Matt Johnson

How Do Camping Fridges Work?

Author: Matt JohnsonPhotos/Graphics: Mike HawthornePublished: Jan 18, 2022Updated: Dec 13, 2023

You might be wondering how exactly do camping fridges work. We’re here to explain it all to you.

After all, not all glampers lounge around at fancy glamping resorts or snuggle up in a king-sized bed in a canvas bell tent. Some glampers enjoy the glamping life on the road in a luxurious RV – and with that RV comes a refrigerator.

While it may keep your goodies and beverages ice cold, the way these appliances work is anything but ordinary. In fact, these portable fridges work, ironically enough, through heat. That’s right, heat.

You may have heard them called thermoelectric fridges or compressor fridges, but they’re all portable fridges. They may look like a mini fridge, but they keep your food cold in a completely different way.

The basics of the RV and camper RV refrigerator.

Back of RV Refrigerator with Coils
How do camping fridges work? Ammonia is evaporated and it pulls heat out of the refrigerator.

These fridges aren’t like the ones in your home. These portable models work and function entirely differently than your home fridge, although they serve the same purpose; to keep the food and drinks ice cold.

However, your camping fridge might not be working correctly or keeping your food as cold, and you’re wondering why.

It’s because a camping fridge cools by absorption. The refrigerator has a low-pressure chamber that heats up by either gas or electricity, which then evaporates a refrigerant that draws the heat out of the fridge’s interior. In these RV refrigerators, the refrigerant is usually ammonia, a safe and readily available liquid.

As the refrigerant rises in the chamber, it cools, turning back into a liquid, and descends in the chamber. At that point, it evaporates again, and the cycle continues.

Because this operates in this manner, the refrigerator uses less energy but cools only around 30°F below the ambient temperature.

Powered by both electric and propane.

Most RV fridges use either 12 volt DC, 110V AC, or liquid propane (LP). Typically, a switch allows you to select which power source you want. It’s a very energy-efficient way to keep your good chilled.

Thermoelectric portable fridges allow you to use either electricity from your RV’s deep cycle battery (i.e., a car battery) to power the electrically assisted cooler or they may use propane to heat up the chamber.

You might be thinking about using electricity to save on your LP.

Not a bad idea, but keep in mind that the LP it uses is minimal.

From personal experience, I’ve run the refrigerator on LP for just over a month (in the autumn) before the 20lb tank ran dry. Of course, that’s not using propane for anything but the fridge, but that should give you an idea of how efficient they are. Also, in our RV we have a mini fridge. If you have a full-size kitchen fridge you may use more.

In the summer time the only propane appliance you might end up using is only the portable fridge. Unlike the winter, when you also have the furnace that uses propane. But also, in the summer, your mini fridge may need to work harder to keep everything chilled.

Beware, absorption refrigerators take time to cool down.

One of the downsides of these fridges is that they take quite a while to cool down and achieve a reasonable temperature for your food and drinks.

Running on it’s own using either LP or 12 volt power, these portable fridges can take several hours to get to an optimal internal temperature.

You can help speed up the process by placing ice packs in your freezer and fridge to cool it down. After that, the evaporation process takes over and does the job.

A good practice is to power up your fridge either with propane or electricity the day before your excursion. The time it takes to cool down varies based on the outdoor temperature, but generally, it can take 8 to 24 hours to reach a usable temperature.

One final pro-tip for your portable fridge.

With its shelves, drawers, and even a bit of space in the door, you might be tempted to cram all of your food and drinks into your camping fridge.

I recommend against doing that. Here’s why.

As we discussed, these most portable fridges work by removing heat from the cooling compartment. The more snacks and other stuff you have in there, the harder it has to work – and it’s already reasonably inefficient.

So, remember this. The fridge is for the food; the cooler is for the cokes (or beer). And you always want your beer cold.

Put your drinks in a standard cooler for your weekend trip, and they’ll stay cool throughout the entire adventure. This will give you more space and help keep the refrigerator icy cold on a hot day.

FAQs for thermoelectric fridges.

We get a lot of questions regarding our articles, so we’ll throw out the occasional FAQ to help answer some of your most burning questions.

How big are most thermoelectric fridges in RVs?

Your fridge in your home typically comes out to 18-22 cubic feet. Of course, when you live in your home full time you need a larger fridge. But an RV mini fridge typically comes out to 4-10 cubic feet. That’s a lot smaller than your fridge in your house.

How much propane does an RV mini fridge use?

Of course, there are many variables but in general you can expect to burn through 1 to 1.5 lbs of propane a day. In ideal conditions it can be much less; however, on a really hot day it can be more.

Some variables include the temperature inside your camper, temperature of the outside environment, how big your fridge is, and how cold you have it set to.

Do RV refrigerators use a lot of electricity?

Surprisingly, no, they don’t. Most RV refrigerators will use around 4-5 kWh a day. As far as amperage does, they typically run on 5-7 amps of power.

What is the best brand of RV refrigerator?

Oh, there are so many. However, the most common ones you’ll see straight from the factory are Norcold and Dometic. They’re both pretty good.

How long does an RV fridge last?

Most of the time these fridges will last 10-20 years. Sure, you might have a problem here or there and have to replace a component or two to keep it running in tip top shape. However, you shouldn’t have to replace the refrigerator for quite a while.

How much does it cost to replace an RV refrigerator?

These mini fridges are not cheap. While they are usually much smaller than your home fridge, they can cost upwards of 2-3x your home fridge. You can safely budget $1,000-$3,000 for a new camper fridge.

Can I replace my RV refrigerator with a standard refrigerator?

Yes, you can replace your RV fridge with a standard refrigerator. Keep in mind, you’ll have to measure out the space to ensure it fits properly. Also, most standard fridges are not designed to take the bumpy roads and they run on 110 volts. So make sure you buy a durable refrigerator that can be powered by your RV.

Hit the road with your mini fridge!

Now that you have a good idea of how these compressor refrigerators work, you know how you can best use them to keep your food cold.

Power it up, get it cold, load it up and hit the road. You’ll keep your items cool and will have ice cold drinks for when you arrive at your camping destination.


Matt Johnson

Senior Content Writer

Matt is an experienced camper and glamping enthusiast with a Master's degree in Wildlife Science from Texas A&M University. Authoring posts for GlamperGear, he shares his wealth of knowledge on picturesque campsites, luxurious accommodations, and the best gear for outdoor adventures. His passion for nature and knack for comfort in the wilderness make him an expert guide for your next camping endeavor.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *