How to Troubleshoot and Fix a Camper Refrigerator

Although it’s not the lifeblood of your motorhome, your camper refrigerator is pretty darn important. This keeps your food and beverages cool so you can enjoy a good homecooked meal on the road.

That’s why, when your refrigerator is on the fritz, it can be incredibly distressing. Now you have to watch as your food gradually goes bad. Not only is it a total bummer to throw away so much wasted food (and wasted money), but you have additional problems to deal with as well.

First, you have nothing to eat. Second, your camper smells like spoiled milk and rotten meat. That’s not exactly an appetizing scent for long journeys.

Instead of having to replace your fridge every time it breaks down (which can be very expensive) or travel out of your way to find a repairperson, wouldn’t it be great if you knew how to troubleshoot and fix your fridge issues yourself?

What if I told you it was easier than you thought? It really is, as long as you have some working fridge knowhow. By following along with the guidelines in this post, you can troubleshoot and repair many common camper refrigerator issues.

Issue #1: The pilot light keeps burning out.

Camper refrigerators are not like your fridge back home. These will run on propane gas or electricity depending on the model. Sometimes it’s even both. That means the fridge will include a burner jet, also known as a pilot light.

The pilot light is responsible for triggering the fridge burners. That said, sometimes this doesn’t happen. You may light the pilot light in the morning, only to return to the fridge in the afternoon and find it’s burned out.

You repeat the process, relighting the pilot light, and yet it burns out again and again and again. Why though?

Troubleshooting Tips: There are a few reasons your pilot light may be giving you trouble. One, is that the thermocouple may be failing. This regulates how much gas is in the fridge’s burner at any time. If this component is done for, it’s time to get a new one.

If replacing the thermocouple doesn’t work, your pilot light problems might be because the pilot light’s gas line has too much air in it. This prevents the pilot light from turning on and staying on.

To fix it, access the fridge’s gas valves. For now, power these down. Then reset them. If you have a newer model fridge, you can do this all by pushing the power button. If not, you’ll have to reset the fridge manually.

Once your fridge is up and running again, you should see the pilot light go on. This time, it should stay on.

Issue #2: The fridge’s cooling unit is leaking.

Your camper refrigerator contains a cooling unit. This keeps the food in the fridge chilly and the items in the freezer frosty. The unit is cooled via a combination of water, hydrogen, and ammonia, also known as cooling solution.

This solution can sometimes leak, unfortunately.

There are two immediate indicators to let you know you have a cooling unit leak on your hands. The first is a heavy ammonia odor. The second is a hot absorber but warm boiler.

You may also notice, once you access the cooling unit in your fridge, that it’s now coated in yellow residue. Don’t stress too much. This occurs because the steel tubing has deteriorated due to prolonged exposure to the cooling solution.

Troubleshooting Tips: Okay, so all this sounds pretty bad, right? What can do you do to troubleshoot this unwanted leak?

It’s going to take some time and patience.

First, you need to find the heating element’s 110-volt wires. These are often white. Plug those in to a 110 VAC element. Make sure you’re careful as you do so. Never be afraid to call in the professionals if you feel a job’s scope is too large for you.

Next, you need to find a way to read the temperature in the fridge with everything unplugged. To do so, fill a glass of water and add in a thermometer. Put this in the fridge and close the door.

Now wait. The temperature should read about 43 degrees Fahrenheit in a 12-hour period. It’s okay if it’s a little lower. That temperature should drop to somewhere between 20 and 30 degrees Fahrenheit within 24 hours.

This test may seem silly, but it lets you know if the cooling unit leak is the only issue or if something worse is going on. For instance, if your fridge can’t get to those temperatures, it may be time to think about getting a new cooling unit.

Otherwise, now you must contain and plug up the leak or let a professional take care of it.

Issue #3: Ammonia sediment buildup has occurred.

If you don’t use your camper trailer all year long, you must be aware of the potential for ammonia sediment buildup.

This occurs most often with older fridges. When the refrigerator sits unused, ammonia leaks out in liquid form. This pool of liquid or sediment drips down to the cooling unit.

Once you pull out the camper from storage and start using the refrigerator again, the cooling unit will stall. The sediment is prohibiting the liquid ammonia from flowing as it should across the unit. That means your fridge will seem barely cool, and then warm, and then warmer.

Soon, it won’t keep food cool at all, and you’ll have to throw out food and drinks left and right.

Troubleshooting Tips: Although this sounds a little like the cooling unit leak we mentioned above, this is a different issue entirely. To prevent ammonia sediment from developing in the first place, make sure you don’t leave your fridge inactive for too long.

If replacing your refrigerator isn’t an option at the moment, you can always try fixing it. That said, this troubleshooting tip doesn’t always work long-term, so you’re really prolonging the inevitable (which in this case would be replacing your camper refrigerator).

Once the fridge is unplugged, take it outside or somewhere spacious in the camper. Flip it so it’s upside down. This should allow all the sediment to travel away from the cooling unit.

Again, if that doesn’t work, it’s time to replace your fridge. It’s pretty much the only way to keep your food cool.

Issue #4: The fridge’s cooling unit is frozen solid.

Admittedly, this is a rare issue, but it can happen.

If you’re the type who keeps your camper lukewarm to warn, you never have to worry about freezing issues. If you store your motorhome in the wintertime though, and the temperatures drop down deep into the negatives (I’m talking at least -30 degrees Fahrenheit or lower here), it’s possible that freezing of components in the fridge can occur.

So what happens when the liquid cooling solution becomes a solid mass? Said solid mass prevents the refrigerator’s heat source from working, which means your fridge won’t work, either.

Troubleshooting Tips: The biggest troubleshooting tip here is to watch your temperatures! Make sure you don’t leave your camper out in below-freezing temperatures and you should be okay.

What if you’re ever in a situation where the fridge’s solution does freeze to the point where the fridge doesn’t work? Use a lightbulb that’s at least 60 watts to gradually heat up the temperature and melt the freezing blockage. A space heater also works.

Issue #5: The fridge’s burner has failed.

Remember how we mentioned that your camper refrigerator can run on electricity or propane gas? It’s not a guessing game about which to use. If you treat it as such, you could end up with a faulty burner.

Troubleshooting Tips: First, know when to use electricity and when to use propane. For many models of camper refrigerator, it’s advised that once you surpass 5,550-feet altitudes, you should run your fridge on AC power instead of gas.

The altitude can put a strain on liquid propane. If you fail to make the switch as you approach higher altitudes, your burners can…well, burn out.

If this has already happened, you can fix it. Chances are, excess air has found its way into the gas supply lines, which is contributing to the burner failure. By resetting your refrigerator and purging the propane cylinders, you should clear the excess air.

In the future, next time you use your fridge, make sure to change power sources depending on your altitude.

Issue #6: You’re having general cooling unit issues and the above tips haven’t helped.  

You’ve tried the above tips and nothing is working. You’re still having issues with the fridge’s cooling unit. It just won’t work for long periods, which is leaving you with spoiled food you have to throw out every few days or so.

What could possibly be causing such an issue? You’ll probably be surprised, but the problem may have to do with the positioning of your camper’s coach.  

Troubleshooting Tips: It’s time to go outside and check your coach’s positioning. Is it completely even? If not, and even if the coach is at a slight angle, you’ve just figured out what’s wrong with your cooling unit.

You already know how ammonia sediment forms. Part of it has to do with age and part of it has to do with refrigerator inactivity, but positioning your fridge at an angle (inadvertently due to the coach angle) also allows the liquid ammonia to travel to places it probably shouldn’t, like the cooling unit.

Back at home, your refrigerator is undoubtedly 100 percent level. You don’t have to question it. You know your kitchen floors and walls are level, so your fridge is, too. That said, with your camper, it’s different. You may think the coach is level only to discover your fridge is having issues.

Grab a ruler, measuring tape, or even a level and take it outside. Check the angle on the camper coach. Adjust as necessary.

In the future, be conscientious of the angle of the coach. This will keep your camper fridge running at its best.

Conclusion

You need food and water to keep you fueled up for your adventures on the road. Campers today have accommodations for refrigerators, but—as mentioned—these don’t run the exact same way as your fridge back home.

Instead, your fridge uses ammonia in liquid form via tubes in the cooling unit. There’s also an electric heating unit and a gas flame within.

Unfortunately, whether from age, misuse, or just a plain ol’ case of bad luck, the components of your fridge can stop working. Sometimes they get clogged up and other times they simply break down.

I hope these six troubleshooting tips above provided enough guidance for you to be proactive with your fridge issues and try to fix them yourself. Remember, if a job ever seems too big for you, or the issue is more severe than you thought, feel free to bring your fridge to the pros. You’ll be glad you did.

Happy travels, and may your food and drinks stay cool.

About the Author

Nicole Malczan

Nicole Malczan is a content marketing writer and freelancer. She's applied her knowledge of marketing and SEO to many clients over the years, ranging from foodservice to facilities management and currency exchange. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, baking, and music.

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