A caravan fridge that fails to cool properly can be more than just a minor inconvenience, as in some instances, it can even turn into a health hazard for you or your loved ones. While you could opt to bring along a cooler instead, this would require extra time spent going off to purchase ice to keep perishable goods within a safe temperature range.
If you’re planning on enjoying a trip away, then heading into town to purchase ice everyday may not even be a feasible option. Fortunately, most issues with caravan fridges aren’t particularly difficult or expensive to fix.
There are two main types of refrigerators in caravans and RVs, including compressor and absorption fridges. Both types of refrigerators operate using different technologies and, therefore, experience unique issues. If your caravan fridge fails to cool, here’s what you’ll need to know:
Reasons why your caravan fridge isn’t cold include frozen evaporator coils, dirty condenser coils, a defective thermocouple, or high ambient temperatures. To fix these issues, thaw frozen evaporator coils, clean condenser coils, replace the thermocouple, or maintain cooler ambient temperatures.
For example, if you’re dealing with frozen evaporator coils, simply unthaw them. This requires unplugging the fridge, allowing it to sit overnight, and then turning it back on the next day.
However, when it comes to absorption fridges, you may need to maintain cooler ambient temperatures. These refrigerators are highly affected by their surrounding temps — if they’re too high, the fridge cannot maintain a suitable environment to keep foods safe.
In this article, I’ll take you through these four possible reasons why a caravan fridge isn’t getting cold and how you can remedy each of them. The fixes listed throughout this article are relatively simple to perform on both compressor and absorption fridges. Read on to learn more about caravan fridges, the problems they’re most susceptible to, and potential fixes to ensure your perishable goods stay fresh and safe to eat.
4 Reasons Your Caravan Fridge Isn’t Cold
Today, the most popular fridges used in caravans are compressor fridges. These use compressors to cool and run on 12/24-volt battery power or a 240-volt electrical hookup (usually from the main power supply or a generator).
Absorption fridges (three-way fridges), on the other hand, work using battery power, electricity, or fuel.
In this section, I’ll take you through two common cooling problems with compressor fridges and two common cooling problems with absorption fridges.
1. Frozen Evaporator Coils
One of the most common reasons why a compressor (two-way) fridge won’t cool is usually due to frozen evaporator coils. Fortunately, this is an easy fix, although it takes one to two days to remedy.
Evaporator coils may freeze for several reasons, including:
- Freezing temperatures: When travelling in a caravan to colder climates, the coils may freeze over if the temperature falls at or below 0 °C (32 °F). This happens when water vapour freezes after coming into contact with the coils, causing all internal operations to cease.
- Dirty coils (or other components): Evaporator coils dissipate heat from the air, but a lack of airflow due to dirty parts obstructs the normal heat exchange process, causing a malfunction within the usually well-regulated system.
- Low refrigerant levels: When a fridge is low on refrigerant, the cooling system overworks, causing condensed vapours on the coils to freeze. This is an uncommon issue, as refrigerators are sealed systems. Therefore, if you’re experiencing low refrigerant levels, there’s likely a leak that requires immediate repair by a professional.
You can easily thaw out frozen evaporator coils using the instructions in fix number one of the section entitled, “4 Fixes for a Caravan Fridge Not Getting Cold.”
2. Dirty Condenser Coils
Compression refrigerators use refrigerant to cool the system. The refrigerant first flows through the compressor and then through the condenser coils. These coils condense the vapours into a liquid to dissipate heat — this is precisely why condensers feel hot — thus cooling down the refrigerator.
In particularly dusty environments or areas where pets crawl around, condensers may become clogged with dust, pet hair, and other debris, especially when not regularly cleaned and maintained.
Unfortunately, once these condensers become dirty, it prevents vapours from condensing and reduces the cooling capacity. As a result, the fridge no longer efficiently operates, and all perishable goods stored inside become subject to unsafe temperatures. Therefore, you’ll want to remedy the issue as soon as possible.
If you listen closely near your refrigerator, you may be able to hear an audible sound that indicates the condenser may be malfunctioning. Listen for a couple of clicking sounds — this is the condenser turning on and off again due to overheating. You’ll typically notice these sounds every two to three minutes.
Cleaning dirty condenser coils on a refrigerator is a simple process. I’ll walk you through how to get them clean and running again near the end of this article, in fix number two.
3. There’s a Problem With the Thermocouple
Compression fridges use electricity and battery power, whereas absorption (also known as evaporative) refrigerators offer the option to use gas in addition to 240-volt electricity hookups or 12/24-volt batteries (which is why these units are often referred to as “three-way” fridges).
While compressor fridges use refrigerants, such as freon, absorption fridges utilise ammonia, water, and hydrogen for their cooling system, as well as a boiler.
The use of a boiler means that absorption fridges also comprise a pilot light — and if the pilot light goes out or refuses to stay lit, the fridge fails to operate (unless you run it on battery power or electricity).
If you find that the pilot light on your caravan fridge continues to go out, it could be due to a defective thermocouple. A thermocouple regulates how much gas is in the burner — if there’s not enough gas, the fridge cannot operate, at least not on gas power.
A good way to determine if the thermocouple is to blame is by running the refrigerator on electricity or battery power. If it cools fine using those two power sources, then the gas system is to blame, and the thermocouple likely needs replacing. Alternatively, it could be that there’s some air in the gas line.
I’ll walk you through thermocouple replacement and gas valve repairs in fix number three.
4. Ambient Temperature Is Too High
Unlike compressor fridges, absorption fridges do not operate efficiently when ambient temperatures are high.
At around 21 °C (70 °F), the absorption cycle becomes inefficient. As temperatures rise, efficiency decreases.
For example, if the ambient temperature is 27 °C (80 °F), the internal temperature of the fridge should sit around 2-3 °C (35-38 °F). The optimal temperature for perishable goods is between 3 and 5 °C (38-41 °F).
Once you rise above 27 °C (80 °F), perishable food temperatures begin to enter the “danger zone.”
Double-check the owner’s manual that came with your absorption fridge to determine the ideal ambient operating temperatures for your refrigerator.
The rise in ambient temperature tends to be an issue in smaller caravans that lack decent ventilation systems or have little room for exhaust vents above the fridge coils. This is such a common issue that many manufacturers recommend the installation of a fan for extra cooling near these refrigerators.
This is why compressor fridges are more common, especially in hotter climates. However, if you have an absorption fridge in your caravan, there are ways to improve the fridge’s efficiency. To figure out how to remedy this issue, check out fix number four in the following section.
4 Fixes for a Caravan Fridge Not Getting Cold
1. Thaw the Evaporator Coils
If you suspect frozen evaporator coils on your compressor fridge, you can thaw them out to determine if that’s what’s causing your cooling issues.
To thaw the evaporator coils:
- Locate the access panel for the evaporator coils. It’s usually located in the freezer compartment.
- Examine the coils. If they’re covered in frost, move on to step three. If they look fine, there may be another problem with the refrigerator. Read through the following sections for other possible fixes.
- Preserve your food. Place all perishable foods into a separate fridge while working on the defective unit.
- Unplug the refrigerator. Keep all cords away from the floor as you defrost the coils (you do not want them to end up wet as the frost melts).
- Place towels under the refrigerator. As the coils thaw out, water will drip down onto the floor.
- Check the coils after 24 hours. If they’re completely defrosted, plug in the fridge to test it. Otherwise, allow the coils to thaw for an additional 24 hours.
If, after thawing the coils and testing the refrigerator, the unit still fails to work efficiently, the frozen coils may be due to a defective defrost timer, defrost thermostat, or defrost heater. Take time to troubleshoot exactly which part is malfunctioning.
2. Clean the Condenser Coils
When condenser coils become blocked with dirt and debris, cleaning them allows them to work more efficiently to dissipate heat.
Here’s how to safely clean refrigerator condenser coils:
- Preserve your foods. Move all perishable items to another fridge while you clean the coils on the defective refrigerator.
- Unplug the refrigerator. If you’re operating the refrigerator on battery power, disconnect the battery.
- Let the condenser coils cool. If the refrigerator runs, be aware that the coils may be hot to the touch. Allow them to cool before cleaning them.
- Locate the access panel. The condenser coil access panel is typically at the bottom of the refrigerator. Remove the panel.
- Examine the coils. If they’re visibly dirty, use compressed air to blow away any dirt, dust, or debris. Then, use a vacuum to suck up the loosened dirt.
- Replace the access panel. Once the panel is back on, plug the refrigerator in or reconnect the battery and check for proper cooling.
Regular maintenance of a refrigerator involves the cleaning of the condenser coils. To keep your refrigerator running efficiently, check the coils at least once every six months, and remove any built-up dirt.
For more information on servicing a caravan fridge, check out the following video by The Caravan Channel on YouTube:
3. Check the Thermocouple and Reset the Valves
Before replacing the thermocouple on an absorption fridge, ensure that you know what you’re doing. If your unit is under warranty or you’re unfamiliar with gas systems, do not proceed — call in a professional.
To check a suspected bad thermocouple:
- Look in the inspection window for the pilot light. If there is no flame, double-check that you’re not out of fuel. If there is enough fuel, move on to step two. If the fuel is empty, replace the gas, and the unit should work again.
- Locate the gas line on the fridge. Follow the gas line to find the shut-off valve. Twist the valve clockwise to turn off the gas. If the fridge also runs on electricity or battery power, unplug the unit and disconnect the battery.
- Find the access panel. The panel is usually located on the back of the fridge. If the fridge was factory-installed on the caravan, the access panel might be on the vehicle’s exterior.
- Examine the area for rust, dirt, hair, or other debris. Remove any obstructions using compressed air and a vacuum. Restore power to see if the pilot light stays lit.
- Replace the thermocouple. If, after cleaning the area, the pilot light continues to go out, it’s time to replace the thermocouple. Check the owner’s manual to find compatible replacement parts.
- Reset the gas valves. If you continue to have trouble after replacing the thermocouple, reset the gas valves. On newer models, just press the power button. On older models, manually reset the fridge by following the manufacturer’s instructions.
4. Lower the Ambient Temperature
If you suspect that your absorption refrigerator isn’t cooling due to high ambient temperatures, there are several things you can do to fix the issue, including:
- Ensure the fridge isn’t placed near external sources. This includes heating vents, microwaves, the stove, or other heated appliances that might be increasing the surrounding temperature through repeated use.
- Maintain sufficient airflow. Make sure that the refrigerator always has adequate airflow near the back and around the fins. Ideally, you’ll want to keep a thermometer in the area to constantly monitor the temperature.
- Shade the vehicle and use fans. If you’re staying in a particularly hot environment, there’s not much that you can do to lower the outdoor temperatures. However, you can use fabric to shade the caravan (at least on the side on which the fridge sits). Additionally, you can install a cooling fan or another similarly-functioning component behind the unit.
If you find yourself regularly travelling in areas where the ambient temperatures remain high, it might be time to consider investing in a compressor fridge. Compressor refrigerators cool efficiently and consistently despite how high ambient temperatures might be — while the compressor may work harder in warmer climates, it won’t completely stop cooling your fridge.
Other Reasons Your Caravan Fridge Isn’t Cold
The factors listed above aren’t the only reasons that might cause a caravan fridge to stop cooling. Below, I’ve listed a few other common problems that require very easy fixes.
- Improper door seal: Sometimes, a refrigerator seal becomes worn down, allowing air to leak into the fridge, raising the temperature. To remedy this problem, simply replace the gaskets around the edges of the door.
- Fridge is too full: If your caravan refrigerator is packed, the items may block vents or prevent proper air circulation. To remedy this, avoid stuffing the refrigerator and organise items to allow for better airflow.
- Improper temperature controls: If you’re travelling in your caravan with children, be mindful that sometimes little hands mess with the dial or digital temperature controls. Before performing costly repairs, check the dial. If it’s wrong, set it back to the preferred level.
- Unlevel caravan or fridge: Absorption fridges require level surfaces to work properly. If the fridge sits at an incline, it causes the ammonia to accumulate in the tubing, leading to a blockage that affects the cooling system. Check the fridge with a level, and avoid parking on an incline.