The RV refrigerator is always a hot topic (a hot topic about cooling, that is!). There are different types of RV fridges, but in this post, we’re looking specifically at the 12V RV refrigerator.
How is a 12V RV fridge different from a traditional RV fridge, and what are the pros and cons of having one?
We’ll look at all the details, and we’ll show you some of the best options available for those of you who are considering a 12V refrigerator for your RV.
- 1) What Is a 12V RV Refrigerator?
- 2) How Does a 12V RV Refrigerator Work?
- 3) What Are the Advantages of a 12V RV Fridge?
- 4) What Are the Disadvantages of a 12V RV Refrigerator?
- 5) What Type of RV Refrigerator Is Best?
- 6) 12V Compressor Residential-Style Refrigerators for RVs
- 7) Do You Have a 12V Refrigerator in Your RV?
- 8) Free RVing Tips, Tricks, Reviews, Giveaways & More
What Is a 12V RV Refrigerator?
In our post about the RV refrigerator in general, we discussed the various types of RV fridges and how they work.
We noted that an RV fridge can work on 120V AC supplied by shore power (such as that provided at a campground’s power pedestal), by LP (liquid propane) gas, or by 12V power supplied by a battery bank that can be charged by an engine’s alternator or by a solar system.
Some RV fridges have the ability to work in two or even all three modes.
Traditionally, in fact, RVs were supplied with fridges that could cool in 120V AC power mode when plugged into shore power, OR in LP (gas) mode when boondocking (not connected to any other power source), OR in 12V DC mode when the engine’s alternator is running.
How Does a 12V RV Refrigerator Work?
A 12V fridge exclusively runs on 12V DC power at all times. Power consumption varies based on the quality of the compressor used by the fridge’s manufacturer.
While 2-way (or 3-way) fridges are absorption refrigerators, a 12V fridge uses a compressor that operates exclusively on 12V DC power, eliminating the need for both LP (liquid propane) gas and 120V AC.
In the RV environment, a 12V fridge is most often powered by the rig’s house battery bank (often charged by solar panels), though it can also be powered by the alternator of a vehicle or motorhome while the engine is running.
So what’s the difference? In a nutshell, an absorption fridge uses heat to trigger a chemical process that creates cold in the fridge & freezer compartments, but a 12V-only fridge uses only electricity to run a compressor to create a cold environment. (This has its advantages and its drawbacks as we’ll see momentarily.)
Many van and car campers use small and/or portable 12V compressor fridges, but for the purpose of today’s topic, we’re referring to the larger version such as this 10 cu ft residential-style Dometic fridge.
A 12V RV refrigerator is similar to an RV residential refrigerator that always runs on 120V AC power (like the one we have), however, there are a couple of significant differences.
The most significant difference is that you need an inverter to run a residential fridge in an RV. An inverter is necessary to convert 12V DC power into the 120V AC power that a residential fridge uses.
With a 12V RV fridge, there’s no need for an inverter because there’s no need for that conversion. The fridge runs directly on the 12V DC power supplied by the rig’s battery bank.
This is a benefit of a 12V fridge over a residential fridge because an inverter isn’t 100% efficient, so power is lost in the conversion. That extra power draw is eliminated with a 12V fridge.
But the other difference is size. Residential refrigerators come in a much wider range of sizes, including much larger than is available in a 12V RV fridge model. For example, the 12V fridge shown above is a 10 cu ft unit while our residential RV fridge offers 18 cu ft of space… and you could even get a 21 or 24 cu. ft residential refrigerator (if you had the room AND it could fit through your RV’s door, window, or windshield!).
Most RVs still come from the manufacturer with absorption fridges, so for the purposes of this post we want to compare the 12V RV fridge with the more common absorption RV fridge powered by gas and electricity.
What Are the Advantages of a 12V RV Fridge?
A fully 12V RV refrigerator has several advantages over an absorption fridge. (And like anything else, there are a few drawbacks as well.)
Let’s take a look at the benefits of having a 12V RV fridge.
Strong, Consistent Cooling
12V RV refrigerators cool very well… and do it very consistently (like their 120V residential counterparts). This is one of the main advantages of a 12V fridge, in fact.
Absorption fridges have a longer, slower cycle of cooling. This can lead to greater variation in temperature within the fridge and freezer compartments, leading to a greater likelihood that food will spoil. On the other hand, a 12V compressor RV refrigerator will keep the contents of your fridge cool consistently at the temperature at which you set your fridge, extending the life of the food inside.
More importantly, perhaps, an absorption fridge can typically only cool to about 40° below ambient temperature. So, if it’s 90 degrees ambient temp during a summer camping trip, your RV’s absorption fridge is likely to cool only to 50°F at best. Not great for keeping your food from spoiling.
No Ventilation Required
The 12V compressor fridge is strictly electric, so it doesn’t require ventilation. Absorption refrigerators need a path for the heated air to flow up and out the top, which is why they have extra venting.
Less Fire Hazard
A 12V RV compressor fridge doesn’t have the same potential to create a fire hazard that an absorption refrigerator does (due to its use of propane gas to create heat in order to cool the unit). With a 12V fridge there’s no propane and no flame. This all but removes the risk of fire.
This is no small consideration in light of the fact that propane-fueled refrigerators are among the top causes of RV fires.
And thanks to the lack of propane involvement, there’s no debate about driving down the road with your propane tank on. There are also no tunnel delays or re-routing, etc.
More Interior Space
Because the compressor-based cooling unit is smaller than an absorption-style system, 12V compressor refrigerators offer more interior space in the same footprint. This is great if you plan on replacing your existing absorption fridge… without having to increase the size of the opening, you can get a unit with more capacity inside!
No Need to Defrost!
Due to the active cooling process found in most 12V RV fridges (and in 120V residential fridges), an automatic defrost system is possible in 12V fridges and freezers. Absorption-style fridges don’t have that option, so they’re prone to frosting up.
A built-in defrost system is a big deal to use full-timers who have neither the interest nor the time to defrost the fridge and freezer every month or two.
What Are the Disadvantages of a 12V RV Refrigerator?
As we acknowledged earlier, there are a few disadvantages to having a 12V RV refrigerator.
One of the drawbacks of a 12V fully-electric compressor fridge is that they’re quite expensive. With that said, though, the truth is that all decent RV refrigerators are expensive.
Require Extensive Power Off-Grid
If you enjoy boondocking as much as we do, you’ll need a fairly substantial battery/solar setup to run a 12V RV fridge off-grid for long periods (or a good onboard or portable generator to keep your 12V batteries charged up).
Although the 12V RV fridges (non-portable) that we’re covering today are fairly sizable, they won’t work for everyone.
If you’re RVing with a large family or if, like us, you’re living in your RV full time and you plan to boondock in faraway places for extended periods of time, 10 cubic feet won’t be enough space. (This is why we moved to a residential refrigerator, in fact.) Residential, 120V AC refrigerators still come in larger sizes than the largest available 12V compressor refrigerators… so if size is important, you may need to look elsewhere.
What Type of RV Refrigerator Is Best?
This is one of those questions that can only be answered based on your personal traveling situation and your camping style.
If you have access to an adequate power source (like a decent-sized solar system) or if you’re literally always plugged into shore power, then a 12V RV fridge might be the best RV refrigerator upgrade for you.
If, however, you’re an avid boondocker who camps only in moderate ambient temps and you don’t have a large solar system & battery bank, you may love having a propane-fueled fridge to keep your food and beverages cool WITHOUT having to worry about keeping your batteries topped up.
If you’re living in your rig full time and/or you’re traveling with a large family, you may want to opt for a residential refrigerator, especially if you tend to always camp at RV parks and campgrounds that offer shore power (or you have a very substantial solar system & battery bank).
See, it’s really all about your particular needs and how you camp.
12V Compressor Residential-Style Refrigerators for RVs
You’ve read this far, so obviously you’re still interested. So let’s check out five popular choices for 12V RV refrigerators. Again, in this post we’re looking at residential-style 12V compressor fridges and not chest-style portable compressor fridges or portable freezers.
Note that most of these 12V refrigerator manufacturers make multiple sizes of 12V residential-style fridges. For the purposes of this post, we’ll highlight a similar-sized fridge from each manufacturer.
Dometic is a well-known brand with an excellent reputation in the RV industry. The Dometic DMC4101 is a 10 cu. ft. 12V fridge with sleek residential styling and easy-to-use digital controls.
The fridge uses variable speed compressor technology for efficiency & durability and has automatic temperature control to keep the fridge’s interior at the optimal temperature.
This unit has glass shelves, dual crisper drawers, and a reversible stainless steel door.
Dometic also sells a very similar 12V RV refrigerator (the DMC4081) in an 8 cu. ft. size.
The best review we know of with regard to the Dometic DMC4101 is the real-life experience of our friends Tom & Cait Morton (Mortons on the Move). Full-timers like us, they’ve been using this 12V fridge from Dometic for quite some time now, and we’ve personally heard them rave about it.
- Efficient Compressor: Dometic refrigerators use a high-performance compressor that is designed to be efficient and reliable. The compressor is...
- Durable Construction: Dometic refrigerators are built to last, with rugged construction and high-quality components that are designed to withstand the...
Norcold POLAR N10DC
Another well-known brand among RVers, Norcold has been producing all types of RV refrigerators for a very long time. Their POLAR N10DC 10 cu. ft. residential-style 12V RV refrigerator has reversible stainless steel doors and modern styling.
This fridge offers an LCD touch control panel and a “night mode” that uses reduced compressor and fan speeds to conserve battery usage and reduce noise, helping you sleep (both the reduction in noise AND the reduction in power use 😉).
It has glass shelves with front risers, dual crisper drawers, clear door bins, and a travel latch to keep the fridge doors secured when travel is underway.
Norcold offers 12V residential-style RV fridges in additional capacities of 8 cu. ft., 15 cu. ft., and 19 cu. ft. (they’re beginning to close the gap with residential refrigerator sizes!).
- Reversible taller stainless steel doors with curved edges provide a built-in look
- Travel latch keeps the doors closed during transit
Furrion is also among the top-rated RV fridge producers in the RV industry. Available in stainless steel or gloss black, the 10 cu. ft. Furrion Arctic offers 25% more storage capacity than other fridges with the same exterior dimensions.
Its high-efficiency compressor operates quietly at less than 43 dB. It has a customizable door panel, rendering this fridge capable of being hinged and opened from either the right or the left.
The Furrion Arctic has a door lock to keep contents inside the fridge during travel. It also comes in either an 8 cu. ft. or a 14 cu. ft. capacity (which has 4 doors for flexibility and includes a wine cooler section with glass door).
- MORE STORAGE SPACE: Thanks to an innovative arrangement of its components, the Furrion Arctic offers the largest capacity of any fridge in its class,...
- ENERGY EFFICIENT: Furrion's innovative 12 Volt DC compressor technology cools 4x faster. The two-door setup keeps cold air loss at a minimum between...
RecPro 10.7 Cu. Ft. RV Refrigerator
This 10.7 cu. ft. 12V RV refrigerator from RecPro has a stainless steel reversible door (so it can open from the left or from the right), is frost free, and has adjustable glass shelving. Its vibration-dampening properties help with the constant movement and bouncing of travel.
This fridge has a door lock for safe travel and RecPro says the operation is quiet.
We should note that Amazon reviews are mixed for this unit, with about 3/4 of users offering positive reviews. There appear to be some quality control issues with some users noting that they ran into complex warranty issues as well.
RecPro also offers a 4.3 cu. ft. version of this 12V fridge for use in smaller rigs or as a second refrigerator.
- This RV refrigerator has both a full fridge and a top freezer. The exterior dimensions are 23 1/2" wide by 24 3/4" deep by 59 5/8" high and there are...
- The fridge weighs about 119 pounds. This model is perfect if you're looking for a bit more space for your food.
GE 9.8 Cu. Ft. 12V Refrigerator
Relatively new to the RV market, but certainly well-known as a brand, this 12V fridge from GE offers a 9.8 cu. ft. capacity with semi-automatic defrost capability.
The interior of the fridge has LED lighting, adjustable glass shelves, and clear crisper drawers & door bins.
This 12V fridge has reversible hinges so it can be opened either from the right or left as it suits your RV’s setup. It’s available in either stainless steel or black.
Reviews are also mixed for the quality of this fridge on both GE’s website and at Camping World.
It doesn’t appear to be available via Amazon, so for more information, please click on the links above.
Do You Have a 12V Refrigerator in Your RV?
If you’ve been traveling for a while with a residential-style 12V refrigerator in your RV, we’d love to hear about your experience.
Toss us a comment and let us know what brand and size you’re using and how it’s working out for you!
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Monday 20th of March 2023
I find it interesting that the condenser on a 12volt unit does not need to be vented in any way. Where does the heat from compression of the gas from the compressor go?
Tuesday 14th of March 2023
We’ve been traveling full-time for a year and a half with a Furrion 16cu ft side by side 12v fridge in our new Grand Design 5th wheel. We moved to this rig from a Monaco motor coach of 12 years which had both a gas absorption RV fridge and then a residential fridge. As far as cooling the residential and the 12v are comparable and beat the RV gas absorption fridges hands down. The 12v fridge running directly from our batteries is much more efficient than a residential fridge running off an inverter. To sum up my thoughts, I prefer the 12v with its abilities to cool efficiently especially when Boondocking.
Sunday 19th of March 2023
Glad to hear it, Randy!
Thursday 9th of March 2023
We have a Norcold 1210 which was Propane and Electric. We used JC Refrigeration to convert ours to 12v only and we love it for all the advantages you mentioned. About $1250 for the conversion. https://jc-refrigeration.com/.
Wednesday 8th of March 2023
We do have a 10.1 cu ft compressor refrigerator which replaced the 8 cu ft Norcold N842 absorption unit which came with our 2005 Winnebago Adventurer 37b. The Norcold always worked well for us – except in very hot weather when it struggled to keep the freezer cold enough. But I loved that it could run forever on very little propane, and for fire prevention I installed the ARP Fridge Defend unit years ago. But it’s freezer frosted up a lot, we wanted better cooling, and we really wanted more space for the 2 of us full time RVers. Plus our rig was already equipped with 400aH of BB Lithium batteries charged by 600 watts of solar panels. Backed up by our 5500 watt Onan generator with 65 watt Progressive converter and a Renogy DC-DC charger. Also have a 1500w Go Power inverter, but I wanted to run the refrigerator off it’s own inverter so got a Victron.700w pure sine wave inverter for that. In other words – I felt we had sufficient 12v power and inverters to be to power a residential refrigerator.
So last summer – after lots of research – we bought a 120v AC Magic Chef Model HMDR1000BE 10.1 cu ft residential refrigerator at Home Depot for $329. Being in NH – there was no sale tax. And it qualified for a NH utility energy rebate of $50. And I sold the Norcold for $250 to someone who wanted a refrigerator which would run on propane in their off-grid cabin. So the net cost of this new refrigerator (alone) was $29. (BTW Home Depot still sells this model – though price has risen to $399. But it is a popular model as our local store has 29 in stock!)
Bought the Magic Chef because of its low cost, great reviews (including by other RVers who bought this model for their RV), fairly low energy draw, high build quality and the fact that it’s exterior dimensions would allow it be a direct fit into the cabinet our Norcold came out of. In testing this unit when free standing outside our RV I noticed the sides got quite warm in operation. Found out this was because they imbedded the cooling coils just under the side steel skin to release heat pulled out of the freezer and refrigerator sections. Good to know because installed in the RV cabinet there was only about 1 ¼ = 1 ½” side clearance. More on that later.
Removed the Norcold and test fit the Magic Chef.in place to measure for some front mounting brackets. I insulated the inner sides of the cabinet with pieces of packing Styrofoam to keep the refrigerator cooling heat from getting into the interior of the RV. Checked to insure there was sufficient clearance up top, as I still needed the convection cooling to work as per the original bottom side and rooftop vents. After the full install the refrigerator worked great from just the convection cooling along the sides and out the roof. But to assist this I did later add a small 12v computer cooling fan on each side at the bottom to blow some air up along the sides in order to increase efficiency.
I then wired in the dedicated inverter in the water tank compartment just below the refrigerator – though I made sure that there was a regular shore power driven outlet there as well that I could plug the fridge into if needed. I made up new mounting brackets for the front top & bottom using 1/16” aluminum angle – bolted to the hinge mounting screws and into the front of the cabinet. One last addition I had to make was I obtained a 3” piece of threaded 7mm rod (with wing nut and large washer) which I could screw into the door opening side hinge hole between the freezer and refrigerator doors in order to lock the doors shut during travel. There is a lot of food weight carried on the door shelves and that needed to be contained while moving down the road.
There are more details to how this install was done, but for more information please watch a good YouTube video from Kevin Caudill who installed a similar unit into his motor home last summer. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CsR_eihKjds
We upgraded to this unit in June of 2022. Since then we have traveled several thousand miles down Florida, and this new residential refrigerator is working great. My wife and I feel this is the best upgrade we have done in our motor home. We love the 2.1 additional storage we now have – a 25% increase makes all the difference. The freezer is frost free and we have better, more consistent cooling throughout..
We highly recommend this upgrade for any RVer as long as you have the 12v electrical system to support the extra load any 12v powered refrigerator requires. Yes – there are a number of dedicated 12v refrigerators out there – but they are so expensive. We felt the path to go was to buy an inexpensive 120v AC residential refrigerator at Home Depot and power it with either shore power or through an inverter. With our options we have achieved the same end result for far less $$, and we could not be happier.
Wednesday 8th of March 2023
We have a 12v Furrion 10cf refrigerator. We're happy with it when using shore power however with our current battery setup (one group 27 lead acid) we get about two days for boondocking with the refrigerator being by far most of the usage. We have a 2200W generator as backup but it takes a very long time to charge the battery. We've tried a 100w portable solar panel that we now leave at home as it's even slower. Since we want to do more boondocking we're looking at installing on the roof 400w of solar and replacing the single lead acid with two same size lithium batteries. Just figuring out where to place an extra battery on the trailer tongue was hard, we ended up getting another tray welded on.
I would say if boondocking is what you do most, when choosing your RV you definitely want a 3-way fridge. My two 20lb propane tanks last almost forever if you don't run the furnace much. Otherwise, you're looking at a major investment in solar.