RV Absorption Refrigerators are actually an ingenious invention, capable of refrigerating food on 120v shore power, LP gas, and in some cases 12v battery power. They accomplish their task with a cooling unit filled with a mixture of water, liquefied ammonia, hydrogen gas and sodium chromate, and heaters that are fired by the LP gas by electricity that heat this mixture in the tubes to make the interior of the refrigerator cold. As heat is involved in the process, RV refrigerators are vented to the outside with wall and/or roof vents. And some have fans in the stack behind the refrigerator to help facilitate the cooling process. Also very critical to the process is that the refrigerator be close to level, have plenty of ventilation, and the coils and burner be kept reasonably clean. But even with the best of maintenance procedures, over time (how much time is the question!) the cooling unit will fail, with a replacement cost of $1,200 to $1,800 plus labor. The tell-tale indicators are the smell of ammonia, and a greenish-yellow residue in the area behind the refrigerator. Some absorption refrigerators seem to last on and on, while others fail earlier. Pictured to the left is a Norcold 1201 like ours ...a very sharp looking refrigerator, with wood panels that match the interior wood of the motorhome!!
Any search of RV internet forums will turn up many stories of RV fires, with the most common cause claimed to be the absorption refrigerator. Whether or not all those claims are valid, there are a significant number of documented cases of leaking and/or over-heated cooling units which haveresulted in RV fires. Since RVs are very confined structures using a lot of luan plywood, and the rear of therefrigerator is in a sealed compartment, a fire that starts in the refrigerator compartment progresses rapidly, fed by airflow via the lower and upper exterior vents, and normally quickly results in total loss of the RV. These documented cooling unit problems have resulted in a number of recalls of different brand name RV refrigerators to retrofit them with various thermal shut-down devices. Still there have been fires on units that had all recalls completed. And in addition to the cooling unit problems, there have been recalls of RVs of several brands to install metal baffles to deflect heat and/or shield wood walls and other structural members from excessive heat from the refrigerator cooling unit and/or propane burner chimney. An overheating cooling unit can reportedly reach temperatures of 800 degrees fahrenheit, while in normal operation the unit reaches around 200 degrees fahrenheit. Even 200 degrees of mis-directed heat can cause a fire! Pictured to the right here is part of the thermal shut-down device installed in one of the Norcold recalls. This box clips onto the lower portion of the cooling unit, and is linked to another device in the chimney flue, and to the refrigerator control board. It is designed to shut the refrigerator down, and to shut down the LP gas flow, in event of over heating.
During the first 11 years of ownership, our motorhome was used a lot. We lived in it fulltime for a bit over 7 years, and used it almost monthly when not living in it. In that time we drove it just under 90k miles. During those years, the Norcold 1201 4-door refrigerator w/ice maker cost us 6 service calls for various problems like failed commputer board, failed eyebrow board, failed cooling unit, and two recalls on the cooling unit. Several of those service calls required the refrigerator to be removed from the enclosure, not an easy task in a Winnebago as in addition to the normal trim and screws top and bottom, Winnebago adds two bolts on top accessible only through the roof vent, four bolts on the rear bottom accessible through the outside access door, AND they glue/seal it in with a liberal use of silicone sealant. In addition the above problems, we had to replace the icemaker, and the door divide heater shorted out melting/burning the door frame around the contacts (pictured left). In ten years, with the recalls being at no cost to us, we spent just under $2,800 in cash in addition to diesel fuel and time keeping this refrigerator running (that does NOT include up-front purchase cost!), and at best it struggled to keep ice cream acceptably firm. Fast forward to present ...the ice maker was again needing replacement, and we figured the cooling unit was on borrowed time. Lowes was advertising a sale of refrigerators, so while parked at home base we decided it was time to remove the Norcold and install a residential style electric-only refrigerator.
There are several considerations to be taken in selecting a residential refrigerator to replace an RV refrigerator. The primary considerations are "do you have the space for it?" ...and "can you get it into the RV?" Those two trump ALL other factors. RV refrigerators are typically "cabinet depth" of apx 24", and are built into a sealed compartment where the back is somewhat open to the outside via probably two vents. The replacement refrigerator must fit in the limited space available, even though it won't have to be sealed like the original RV refrigerator was. There are several refrigerators which will fit the compartment, and some that will go thorugh the entry door with the refrigerator doors removed. In some RVs the door is not wide enough so a window or even front windshield must be removed to get a new refrigerator inside. And if you plan to operate the refrigerator on the RV inverter (using the RV battery power), many require a PSW (pure sine wave) inverter rather than the MSW (modified sine wave) inverter that is common in RVs. A PSW inverter can be installed, but that is an additional cost to consider. Picture to the right is of the metal brackets containing the two bolts on each side at the bottom of the refrigerator. The bracket on the left is screwed to the refrigerator side near the bottom, and the bracket on the right is attached to the wall of the refrigerator compartment. The two bolts go through the side bracket into captured nuts on the wall bracket in two of the three holes. We thought of using these brackets to help secure the new refrigerator, but it fits too close to the wall to be able to put the bolts in on each side. Picture on the left is through the outside access panel. You can see the two right side bolts on the extreme right edge of the picture, the bottom bolt very clearly.
We are not concerned with running our refrigerator on our MSW inverter, so that was not a factor for us. While we did look at a couple of refrigerator models we knew would run well on MSW power, they all had a bottom freezer and DW (dear wife ...if mama ain't happy ...) did not want a bottom freezer. So, we looked at what she wanted. We found a Frigidaire with ice & water dispenser in the door. It was counter depth and just a bit taller than the Norcold we were removing, but it was 35" wide ...too wide for our available space. So we "downgraded" our choice to an 18.2cf stainless steel Frigidaire Model #LFHT1817LF. It was on sale, AND came with a free icemaker. With 6 more cubic foot than the Norcold, and "gallon in door storage", it is a very nice upgrade from the tired Norcold which had limited door storage and only one place where you could store a gallon container. After careful measurement we determined we could temporarily make the entry door 29 1/2" wide. This refrigerator with doors removed is 26 3/4" deep, so it would come through the door after we removed the co-pilot chair, grab bars on each side, the screen door, and pulled the pin on the door limit strap. So after some very detailed work with a tape measure and copius note taking (our measurements did NOT exactly match the specification sheet the store printed out for us), we paid the for refrigerator, set a delivery date about 10 days away, and headed home, knowing the refrigerator enclosure would have to be made a bit taller to accommodate the new refrigerator.
First to get the Norcold out. After the Norcold was removed several years ago for replacement of the cooling unit I told the service tech to leave out the bolts through the top of the refrigerator accessible only by removing the roof vent. I figured the four bolts behind the refrigerator ...two to each side ...were sufficient, and leaving out the top bolts would make things easier in the future. First I felt around under the galley sink to find the t-valve to turn off the water supply to the ice maker. Then I turned off the LP at the tank. Then through the outside access door I unplugged the refrigerator, disconnect the 12v power, and disconnected the gas and water supply lines. Then, with a ratchet, socket and extension, I removed the four bolts, 2 on each side. Back inside, I removed the doors and hinges, then all the bins and shelves. After popping off the front trim all around I removed the top and bottom screws. One on top and one on bottom would not come out due to stripped holes ...the bottom laminated particle board was rotted on one end due to moisture ...but they easily ripped out when I tugged on the refrigerator later. After some pushing from the rear and tugging from the front, I got the refrigerator loose. I made sure it was ready to come out, then waited until I had assistance from a friend to be sure I didn't hurt myselfof something in the motorhome. The shell of the Norcold isn't all that heavy, but is a bit awkward to handle. The next day, with the assistance of DW, I removed the copilot seat and pedestal. That was a challenge! I turned the front wheels to full stop right, then lying on my back on the concrete I was able to reach the nuts on the four bolts with a cobbled-together extension apx 3-4' long. Meanwhile, DW was inside trying to hold a socket on the bolts under the seat and somewhat hidden under the edge of the carpet in the midst of some very sticky glue. After getting each bolt loose, then it was a challenge to get the socket unglued from the bolt! (While we had the copilot seat out we found a local guy who did a fantastic job recovering just the seat cushion due to the leather going bad where hands grab it on entry ...he did a fantastic job matching the leather and stitching/style of the original. After re-installing the seat, lots of GooGone was required to clean up the sticky 3/4" socket used to hold the bolts on the floor under the seat.). Then I went to work on altering the enclosure to accommodate the new refrigerator ...more on that below. A few nights later at church choir practice I recruited more help, and using an old piece of plywood as a ramp, two guys at the top coaxed the Norcold shell onto the ramp and slid it out the door with the steadying hands of two guys at the bottom of the ramp. (In the pic, you can see scrap wood at the bottom of the ramp braced against the RV cover footing to ensure the ramp didn't slide out from under us.) At that point, the Norcold was truly "out". The Norcold shell and doos were deposited in the yard for removal by Lowes when the new refrigerator is delivered. I put all the shelves, racks, food bins, and the oak door panels in the shop. We'll likely use some of the bins to help secure food, jars, etc from sliding about in the new refrigerator. Any extras will make good parts bins!
With the Norcold out, it was time to remove the floor of the enclosure. At first I thought it had a sheet metal floor on top of plywood, but as I pried it loose I found something else entirely. It took me a few minutes to realize exactly what it was, but when I turned it over and saw the vinyl RV wallpaper on the back I recognized a piece of Winnebago sidewall material! ...a styrofoam "sandwich" with gelcoat fiberglass on one side and luan plywood covered with vinyl wall paper on the other. This is a great use of scrap material. It is light and strong, and once sealed around the edges with copius amounts of black silicone caulk the gelcoat makes a waterproof floor. And sealed in across the back behind the refrigerator was a plastic drip tray complete with drain that empties under the coach! Too bad I couldn't keep the drip tray, but the new refrigerator will go against the back wall so it had to go. Since my new floor had to be longer than the original to hold the new refrigerator, I could not use the original floor material. It was a bit over 1 1/2" thick, and since I was using 3/4" plywood for the new floor, that difference in thickness reduced the distance I needed to drop the floor by apx 3/4". As I was very much hoping to save the central vacuum that was under the compartment floor, that was a good thing. After some carefull measurements, and a little adjustment of the brackets holding the central vac, it was clear I would be able to keep it in place with a little work on the plumbing. In addition to the central vacuum (with both a hose port and a floor/broom port), there was also a sub-woofer, and LP detector under the refrigerator. AND, there was a small cabinet door to allow access to change the vacuum bag when needed. Since the under fridge woodwork was too tall, and was constructed of a combination of vinyl-veneered sticks and luan plywood, I needed to make a new face plate to accommodate everything, and I needed to finish it to match our existing light oak woodwork. At Lowes I found finished oak in the cabinet department that matches out woodwork, but nothing wide enough for the required face plate, and nothing long enough for the side trim I will need later. In the lumber area I found red oak lumber in varying lengths and widths. I bought a 1x10x4, and then got a small can of "natural" stain that appeared to be the right shade. Back at home, I cut the oak to the required length, then ripped it to the 8 3/4" width I needed. Then I made the necessary cutouts for the speaker, LP detector, two vacuum ports, and door. I sanded a piece of scrap and stained it with the natural stain, and it came out surprisingly close ...success!! Using a pocket jig, I added screw holes to mount the face plate, then stained it and set it aside to dry. Then I looked at the original cabinet door which was now too tall. After some consideration I removed the hardware and began carving on it with the chop saw. After small cuts and additional small cuts on both the top and bottom edges it was just the right size. After some sanding on the raw edges, I touched it up with the natural stain. While the stain was drying I turned to a piece of 3/4x4x4 plywood and cut out the new floor which would come out apx 1 1/2" beyond the front of the compartment to support the front feet of the new refrigerator. You can see in the picture with the new floor how much lower the new floor is than the original ...the lower black line on the right side of the comparment is where the top of the original floor was. I put the new face plate in place with pocket screws, and re-installed the items that are attached. I was surprised and pleased with how well the new faceplate matches the finish. I thought I might need a bit more yellow cast, but the natural oak stain worked well. The stuff attached to the face plate is a bit compressed, but it worked. The hard item was the vacuum hose port. Since it was originally attached to 1/8" Luan plywood, the pvc tubing was just a bit too short to reach when I installed the new faceplate of 3/4" wood. After some experimenting I found a collar connector that fit. The local hardware store cut the collar in half for me on their lathe cutter because it looked like that was what I would need. But that was still too long, so I figured out how to cut half of it in half again. That worked, and after applying a little pvc cement I was able to reconnect the vacuum hose port. After installing the floor I used a hole saw to carefully cut five holes in the new floor for air flow where they would be under the new refrigerator. Then I used the central vac to clean up the mess! :) Then I turned to sealing the access door and ceiling vent. On the access door, I covered the holes with duct tape, and taking a tip from others who have gone before I sprayed a layer of expanding foam insulation and trimmed it down, then covered it with duct tape. That worked well on the lower vent row, but not at all on the upper where there is just a couple of layers of duct tape between us and bugs. I'll need to figure out something better later on. For the roof vent, I cut a piece of the original floor material to a tight fit. It is apx 1 1/2" thick, and the roof is apx 3" thick. It was thick enough to insulate the hole while not cramping the solar panel wiring that comes into the vent and into the ceiling. (More on some scary stuff I found in the ceiling vent toward the end of this write-up). I put some scrap 1/8" plywood across the patch and then sealed it with black silicone caulk. I did all this over several days as I was nursing an injured knee I acquired while chasing our energetic pup through the neighbor's yard the night we removed the Norcold from the motorhome. I had a week to get it done, but had to finish a few days early as we were scheduled for a two night rally with our local Winnebago group the weekend before the scheduled refrigerator delivery.
So, how to make the Winnebago chapter rally with no refrigerator?? ...well, we have a small refrigerator we bought several years ago when the Norcold cooling unit failed. We used the little refrigerator for almost a week while waiting for a service appointment, and then loaned it to our daughter, and got it back after we quite fulltiming and bought a house. So the little refrigerator moved from the garage back into the motorhome. I put a deck screw and washer through the lock plate at bottom center, and a 2x4 cleat on the open side. Then a 1x4 across the front assured me it would stay in the compartment and keep the door closed. It traveled well the 120 miles to Texarkana and back, and gave us cold drinks along with breakfast and sandwich items. We carried a large ice chest with a couple of bags of ice and ingredients for the home made ice cream we had promised to make for the gathering. On our return home I had to return the little refrigerator to the garage, and finally remembered to check the plugged gas line for leaks.
A few comments about the picture above of the new compartment floor. If you compare it to the original compartment floor, you will see that I removed the electrical outlet from the rear wall of the compartment and moved it below the floor. I mounted it on the floor under the compartment floor beside the central vac where it is easily accessible via small cabinet door. I created a 3' heavy duty extension cord that is plugged into that outlet with the female end above the floor for the refrigerator to be plugged into. I plugged the gas line, using yellow teflon tape, and secured it to the back wall where I can easily access the capped end from the outside access door (it is not yet secured in that picture). This will allow me to monitor it for leaks if necessary, and to perhaps use it for an outdoor grill or something else if I wish to do that in the future. Just to the left of the power cord coming from under the floor, you can see the drain hose that goes out the bottom of the motorhome. I was hoping to connect the drain hose from the new refrigerator to this hose rather than allowing it to drain into the evaporation pan under the refrigerator, but that didn't work well. I got it connected with a splice I created from an RV water pump connector, but when the refrigerator was pushed back into place, the refrigerator hose kinked in 2 or 3 places. I was afraid it might block the drain, so I disconnected it and returned it to it's original position draining into the evaporation pan. The 12v line that was originally connected to the Norcold controls I made sure to leave where I can easily reach it for future use if desired. I saved the two large muffin fans that were in the Norcold stack, and am kicking around some possible ideas in my mind for one of those fans using that 12v power line.
Lowes was scheduled to deliver the new refrigerator between 12 and 5pm. That morning the delivery driver called and said he could be there between 10 and 12, so I told him to come on. It was raining when he rang the house doorbell. I asked him to meet me behind the house and told him the refrigerator would be going into my motorhome. He commented if he had know that, he would have brought a second guy, but he didn't hesitate. He did question whether or not it would fit in the door. I told him I could help, and that the door was 29 1/2" and the refrigerator w/o doors was 26 3/4. It was raining heavily, but he was able to back the truck to about 20 feet from the RV cover. He removed the door, tied it on a furniture dolly, and pulled it up the stairs as I lifted from the bottom. Even with my bum knee, it went in pretty easy. Once inside, it took both of us to get it onto the box I had built from scrap lumber to set in front of the enclosure (another tip I picked up from those who have gone before!). We rolled it into the enclosure and he started putting it back together. He installed the free icemaker (Lowes has a special on this year providing a free icemaker with any Fridigaire refrigerator ...all the sales people don't know it, but I had seen a sign in the store and after I asked the salesman finally found the code and it rang up $0 at checkout). I went outside and plugged it in and got it started cooling. The delivery guy said he had put refrigerators in RVs before, but never one this large. But I suspect most RVs he had put them in were not 40' motorhomes either. I handed him a $20 bill and thanked him for his trouble, then he asked what I planned to do with the Norcold shell and doors lying outside in the grass. I told him I kind of hoped he would take them away, and outside he went into the rain to load them onto his truck. After he left, I had to pull the refrigertor back out of the enclosure to put some finishing touches on the woodwork ...trim a corner off the new floor, and while I had it out I also painted the front edge of the floor black (another tip from those who have gone before ...RV forums are great sources of fantastic ideas!!). The box made it very easy to manage. Once I pulled it out onto the box it totally blocked the enclosure, but I was able to easily and carefully slide the box with the refrigerator on top of it on the tile floor to get it out of the way, and when done, easily slide it all back into position.
With the Frigidaire back in place I connected the water line and power, then turned the water back on under the galley sink. We don't have shore water in our storage cover so I turned on the water pump to test out the ice maker. The new refrigerator is a pretty good fit even though it is a bit over 26 3/4" deep rather than the 24" of the Norcold, and a bit over 30" with the doors (w/o handles). There was a gap of apx 1 1/2" across the top between the refrigerator and the trim, and about 2 3/4" on the right. I bolted it to the compartment floor in center of the rear, and at both front feet. I bought 1x6 red oak boards at Lowes for the new top and side trim, ripping them to the required width with a table saw. For the side gap I created a piece of oak trim with a pine backer piece that both covers and very tightly fills the gap between the refrigerator and original side trim. I added velcro between the trim and the refrigerator on the top half of the side stim. The new piece of oak trim across the top is notched for the refrigerator door hinge, has a 45 degree bevel on the left to improve appearance, has a couple of vent holes (and I can really feel the air flow), and is fastened to the existing trim with screws and to the top of the refrigerator with industrial strength velcro to help stabilize the refrigerator (another tip from others who have gone before). I did everything except countersink the trim screws so I could cover them with plugs ...I can do that later if I decide to. Fitting tightly against the refrigerator, and with industrial strength velcro, the new trim completes the job of holding the refrigerator in place. In addition to a 2x4 cleat on the floor against the bottom side of the refrigerator in the wide gap, that should keep it motionless. To keep the refrigerator from going totally against the wall (and the gas line, electric cord, and water line) I fastened a piece of 1x4 to the floor/wall behind the refrigerator. You can see it sticking up in the picture through the outside access door on the right. There is another small 1x4 between the wall the the left side of the refrigerator. And the crowning touch ...to keep the doors shut from traveling ...was a set of child-proof door locks from Walmart.com. We are looking forward to traveling with a great looking refrigerator that should serve us well, and keep our beloved ice cream nice and firm!
And here is the finished product!!
FIRE DANGER/DAMAGE The Norcold refrigerator had been removed at least three times in its life by different service facilities. None of those times did we have the opportunity to inspect the refrigerator enclosure. After I removed the Norcold and inspected the enclosure to see what I needed to do to prepare for installation of the new refrigerator, I made a very unsettling discovery in the area of the ceiling vent. I found a lot of scorched wood, significant melted styrofoam insulation inside the ceiling material, and a bit of charred wood. We had no idea how close we had come to losing our motorhome to fire! In examining the damage, and looking at the Norcold refrigerator, it became obvious that the damage was due to the intense heat coming up the LP burner chimney/flue, and the way that a cap on the chimney directed that intense heat directly into the ceiling material at the end of the ceiling vent. Had the chimney not been capped, the heat would likely have simply exited through the roof vent ...OR, if the cap had directed the heat only into the open area of the compartment along the rear of the refrigerator ...OR, if the ceilling vent had been centered over the primary heat source (the chimney) rather than over the refrigerator ...the damage would not have occured. The cause appears to me to be bad design on behalf of the motorhome builder. In addition to the Norcold recalls over the years that were intended to prevent fires caused by overheated cooling units, I remember at least one recall of a particular motorhome model that involved installing metal baffles to shielf wood from the intense heat that could start a fire. IF YOU HAVE AN RV TYPE REFRIGERATOR THAT OPERATES ON PROPANE, I urge you to take advantage of the opportunity to closely inspect the refrigerator enclosure, including the ceiling and upper walls, anytime that your RV refrigerator is removed for any reason. From what I found in our motorhome, I believe we were extrememly fortunate not to have had an RV fire that could have destroyed our motorhome and contents, in addition to endangering our lives and the lives of others.
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