice cream frozen-solid? Honestly, firm ice cream is all that separates us from the Neanderthals. So what if we could take our fridge from home – the one that freezes ice cream perfectly – and put it in our travel trailer? Sounds logical enough, right?
Well, it’s not that simple. As the name implies, an RV residential fridge is just like the fridge in your home: It plugs into the wall and uses 110V AC for power. By contrast, RV absorption refrigerators can run off of gas or electric.
Residential fridges are familiar to most of us. They come in tall boxes that our kids turn into forts, and once we plumb the ice maker and plug it in, we leave it there. The inner workings and dusty backsides are a mystery to most of us. We plug in the fridge, and it usually lasts for a decade or two until we get something fancier and demote the “old” fridge into a garage fridge.
On the other hand, our RVs use smaller 2-way RV refrigerators. The 2-way fridge is aptly named because it can run on either electricity or propane. It’s the perfect system for our home on wheels because we have electricity when we’re plugged in with hookups and LP (liquid propane) while we’re disconnected.
Although these 2-way RV fridges work well, they tend to be smaller than our fridges at home, and people want “more/bigger/better.” Now, we’re seeing the trend of equipping new RVs with residential fridges instead.
Let’s take a deeper dive and see why RV residential refrigerators aren’t always such a good idea.
Unless you have a 300-mile-long extension cord, your residential fridge won’t stay connected to a permanent power source while you’re on the road. This means you’ll need an alternative power source.
But do you really want to run your generator (if you have one) during your entire drive? The fuel costs and wear and tear on your generator would be extensive. Of course, you could install an array of solar panels and an inverter, but this takes many solar panels, a large battery bank, and a reliable inverter to supply continuous power. Solar power diminishes in cloudy weather, and it’s gone altogether if you’re traveling at night.
You know those latches on your RV fridge that you’re accustomed to clicking with muscle memory when you open the doors? Remember what those latches do? They keep your fridge doors shut while you bounce down the road. Unfortunately, RV residential fridges do not have latches.
Most RVers who own residential fridges solve this problem with bungee cords. Otherwise, they can expect to be picking up some messy spills when they arrive at camp. However, the hassle of remembering to put bungee cords on the fridge every time you hit the road is a turn-off to many travelers.
There’s also a larger spatial footprint with RV residential fridges. Space is one thing that RVs don’t have in abundance. Even with slide-outs, there’s only so much square footage in the kitchen. Newer RVs with residential fridges lose usable space (say for storage) that smaller fridges would not have taken up.
Even worse is trying to retrofit a residential fridge into a space previously occupied by an RV fridge. The residential models are taller, wider, deeper, and heavier. These units need to sit on the ground and not in a cabinet enclosure, so any cabinets, drawers, or shelves below (and potentially above) the old fridge will have to go.
Additionally, you’ll have to widen and deepen the enclosure, which means you’ll lose adjacent cabinet space. What’s worse, the floor might need reinforcement for the extra weight. Most people don’t take the weight into account, but the residential units are much heavier, and they also have more interior cubic feet.
And what do we do with all that extra cubic feet? We fill it with heavy bottles, cans, and pounds of delicious food. Before you know it, that fancy fridge has just become hundreds of pounds of extra cargo.
What about the boondockers? Boondockers account for a larger percentage of campers than most people think. And with the recent boom in RV sales, campground and park capacities can’t keep up. This means more RV owners will naturally turn to dry camping without any hookups.
Your RV requires sources of power to keep all the systems running. Fortunately, most boondockers have studied their available options to the point that they’ve all become junior power plant engineers. They’ve surveyed requirements and upgraded battery banks and inverters to run televisions or even CPAP devices.
Boondockers balance the use of generators and solar panels to keep their RVs running with all the comforts and accessories they require.
Then along comes the power-hungry residential fridge with its motors and compressors that need to run intermittently 24/7 to keep ice cream hard. Now, this presents a problem. You either have to run your generators more every day or increase the solar panels on your roof.
Running the generator more might be acceptable for a short, overnight trip, but this isn’t a viable option for longer trips. For frequent boondockers, the residential refrigerator’s benefits don’t outweigh the costs when a decent RV absorption fridge can reliably run on their current power sources.
Personally, we spend about 3/4 of our time off-grid and love it. We have made significant investments in our ultimate solar system and do run a residential-style fridge (DC compressor). This however is a significant investment. It will likely cost $3000 to install a solar system to run a residential fridge.
Why do we only invest in major appliances at home once every decade or longer? Because they’re expensive, and there’s usually nothing wrong with the ones we already have. While an RV absorption fridge isn’t cheap, it’s typically more reasonable than residential refrigerators. Plus, it’s more affordable to operate.
A typical residential fridge for a home will run you $1,500-$3,000 compared to an RV model for around $1,500-$2,500, but the RV models are much smaller with fewer bells and whistles than the home models. And they likely won’t last as long as an RV absorption fridge.
Remember, you’re also not just investing in the fridge. You’re investing in all of the equipment to run the fridge. Once you add in the golf cart batteries, big inverter, solar panels, and fuel for the generator, you have to ask yourself if that rock-hard gallon of ice cream was worth it in the end?
For most people, the answer is a hard no. Think of how those costs could translate into things you need or want, like an RV faucet upgrade, lithium batteries, or more fuel for more travel days.
Residential fridges sit in a kitchen (or maybe a garage) and remain immobile until they eventually die of old age and head off to the landfill. They aren’t intended to travel the world or bump along at highway speeds.
Things go wrong when an appliance suffers from the abuse of the open road. Wire connections come loose; fans stop fanning; compressors stop compressing; shelves and drawers detach and break. The list goes on. It’s a near eventuality that the RV residential fridge will break down much sooner than expected. What do you do then?
Service techs draw the line at RV residential fridges. Your home appliance tech won’t ever fix your RV appliances, and your RV service tech won’t touch your home appliances. Why? The home appliance technician won’t come to your RV because “home” is in his name. And RV techs only have the background to work on traditional RV refrigerators that run off propane and/or electric power.
So what do you do when your residential fridge that’s pretending to be a mobile appliance breaks down?
That’s a real puzzle because neither of those professionals wants to venture into this gray area. That puts the RV residential fridge owner in no man’s land where nobody wants to perform the service.
There just isn’t a right answer to this problem. (Sorry!) The ugly truth is that the fridge will probably have to be removed from the coach before it can be serviced, once again rendering RV absorption refrigerators the superior option.
Whether you’re a weekend warrior or a full-timer, the days you spend on the road are supposed to be relaxing and fulfilling. You shouldn’t spend these days stressing over where the next power outlet will be or whether you remembered to bungee cord the fridge doors closed. If going park to park residential fridges can actually be pretty great but in the case of trying to camp off-grid, significant upgrades need to be made to run them.
We personally have used every type of RV fridge in our travels and still think the absorbtion is the most useful RV fridge type. With a large solar system our preferred fridge is a DC compressor model that we run now. This gives us the best of both worlds, a fridge that is made for an RV but cools great and has the amenities of a residential unit.
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