Enjoy expanded capacity at a surprisingly affordable price by swapping out your current RV refrigerator for a new residential model

Let’s face it, the heart of the kitchen — especially in an RV — is the refrigerator. It keeps all the refreshments cold and has the added benefit of working while the vehicle is on the road. RV absorption refrigerators are great for what they are, but absorption technology can be fickle, and repair and replacement of the larger models can exceed $5,000.

Outside view of Norcold RV fridge
The Norcold 1200 in our 2008 Tiffin Phaeton could operate on 110-volt AC or propane.

If your motorhome is equipped with an RV-type refrigerator, you may be wishing for something with more residential features that’s less expensive to replace. The 2008 Tiffin Phaeton in this article originally came with a Norcold 1200-Series four-door refrigerator that could be operated on propane or 110-volt AC power. Many newer motorhomes are equipped with full-size residential, all-electric refrigerators. If your coach still has the old propane/AC power unit and you are seeking to upgrade to a larger and more modern fridge, this information may be important to you.

Inside of Norcold RV fridge
The old Norcold only had a 12-cubic-foot capacity.

From 1997–2010, Norcold refrigerators (models 1200, 1201, 1210 and 1211) were installed in countless RVs. Most of them performed without any issues, but they were recalled several times due to thermal problems that led to fires in some situations. Although we never had any problems, the refrigerator was not able to consistently hold subfreezing temperatures in the freezer and ice cream was usually soft when camping in hot weather. Even the refrigerator section struggled to keep its contents below 45 degrees Fahrenheit in hot weather. For these reasons, we decided it was finally time to upgrade to a full electric residential unit.

RV fridge cabinet
The Norcold was removed from the cabinet; a job requiring several people.

This is not a simple project, and unless you are a very advanced DIY person with skills in cabinetmaking and wiring, and have several strong friends to help, this is likely a job best left for the pros. One of the biggest challenges in this upgrade is getting the old refrigerator out and getting the new one in. In our case, we took our Tiffin to Red Bay, Alabama (home of Tiffin Motorhomes). This small town in Alabama has a long list of companies known for providing reasonably priced repairs for all motorhome brands. After looking online, we found Custom RV (256-668-0973), and we spoke to Brannon (the owner), who has performed countless refrigerator upgrades just like we wanted.

Rear view of Norcold RV fridge
The old unit ran on propane, so it required a vent pipe to exhaust hot gasses.

For the fridge swap, Custom RV selected a Whirlpool (model WRS312NHM) counter-depth unit that boasts 22 cubic feet of interior space. The counter-depth unit means that it is only 33 5⁄8 inches deep. This particular model does not have an in-door ice and water dispenser, but there are other models that do if that is important to you. If you want a finish other than stainless-steel, that is available, too. We also opted for an optional in-freezer icemaker.

There are many advantages to the all-electric approach, but it also has a few disadvantages. Look carefully and make sure you can do without a propane-powered refrigerator before you make the jump. A big part of the decision to go with an all-electric refrigerator is knowing what inverter you currently have and how many house batteries are in your coach. In order to run a refrigerator off the inverter using the coach batteries, you will most likely need a pure sine wave inverter because the artifact caused by a modified sine wave can cause electronics and some of the newer compressor systems to fail. Most residential refrigerators can run on a dedicated 1,000-watt inverter, but you need to make sure that the battery bank and recharging system are up to the around-the-clock task of running the inverter and refrigerator if you plan to dry camp a lot.

CAMCO rooftop refrigerator vent cover
The rooftop vent cover is no longer needed to exhaust propane fumes. Seal it off to prevent water and detritus intrusion.

When we discussed our upgrade with Brannon, he asked us if we frequently dry camped and if we needed to run the new refrigerator off the inverter. We said no to both. We have found that we rarely camp anywhere without electricity other than a few nights a year boondocking in a Wal-Mart parking lot. For those rare occasions when we don’t need electricity for the air conditioners, we either run the generator, or we run it all the way to bedtime, then turn the generator off and don’t open the refrigerator all night to keep it cool while we sleep. The next morning, we restart the generator. So, when wiring our refrigerator, he set it up so that it only operates if we are plugged into shorepower or have the generator running. This saved us several thousand dollars on this project, and we can use that to run the generator many, many hours.

New stainless Whirlpool fridge in motorhome
The new stainless Whirlpool unit looks great, but it required electrical wiring changes and cabinet modifications. This new model is 66 5⁄8″ tall and the old Norcold was only 63¼” so the floor had to be lowered to accept the new one.

We’ve talked to countless owners who have made the transition from an RV unit to an all-electric refrigerator, and so far, we haven’t heard of one person who regretted it, and we fall into that category as well. We can literally pack enough food for a week or two and not worry about running out of anything. Also, the food stays cold, no matter the outside temperature. If you are considering this upgrade and plan on hiring a professional to do the work, expect to pay at least $3,000 and up to $6,000 (or more), including the refrigerator, depending on the unit you select and the modifications needed for installation.

Outside vent cover of a motorhome
The original vent cover had slots for airflow to feed the burner and help cool the propane-powered compressor. Those vents are now covered on the inside to prevent water intrusion into the new electric refrigerator.
Back of an RV fridge unit as seen through the outside vent cover
Here’s the back of the new unit as seen through the outside vent cover. It is a much cleaner and simpler setup. The water line for the built-in icemaker is easily accessible for winterizing and now we don’t have the worries of fire or excessive heat from the old propane unit. An optional solid vent door is available as an upgrade if desired, or the vents on the door can be sealed off to prevent water entry.
RV icemaker
Although we selected a model without an in-door ice and water dispenser, it can be equipped with an automatic icemaker like this. It works great and provides plenty of ice.
Inside of new stainless Whirlpool fridge in motorhome
Once you open the side-by-side doors on this cavernous Whirlpool, you’ll know that you made the right decision. It has adjustable shelves and the LED lights make finding your items easy. Plus, it stays cold even when the weather is very warm outside.

Should You Make the Switch?

Earlier, we mentioned some considerations before making the move to an all-electric refrigerator, so let’s take a look at the pros and cons to help you decide if this project is right for you.

Pros

The most obvious benefit of upgrading to a residential refrigerator is size. The new unit that we installed has a total of 22 cubic feet of interior space, while the Norcold we removed only featured 12 cubic feet. The ability to keep ice cream frozen and the refrigerator contents cold is much better in the residential unit and is not dependent on lower outside temperatures as in the old dual-fuel unit. The residential unit also cools down much more quickly than an RV unit and is far less expensive than buying a new dual-fuel RV-specific refrigerator. Also, residential refrigerators don’t suffer from the potential fire-hazard issues of the ammonia-based cooling units in RV-specific refrigerators.

Cons

The  most obvious disadvantage of a residential refrigerator is that it always needs electricity to run. That means you have to run the generator, connect to shorepower, or have an inverter of the correct type and size — and enough batteries to power it. All of that can be expensive, but if your existing fridge has failed, you can likely upgrade the inverter, add batteries and install a residential unit for about the same cost as a new dual-fuel RV refrigerator. Another issue is that the residential fridge is typically much larger, so the cabinetry usually needs to be modified to accommodate the larger size. We had to lower the floor and make a few other modifications to the motorhome in order to accept and then secure the larger, taller Whirlpool. 


 

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