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Old 03-20-2016, 10:08 AM   #1
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2001 34' Limited
Tucson , Arizona
Join Date: Jul 2012
Posts: 229
A little bit of refrigerator info....

Everyday can be a learning experience, and a few weeks ago I learned a bit about RV refrigerators.....

We had planned a week long trip to Mexico (Puerto Penasco, AKA.. Rocky Point)
so Sat. morning we got the Airstream all "road ready" and proceeded through the checklist before hitting the road. Hooked and with a green light to go, the last thing I did was disconnect the shore power and store the cord. On my way back around the trailer I came across the scent of ammonia. Not knowing what I know now, I attributed it to an earlier problem we had with the dump valves (since replaced) and figured the leaking must have been much worse than I thought and that the ground was a bit "tainted" None the wiser, off to Mexico we went. Upon arrival, not only was the refrigerator not cooling, it had no power at all! Spent some time doing a bit of troubleshooting and after an hour the call of vacation won the battle. Off to the store we went and lived out of a couple coolers for the week.
After our return to the States ( and subsequent internet service) I set forth on Google to become a "semi-professional" RV refrigerator repairman. (yet another badge to pin to my chest!) Low and behold! My quest was put to an immediate halt upon learning that...... when one in an RV smells the fragrant aroma of Ammonia, two things are going to happen. You are going to get out your wallet and your going to call a specialist.
So, I'll try to sum things up here in a relatively easy to understand process....

If your RV refrigerator is a 2 way unit (meaning it runs on 120V shore power OR on propane when your "unplugged") it uses Ammonia as a refrigerant in the cooling process. (something I never new existed and really is a fairly interesting system)
So, if you ever smell Ammonia in or around your refrigerator, turn it off immediately and start a search for an RV refrigeration repairman. If you don't and continue to run the refrigerator(maybe you either just don't notice the leak or aren't home when it happens), eventually all the ammonia will leak out of the cooling system and then a 12 volt hi temp overload breaker WILL overheat and shut off ALL power to your refrigerator. This will make you think that now the problem is even worse than you originally thought.
At first I told myself " The damn fridge is 15 years old, we'll just buy a new one". Well, a quick search of replacement units quickly made me reconsider ( $2200) I found an RV refrigeration specialist here in Tucson, AZ. whom I'd highly recommend (Trailer Refrigeration)
They rebuild the cooling decks of RV refrigerators, which, once the refrigerator is removed from your rig and placed on a patio or driveway, is relatively east to remove and take in for service (believe it or not!)

When I asked him about the cause of the leak in my unit he told me it was just dumb luck that it decided to spring a leak moments before our trip. Most leaks happen to folks while they are traveling down the road. ( vibration and movement eventually cause a break in the refrigerant line) Our leak was found in the "boiler" and not necessarily caused by anything other than regular use. It still cost about $500 for the repair, however I removed the fridge and did all the "grunt" work myself. Something I believe he would do, for the right amount of $$. It was a great learning experience for me anyways
I figured I'd post this here in the Full Timers section because we tent to put our Airstream's to the real test. Our appliances get used "Full Time", not just on the occasional trip or holiday weekends, so naturally we may experience more issues. I wanted to share my story and experience because I honestly didn't know anything about the fridge, I never HAD to. It worked and thats all I knew. But, now I know.... If your fridge smells like Ammonia, turn it off and find a repairman.

2013 Ram Power Wagon 2500 4X4 5.7 Hemi
2001 Airstream '34 Limited
Hensley Arrow

Fulltime in 2013 and LOVING it !!
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Old 03-20-2016, 10:18 AM   #2
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2016 30' Classic
Lorton , Virginia
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As someone going full time, thanks for the info!

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Old 03-20-2016, 04:25 PM   #3
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Sioux Falls , South Dakota
Join Date: Mar 2011
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You may have not only saved some money by not buying a new refrigerator, you may have saved even more money by not having to buy a new coach and contents. While they certainly all don't catch fire, far too many newer RV refrigerators have caught fire to suit me. Before we ever saw our Foretravel we had decided that when the RV refrigerator died it would be replaced by a residential unit.

Both Dometic and Norcold have had repeated problems in the past few years. They may have finally gotten it figured out, but I'm going to let others be the guinea pigs. In fairness, most of the fires seem to have been in refrigerators located in slides, so that isn't an issue for Airstreams.
David Lininger, kb0zke
AIR 54240
Heartland mpg 181 (sold)
1993 Foretravel U300 (for sale)
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Old 03-20-2016, 05:11 PM   #4
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1999 28' Excella
New Orleans , Louisiana
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I wrote 4/11/2014 Frig Ammonia Smell..airforums pretty much saved our lives by saying it is toast..turn it off.
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Old 03-21-2016, 11:33 AM   #5
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Thanks for sharing. I had a similar problem with an ammonia leak right after we had filled the freezer with seafood to take up north. I tried to keep the seafood frozen with dry ice but by the time we got home all that was safe to eat was the shrimp. Should have cooked it all or salted the fish and lobster (ugh) to try preserving everything. Oh well, such is life.
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Old 03-21-2016, 01:06 PM   #6
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1996 25' Excella
Tillsonburg , Ontario
Join Date: Aug 2014
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Thanks for the info
I had the Refrigerator rebuilt a few years back and it cost $800 CAN to R&R and put in a new condensing system. I've often wondered what the labor cost for R&R would be!
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Old 03-21-2016, 01:34 PM   #7
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2012 25' FB Eddie Bauer
Vintage Kin Owner
Virginia Beach , Virginia
Join Date: Sep 2004
Posts: 5,678
Here is a completely different take - marine refrigerators - and a good argument against propane/ammonia refrigerators. Read LEWSTER's post especially.

There are places where you can buy a new cooling unit for your existing refrigerator rather than having someone custom repair yours. I wish I'd read this thread before I finished remodeling the Avion.


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