Cool facts about Airstream refrigerators

At home, a refrigerator is a very easy thing to understand. You plug it in, and it keeps your food cold.

But in an Airstream, there's a bit more you need to know if you want to reliably reach for fresh eggs and frozen ice cream. 

Long ago, gas fridges ruled the earth

Decades ago your new Airstream would come with a fridge that ran on propane gas exclusively. You'd use a match or a striker to light the pilot light when you set up camp. It was delightfully old school. 
Vintage refrigerator with magnets

 

Those fridges were incredibly reliable and long-lasting. You can still find them in vintage trailers from the 1950s and 1960s, working just fine. They also didn't need any electricity at all—just propane gas—so they were great for camping away from hookups.

They had other benefits as well. Gas fridges don't have compressors like your home refrigerator. Through the magic of chemistry, they manage to start with a heat source (burning gas) and use it to create cold. It's blissfully silent and extremely efficient. A tank of propane can run a gas fridge for weeks. 

The problem with the gas-only refrigerators was (and still is) that they aren't very good at regulating the temperature, so it's common to accidentally freeze your lettuce and still have soupy ice cream.

Modern fridges always need 12 volt power

Later the RV industry started using smarter gas refrigerators controlled by electronic circuit boards. This meant that they worked better at maintaining temperature and didn't need pilot lights, but it also meant that a connection to 12 volt electricity was required to power the circuit board. So the fridge started to sip some 12 volt DC power from the batteries. And that's been the rule ever since.

That's important to keep that in mind when boondocking, because the fridge is always going to be drawing some power from the batteries.

Two-way and three-way fridges

From the 1970s through 2021, Airstream mostly installed "2-way" refrigerators which offered the option to use a 120 volt AC electric heating element instead of burning propane gas. So when the Airstream was boondocking you could set the fridge to use propane, and when the Airstream was plugged in you could switch it to "AC" and save some propane.

But in either mode, the fridge won't run unless there's also 12 volt battery power available. That sometimes causes confusion for people. So to be clear: whether a 2-way fridge is using gas or shore power, it still has to have a little power from the batteries all the time.

To make things even more confusing, a few refrigerators are "3-way" meaning that they can cool using any of these methods:

  • gas (plus 12 volt DC for the circuit board)
  • 120 volt AC (plus 12 volt DC for the circuit board)
  • 12 volt DC power alone

Our 2020 Globetrotter 23FB has such a refrigerator. Running it on 12 volt DC alone is a problem because it sucks a pair of batteries dry in just a few hours. (Ask us how we know.) Unless you have a large solar panel array to make up the difference, the 12 volt DC mode is not very useful when boondocking.

Now they're all electric

Starting in the 2022 model year Airstream switched to electric-only refrigerators with compressors. It's part of the inexorable move to all-electric RVs. Like all technology evolutions it comes with some advantages and disadvantages.

On the plus side:

  • New electric compressor RV refrigerators are pretty efficient. They run on 12 volt DC, but don't kill the batteries nearly as quickly as the "12 volt DC" mode on a gas fridge.

  • They cool down a lot faster. With a gas fridge you'd need to start it at least 8 hours before you leave on a trip, because they're really slow at cooling. An all-electric compressor fridge cools down in just a couple of hours.

  • Electric refrigerators perform better on really hot days. A gas or gas-electric refrigerator depends on a flow of cool air in order to work efficiently. When the outside air gets above 90 degrees you might find the refrigerator getting uncomfortably warm inside. Electric compressor fridges are less affected.

  • Finally, electric refrigerators avoid a major limitation of the gas models: they don't mind being operated off-level. Gas fridges are fussy about being level all the time, and if they're run while significantly off-level, they sometimes develop a case of terminal constipation and never cool again.

On the negative side:

  • Electric fridges are yet another load for the batteries in your Airstream, and this really impacts your boondocking time. The power these fridges need will eat up most of your batteries in a weekend. 

For this reason, it's more important than ever to have solar panels and/or higher-capacity lithium batteries installed.

Tips for giving your fridge a boost

To optimize its efficiency:

  • When packing for a trip, help the fridge cool down by tossing a bag of ice or a few other frozen items in the freezer when you turn it on.

  • Most new Airstreams have little fans built in to help the refrigerator cool itself, but if yours doesn't, there are aftermarket kits available. Not sure if your fridge has a fan? Open the outside refrigerator access door and scout around with a flashlight to find out.

  • A full refrigerator will resist swings in temperature better than a half-empty one, so go long on food. If you don't want to carry a lot of food, at least put a few of those "blue ice" freezer packs in the freezer portion. 

Refrigerator packed

Finally, if you find your ice cream is too soft or your milk seems warm on a hot day, get one of those inexpensive wireless temperature sensors. Put a sensor in the fridge compartment and check the remote readout during hot weather. This may help you decide if a boost fan would be helpful (if your refrigerator didn't come with one) and you'll know if the interior is getting up to an unsafe temperature for food storage.

 

Photos by Squared.one and Ello on Unsplash 

9 comments

Carlos

Carlos

Thank you for your review of airstream refrigerators. It was helpful in understanding the different generations and appreciate the tips for cooling them.

Jon L Wakeman

Jon L Wakeman

Most helpful… Needing to upgrade our frig and this is a great overview of our options…
Thanks Rich
The Wakemans & our Airstream “Gone With The Wind”

Lee Henry

Lee Henry

What are some proven – Wireless – “Air Circulation” devices to prevent ICE BUILD UP for either the fridge or freezer?

Michael Kronenberg

Michael Kronenberg

We are thinking about switching over to 12v. How loud are they. Ours is a 2017 Bambi so the refer is close to our bed.

Kevin McGivern

Kevin McGivern

Great blog, as always very informative!
Wondering if you know how long you could run the refrigerator on 2022 Airstream Interstate while Boondocking?
I know it draws of engine battery, and would like to leave refrigerator running during the night.

Dennis and Pam

Dennis and Pam

Great article, thanks for the info. We were contemplating switching out our perfectly working 2-way with an all electric…going to rethink that after reading your article.

Kerry Frank

Kerry Frank

A note on “terminal constipation”, ( I love that phrase! ). We had this happen as newbies. After some research we found it is possible to “burp” the fridge. Not easy, but it worked!

Tom Lowe

Tom Lowe

Some time should be spent investigating the installation of 2022 12v fridges (2022 International 27FBT Norcold N8DCSS in particular). Our fridge experienced more than 5 episodes this HOT summer when the freezer thaws (going warm) and the fridge compartment freezes everything solid. I suspect it may be insufficient ventilation in the installation. A few dealers have failed to even return our calls … unacceptable service, and a sad commentary.

Rich Luhr

Rich Luhr

RESPONSES TO QUESTIONS

Lee: We don’t know of any devices that would prevent ice buildup. The buildup is the result of humidity in the air freezing and just circulating the air won’t stop that. The best practice is to periodically defrost the refrigerator.

Kevin: You can calculate the run time of your refrigerator yourself. Look up the average power consumption of the refrigerator (a little googling on the model number will probably get you a spec sheet or owner’s manual with the info). Then find out the capacity of the battery and do the math to see how long the battery can last. See our blog “Why does my battery keep going dead?” for additional details.

Michael: The new electric compressor refrigerators are very quiet, but not silent like an absorption (gas) refrigerator. Manufacturers claim 39 to 44 decibels which is similar to a modern home refrigerator. Norcold has a “night mode” which makes their product quieter at night.

Tom: Sounds like you may have a warranty issue with Norcold. You might try contacting them directly instead of through a dealership.

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