Keeping food cool while traveling can be a total necessity. But should you use your propane refrigerator in your travel trailer while towing?
There are lots of opinions on if it is safe to run the fridge in a travel trailer on propane while towing, and here is one more. The short answer is Yes, you can tow with the fridge running on propane. However, there are additional risks and it is up to you if you are willing to accept those risks.
Use At Your Own Risk
I have read through several owner’s manuals from different companies about travel trailer and RV refrigerators and I did not come across information describing restrictions on using the refrigerator while towing. I looked at Dometic, Nova Kool, and several owner’s manuals on the Gulfstream website and did not find any restrictions.
When we purchased our camper 3 years ago there were no warnings on the fridge or anywhere in the camper telling us not to run the fridge while towing. However, if you’re like me a little light bulb goes off and you say to yourself I am driving with an open flame behind me, there must be some risks to this situation and what should I do to avoid these risks.
The propane supplier Amerigas recommends turning off all gas appliances and the valve at the tank while the vehicle is in motion.
RV Refrigerators work best when level
RV refrigerators are absorption refrigerators and they work very differently than the compressor fridge in your home. They have no moving parts, and this makes them very reliable.
Absorption refrigerators use heat and chemistry to keep your food cold. RV refrigerators work by heating up an ammonia solution until it boils. The ammonia vapor then rises to the condenser where it becomes a liquid. The liquid ammonia is then combined with hydrogen gas in the evaporator and becomes a gas again. This rapid evaporation is what cools the refrigerator.
The hydrogen and ammonia gas then enter an absorber coil and the hydrogen gas returns to the evaporator and the liquid ammonia returns to the holding tank where it recombines with the other chemicals and starts the process over. If you are a visual learner and are interested, here is a YouTube video with animation on how RV fridges work.
This cycle requires that the camper will need be level for the fridge to work its best. If the camper is off level two things can happen. First the flame does not contact the boiler as directly, causing the ammonia solution to not boil as much. The second is the system requires gravity to work. While the camper is not level the liquids will flow slower, causing backups in the cycle.
That means that as you go up and down hills and around corners your fridge is going to have to work harder to keep things cold. Since it relies on a cycle that has one or more of it process compromised you might get to you camp site to find you have warm beer and spoiled potato salad. Which is poor way to start a camp out.
Risks of running on Propane
The risks of running the refrigerator while towing include fire and explosion, something I don’t want to put my family at risk for. This risk is mostly if something were to go wrong, and we have all seen things go wrong while traveling. If you get into an accident or if a tire blows out, the gas lines that run under the camper could rupture and leak. The propane could get trapped in a storage compartment or a cavity under the trailer.
All it will take is an ignition source to start a fire or cause an explosion. This could happen during the accident or just after. If you hit something like truck tire retread, which are all over the road, it could possibly hit the gas line and you may not even notice that your propane is leaking until your trailing in in flames.
Other risks, but at least one that is not life threatening include the fridge not working very well while going down the road. This could result in melted ice cream—a complete disaster for my family—and food spoiling while on the road. Plus, food poisoning while camping is never something I would want to deal with.
Running the fridge while driving
If you choose to run the fridge on propane while driving remember that it is required by law that you stop and turn off all gas appliances before entering a gas station. This means you must do it before you even pull up to the pump. So, before you even get to the gas station you must find a safe place to pull over and turn the flame off, then drive to the gas station.
Then once you leave the gas station you must find another safe place to pull over to turn the propane back on. Too much risk and hassle if you ask me. You may also need to turn it off before entering tunnels or boarding a ferry.
I have let the refrigerator run on propane while towing down the road and it has worked very well. Everything was cold including the ice cream when we got to camp. I have also had it do very poorly and everything got warm and melted.
I think the overall risk of fire and explosion is low even if there is an accident, after all some cars run on propane. I am more concerned that the fridge won’t keep my food cold enough. I also don’t want to stop to turn it off before pulling into a gas station.
User error is also a possibility. On one trip I was in hurry to leave, unplugged the camper from the house, and hit the road. I didn’t wait to confirm the fridge switched over to propane. The fridge never started, there was air in the line. The fridge tried three times to start and then turned on the check light. Three hours later on 100 degree day everything in fridge was getting warm.
After weighing all the risks of possible fires, and our food spoiling I choose to set up our refrigerator like a cooler before we leave.
Before you leave you are all excited about what you are going to do when you get to the campsite and many over prepare for the food that they are bringing. Then when it’s time to leave you have a bunch of food to bring home. The key to successful food transportation is to plan your meals ahead of time so that your leftovers that need to be kept cold can be kept to a minimum. The less food you have to spoil at the end of trip the better.
Freeze anything that can be frozen
If it can be frozen and then allowed to thaw in the fridge, freeze it. This allows the refrigerator to act like a cooler that we filled with ice. Freeze all your meat or make Foil wrapped meals or potatoes that can be frozen and then places on the grill or camp fire to cook. To avoid having to wait for something to thaw out on the first night of camping we bring fried chicken from the deli counter, it can be eaten cold picnic style or heated up the microwave, if you have one.
Burgers and hotdogs can be frozen and then put on the grill frozen or partly thawed. For brats, boil them in beer and freeze so all you have to do at the campsite is heat them up and char the outside. We also will freeze the kids’ juice boxes, and throw in bottles of frozen water.
Get it as cold as possible
Turn the fridge on two or three days before your trip and set it to its coldest setting.
Add ice and don’t open it
Pack your frozen and non-frozen food items in tight and surround them with frozen water bottles or ice packs. If you are traveling a distance and want the fridge to be extra cold without turning it on, use salt water in the frozen bottles. Salt water freezes at a lower temperature and will work better at keeping things cold than plain drinking water. I prefer to have more ice-cold drinking water, so that is what I use.
Pack drinks and snacks that you will need while driving in a cooler. If you don’t open the fridge it will stay colder longer, just like in a power outage. This should give you several hours of driving without having to use propane to power the fridge.
Once you arrive at the campground turn on the fridge and remove some of the frozen water bottles and all of the ice packs from the fridge and put as many as you can into the freezer for the ride home. This allows the air to circulate in the fridge.
If you are going to turn the Fridge on while you are driving
Make sure it does turn on before you pull out of the drive way. Still, freeze things that can be frozen and add some ice packs or frozen water bottles for a little insurance. Don’t pack it as tight, the air needs to move around to keep things cold.
In my opinion, the biggest risk in running the fridge on propane is the possibility of food spoilage, but there is also the added risk of fire during an accident or if you forget to turn off the propane when you pull into a gas station. Food poising while camping is defiantly going to ruin your trip.
Whether you run the fridge or not take the proper precautions to keep food cold and safe. If the fridge is on remember to turn it off when required to stay safe.