How Does a Norcold RV Refrigerator Work?

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Your RV is a home on wheels. Homes on wheels can use some different technology and science to ensure you can keep food and drink cold on the road. Instead of relying entirely on electric like a home with electrical service, brands like Norcold use something else instead.

Norcord type refrigerators aren’t typical refrigerators. They use a combination of gasses and a bit of chemistry to absorb cold.

Norcold fridges use liquid propane and a series of tanks with ammonia and water to create a chemical process that absorbs heat within your fridge. Norcold brand fridges also use a battery and electric system to initiate the same cooling process. We’ll go into more detail below.

What makes a Norcold RV fridge work?

The cool part about a Norcold type fridge is that you don’t need electricity, though it’s possible to use it. Norcold fridges use multiple fluids in small tanks or containers to absorb warmth, thereby creating a cool temperature. Here is how it works:

A Norcold fridge starts with a boiler that is powered by propane gas. The boiler heats up a tank of ammonia and water. The ammonia turns into gas earlier because it has a lower boiling point. The gas rises into a different chamber where it is cooled until it becomes liquid ammonia again. Liquid ammonia helps attract and remove the heat from the fridge. 

When liquid ammonia absorbs heat, it returns to a gas state and flows back to the chamber it came from. The liquid ammonia then remixes with water to be separated again once the thermostat and temperature call for a change.

Can a Norcold fridge use electric too?

In many cases, yes, a Norcold fridge can use electric. They are often driven by a 12v connection or a 12v battery, which is the same as the battery system with your RV. 

The 12V connection is capable of initiating the spark necessary to start the boiler.

12V has a certain advantage over propane in that the 12v power can provide consistent energy. Propane is also often used to power your hot water heater and potentially other elements, so conserving it is sometimes necessary.

Norcolds also have the capability of switching to electric automatically based on what is plugged in and available. Amongst the many routine maintenance items in an RV, not having to flip a switch yourself when you have available battery power for your RV is one load off.

Are there other advantages to Norcold and their propane and electric fridges?


Norcold fridges can last a long time. Why? A traditional fridge, which can also fit in an RV, uses an electric motor, compressor, and fan to push cold air into a fridge. This combination of equipment is rather heavy and difficult to haul into your RV, especially by yourself. You probably won’t need to have a friend with a truck and serious muscle come over to move the average propane fridge.


A Norcold fridge and other propane fridges use tanks, liquid, and a burner. This is a fairly simple combination of equipment that is light and easier to move. Add to that, Norcold fridges come in many sizes, and you’ll find one whether you are seeking big or small.


Given the relatively simple setup in a propane fridge, the parts also tend to last longer. Propane fridges can last years longer than more complicated fridges with electric setups and more features. 

Easier to Fix

You’ll probably notice if your propane powered Norcold fridge has a problem. It either won’t cool well or you’ll get a leak. The good news about fixing a propane powered fridge is that you can probably do some of it yourself. 

There are fewer circuit boards and plug in items and more tubes. The most consistent problem is simple a leaking chamber or tube, that needs refilling and fixing.


Ever had a fridge so loud that you couldn’t have a conversation near it? Propane fridges like Norcold are much quieter. They rely more on the movement of liquid and a burner, like your water heater, and won’t produce the same amount of noise as a full electric fridge that fires up and send a compressor and fan into overdrive. You might find sleeping a little easier with a propane fridge, especially in a small RV.

Any disadvantages to the Norcold method?

Since fridges like Norcold use a boiler and ammonia, they don’t tend to actively push cold air into your fridge. The result of this method is that a propane fridge tends to cool down more slowly than a traditional fridge, but it also does so while consuming less power and battery than a normal fridge.

A propane fridge will also probably require you fill up your propane tanks, though most RV travelers on the road will need this for a stove or water heater anyway.


Norcold fridges are powered by a fairly simple scientific method of reducing ammonia to a form that naturally attracts heat. Without using too many wires or electric, a propane powered Norcold fridge can use either battery or your tanks to draw the heat right out of your fridge.

Compare the advantages and disadvantage of your current fridge and one powered by the blend of electric and propane. The choice is really yours depending on your needs.

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