How Does 12 Volt RV Refrigerator Works- All You Need To Know

A 12 Volt RV Refrigerator is a convenient thing or maybe an outright need of today. Generally speaking, they operate slightly differently from a typical refrigerator in your household kitchen.

One of the greatest joys of RVing is having cold drinks and fresh food at any time. Nothing is more convenient than having a good refrigerator during the trip when you start a long journey.

But how exactly does the 12 Volt RV Refrigerator work? What can we do to maintain its functionality for years to use? Knowing a working principle can help you select the right RV refrigerator to fulfill your needs. Keep reading to find out!

What is a 12-volt RV refrigerator?

The 12-volt RV refrigerator mainly runs on 12-volt DC power from the internal battery of the rig (or possibly the starter battery of a car or truck). These refrigerators run on electricity only, not absorption or two-way RV refrigerators, which can burn propane to power their cooling system.

How 12 Volt RV refrigerators work: A simple answer

The 12 Volt RV Refrigerator can keep your food to the right temperature for storing, like your refrigerator that you use at home. Generally, it is small to fit the RV’s area and has some unique features, such as the ability to lock the door and run-on diverse power sources.

Similarly, the refrigerator in your house, the 12 Volt RV fridge, is considered a high temp pump because it transfers heat from the inner side to the outside of the fridge.

However, “outside” literally means outside the RV because these refrigerators are ventilated. They can also keep food frozen or refrigerated when inactive and driving along the road.

How 12 Volt RV Refrigerator work: A complex answer

Here are two main types of refrigerators commonly used in RVs. These differences will affect the cooling capacity, efficiency, and size of the fridge.

The Compressor of a 12-volt refrigerator

In this type, the 12 Volt RV Refrigerator runs by using a mini compressor unit for cooling. These refrigerators can use 11 volts or 120 volts (or 240 volts if not in North America). It is a similar type of fridge customarily used in households and is very friendly to users.

Although DC options that can drain the RV battery are rarely standard, they are now trendy. These devices are tremendously efficient and use less power. The disadvantage is that they are usually high priced to buy upfront.

Compared with absorption fridges (which we will discuss next), compressor refrigerators are more beneficial because they can typically reach lower temperatures, yet they are pretty hot outward. RV refrigerators can’t keep ice cream firm in the freezer is a common complaint, but compressor refrigerators are the best choice for especially cold.

Compressor cooling procedure

The compressor fridges usage is a closed freezing system, which depends on the Compressor to compress the gas mechanically. Therefore, it is sometimes called mechanical refrigeration. The cycle consists of three main parts.

Auto defrost: At this level, the Compressor makes the refrigerant vapor to an advanced pressure. The inversion of the refrigerant vapor elevates the high-level pressure.

Reliable cooling: Where it is cooled, the high heat refrigerant inserts in a condenser. Water vapor changes into a fluid during the freezing process, like water vapor changes on a cold side.

Evaporation process: An expansion small hole or valve enters into the high-level liquid refrigerant. It reduces the fluid pressure into boiling liquid. The refrigerant’s boiling point is shallow (-14 to -20F), which the refrigerator section will carry heat out. From there, the steam proceeds to the Compressor, and the cycle restarts.

Although household refrigerators also run on compressors, they only work when plugged into the switch wall. It also limits your available options compared to the fridge based on RV DC.

In addition, household 120-volt refrigerators use more electricity than traditional RV options to keep them cool. It may be cheaper to buy the 120-volt option in advance, but the long-time energy usage and inconvenience may not be worth the initial savings.

Absorption of 12 Volt RV Refrigerator

It was the most typical refrigerator style in RVs for many years because they could run on propane or electricity. Sometimes, you will hear them mentioned as “two-way” (110-volt electric and propane) or maybe “three-way” RV fridge (12-volt, 110-volt electric, and propane).

You can also tell if the RV uses this unique kind of fridge because where the refrigerator is fixed, it has vents on the external of the RV. When the fridge runs on propane, vents are required to exhaust gas and heat.

It might seem illogical, but this kind of refrigerator uses propane gas through a complex chemical reaction fixed in a set of tubes on the back to keep it cool. The resultant heat from LPG is the power to run the chemical procedure.

The chemical process of 12 Volt RV Refrigerator Absorption

Absorption 12 Volt RV fridges work by using chemical reactions and heat between hydrogen water and ammonia. This procedure is tricky, but like a condenser, the refrigerator has a closed system. The cycle is divided into three main phases.

Regeneration (boiler): At this level, the refrigerant is dissolved into water and positioned in a place where it burns till it boils (by electric or propane heating). Water and ammonia have diverse partial levels, making them too distinct.

Water transfers in the lower part of the structure while the ammonia gas continues to flow to the peak of the refrigerator. While dissolving into liquid ammonia, it transfers its temperature to the environment and combines with hydrogen.

Evaporation: At this stage, liquid ammonia evaporates in a small fractional level environment, absorbing the high temperature from the surroundings. It absorbs heat from the refrigerator and occurs on the back of the refrigerator fins.

Absorption: After the ammonia is vaporized back to the gaseous state, it dissolves with the vapors and spots into the ammonia liquid solution pond. The key is then ready to boil in the recreating area chamber, point the process restarts.

This procedure will repeat when your RV icebox is running to retain its working position and keep it cool. One pro of this procedure is quiet because of no moving parts.

It takes longer to use this type of cooling. If you travel, you should open the RV refrigerator at least 22 hours in advance, let the fridge cool down, and then put the food in the icebox.

Does a 12-volt RV refrigerator need to be ventilated?

Do not. Unlike two-way refrigerators that use propane cooling, your 12-volt RV refrigerator does not require special ventilation to operate. It provides you with a variety of different options for where and how to install the refrigerator.

Is a 12-volt RV refrigerator worth it?

Whether a 12-volt RV refrigerator is worth it to you depends on your gear and camping style. Those who often camp in hot weather will appreciate the extra cooling capacity compared to a two-way refrigerator.

Off-grid charging enthusiasts who use solar power systems will like to use the sun to power their refrigerators without worrying about maintaining the level. Those who want to be creative in the layout of their rigs will find that since propane lines and ventilation are not required, there are some significant benefits.

However, they may not be the best choice for those who need to store large amounts of food or RVers within their budget. Those who do not have a lot of battery capacity may also find that their battery power drains faster.

Household refrigerators vs. 12 Volt RV Refrigerator

Some RVs have household refrigerators, and there is not much difference in them, but most RVs contain absorption fridge function that can use propane or DC power.

An extra clear difference is a weight and size. RV refrigerators are usually much shorter than residential fridges. Yet, the latest RV models are adding more giant size refrigerators and advancing their limits. They also designed an RV fridge to deal with bumps on the road, characterized by latches and shelves to prevent the door from opening.

Conversion option for Absorption to Compressor 

You may have the idea that DC compressor refrigerators are a better choice for electrical efficiency and cooling capacity. There is a method to convert an absorption refrigerator to a DC compressor model to maintain the exact dimensions while obtaining power efficiency and better cooling.

The typical service life of a 12 Volt RV Refrigerator

Traditional RV refrigerators can be used for full 16 years if they are daily maintained. If you are lucky to make mini repairs in the process, some can last up to 21 years. It is a remarkable thing because changing them can be expensive!

Tips for Usage and Maintenance

Here are some simple tricks to make your 12 Volt RV Refrigerator work more effectively for more extended use:

  • Ensure your RV level, because this way, your fridge will function excellent. It is mainly true for absorption chillers. If you are driving in the mountains, we recommend turning off the RV fridge entirely instead of turning it off.
  • Keep the refrigerator away from direct sunlight.
  • Install RV fridge fans to improve efficiency and increase airflow.
  • Change the gasket on the door to prevent cold air from evasion.
  • Thaw the refrigerator as needed to melt the ice on the fins.
  • To maximize space and functionality, defrost your RV freezer.

Pro Tip: Wipe the propane components and condenser coil every few months, and remove any buildup, debris, or spider webs from the external vents. It is essential to keep safe from possible fires.

Is 12 Volt RV Refrigerator run on electricity or propane?

Its “dual fuel” choice is very suitable for RV campers. It means that while traveling, you can use the refrigerator and may not get electricity. When the electricity is more readily available and parked in the RV, the power source can transfer into continuous cooling.

Most campers and RVers with absorption fridges automatically handle switching between the two energy sources. Nevertheless, if you are not familiar with this, it is best to recheck any buttons or switches.

Is there a green way to offset electricity consumption?

A “green alternative” to keep in mind is using a 12-volt structure for use portable solar panels or small windmills. These devices can support battery power and are usually cheap. At least it can reduce the pressure on the generator.

While driving, can I run the 12 Volt RV Refrigerator?

Worth considering that for most RVers, running the RV refrigerator with the generator is usually not a good idea. When driving long distances, placing one or two solar panels on a sunny window can help minimize battery consumption in the fridge.

These 12-volt models are notorious for poor cooling, mainly when they are full of food. Putting one or two ice packs on top of the fridge may benefit equal to any thermal inefficiency.

It’s worth remembering that these pure electric 12-volt RV fridges tend to be slightly smaller than their double-fuel siblings. It makes them more popular among motorhome manufacturers who create small kitchens as medium-sized trailers.

Which 12 Volt RV Refrigerator is suitable for your RV?

Understanding how an RV refrigerator function is vital, but you also know if it is precisely correct for you. If you are buying a new RV refrigerator on the market, there are many things to consider.

At which temperature do you want to save your food? Do you want a freezer and fridge area? Will you live in an RV full-time or travel long distances? If it is, a nice big refrigerator will be convenient for your equipment allows it.

Keep in mind your family’s needs while buying. You’d get food quickly through this excellent tool if you acquired it for a large family on travel trips. It means that you must use a mini-fridge to replenish your inventory constantly.

If you like clumsy hands, then a fridge that can function on propane will save you a lot of electricity. If you install enough solar energy, a 12V DC refrigerator is ordinarily a good choice. The more powerful battery you save, the greater you will be offline.

Pros and Cons

Let’s have a look at the pros and cons of 12-volts RV refrigerators.

12-Volt Compressor RV refrigerator


  • 12-volt compressor RV refrigerator runs very capably on electricity.
  • Normally can run on solar energy.
  • It can cool down very fast.
  • Also, it has more food storage space.
  • The absorption 12-volt RV refrigerator is good.
  • When working on propane, it consumes significantly less energy.
  • It makes it very suitable for awkwardness because it can run on electricity or propane.


  • 12-volt compressor refrigerators are expensive.
  • Also, make some noise when they are running.
  • Need continuous power source.
  • On electricity, absorption refrigerators are very inefficient and expensive.
  • Not cool like compressors; they cool down very slowly.
  • Have a small food storage capacity.

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